Songwriters, composers and producers across genres have been using this chord progression for at least 300 years.
If you’re reading this, you’ve used this chord progression.
Ten years ago this video went viral, showing just how ubiquitous the four chords are. Perhaps, you are one of the 57 million folks that watched it.
Is this a sonic conspiracy? Why are all these super famous songs written with the same four chords?
Does this banger from about 1700 AD sound familiar?
Key: D Major
I — V — vi — iii — IV — I — IV — V
DM / AM / Bm / F#m / GM / DM / GM / AM
It turns out Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” was quite the trend setter. People everywhere fell in love with the I–V–vi–IV chord progression and we haven’t stopped loving it.
If you still don’t believe me, have a look at this Wiki list of songs that use the chord progression. It’s a doozy.
Why can’t we get enough of the four chords?
And why do they work for so many genres and styles of music?
The modernist composer Edgard Varèse famously defined music as “organised sound.” I’m a fan of this definition and I think Pythagoras is too.
Pythagoras (approximately 570-495 B.C.E) hated beans but he loved music.
He used his mathematical prowess to create some of the earliest known theories and principles around music.
These principals are his attempt to create order and beauty out of the chaos of the world.
Pythagoras considered the 3:2 ratio, which is the perfect fifth, to be the most consonant and pure. The second most pleasing ratio is 2:1, which is an octave.
Visualise playing an octave on your keyboard, middle C and the C one octave above; the lower C is creating one sound wave and the higher C is creating another sound wave.
These two sound waves look identical and line up perfectly, but the higher C peaks twice as frequently.
What sounds good and “in tune” to us, turns out to be simpler ratios and sound waves that line up well with each other. Sound waves that don’t line up neatly create a clashing sensation which can be used to create moments of tension in music.
The simpler the ratio, the more consonant and pleasing it is to listen to. The octave (2:1), perfect fifth (3:2) and perfect fourth (4:3) are the simplest ratios.
For this reason, the I–V–vi–IV chord progression is the most pleasing progression to play in any key, major or minor, in practically any genre or style. It is also the easiest chord progression to write a melody over because the frequencies of the intervals are so consonant.
This chord progression is so familiar now that it leaves space for all the other elements in your track to stand out and convey the message. Because, aside from the mathematical explanation, music at its core is about expressing an idea, emotion, or message; putting the listener in some kind of mood, mind space, or making them want to dance.
So, just as we use words to convey a message using the same alphabet or set of characters, musicians gravitate towards speaking the same language with their chord progression to get their message across effectively.
The reason why we use this chord progression so abundantly is due to aesthetics, the desire to create harmony, ancient mathematics and the physical properties of a sound wave all at once.
Disclaimer: I am not a mathematician, physicist or conspiracy theorist.
But, I do manage our FAW blog. If there are any topics you’d like to see us cover in the future (Circle² tips, production techniques, music theory, some random music-related query) send me an email.