Regarding Chords and Modes (music question)

Hi SD,

I buried the following question/theory in another thread and I never heard from anyone regarding it. I’d love to know what SD has to say regarding this.

I was curious why people enjoy Am F C G, or various iterations of vi, IV, I, V.

Songs that utilize these chords in this manner include Read All About It, Part III by Emeli Sande, What if God Was One of Us by Joan Osborne, and Poker Face by Lady Gaga.

According to Wikipedia, the vi–IV–I–V progression has been associated with the heroic in many popular Hollywood movies and movie trailers, especially in films released since 2000.

The heroic part of that definition got to me. Why heroic? What about this progression makes it so popular?

My theory is that these chords represent the human condition. In relation to the tonic, vi brings to mind sadness and despair, IV after it evokes hope, I is of course happiness and stability, and V is determination to face all of life’s troubles (which lasts until we again arrive at vi). Such a progression, maybe unconsciously, resonates with listeners, because it imitates our lives, which indeed are a cycle of sad moments, happy moments, determination, and hope. And it evokes the “heroic” in all of us–the problem solver, the martyr, the hard worker–who wouldn’t find that uplifting?

Axis of Awesome’s Four Chords discusses this progression as I, V, vi, IV. Ex: Chorus of Can You Feel The Love Tonight, I’m Yours by Jason Mraz, innumerable others.

Do you guys think my theory has any merit?

I had some other thoughts regarding modes.

The Lydian mode (C,D,E,F#,G,A,B,C for instance) in my mind, has a sharp fourth (F#) as opposed to the normal fourth (F). If we compare it to the Ionian mode (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C), which is a regular major mode, we can see the difference in sharp relief. The F# to me represents whimsy, or fancifulness, a kind of playing around with the idea of stability. Look at the theme of the Simpsons, which is very much based on the Lydian mode—C E F# A G E C A F# F# F# G—it’s all about playfulness and fun.

Or even further, the Mixolydian mode (ex. C,D,E,F,G,A,Bb,C) evokes, to me a kind of tightness with that Bb (flat seventh). As in, the major scale is going just fine until the G,A,Bb, and you get a flash of minor (Gm). So to me that would indicate a longer tougher journey…whereas a normal Ionian scale is happy all the time, the Mixolydian brings to mind trials and a hard life–and thus the eventual major chord seems more satisfying!

Finally, we have Dorian mode (ex. D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D). We see this mode used in Scarborough Fair, Eleanor Rigby, and others. If we hold this mode up to a typical natural minor scale (ex. D,E,F,G,A,Bb,C,D) we see the difference is in the sharp 6th (B). I would posit that that sharp sixth effectively evokes a feeling of whimsy, but in a minor key. So it sounds to me like songs like this are sad but the melody is playing around within it (the sharp sixth evokes the major four chord) so it’s kind of like finding happiness or comfort within a sad context.

Do my theories make sense to anyone else?

Obligatory link to Axis of Awesome
Some profanity so NSFW

While you may be correct in describing why it sounds “heroic,” I don’t think you need all that to explain why the chord progression is so popular. It’s a really strong chord progression, using the four most popular chords of the major key only once, that works really well in a loop, easily going on forever.

Look at each of the two-chord progressions individually. You have the I going into the V, which is probably the strongest and most popular chord progression outside the circle of fifths. The V is usually followed by another I, but the vi is a strong alternative, since it fulfills a lot of the function of the I chord. The vi is followed by a IV, which is another popular alteration of the circle of fifths. The strongest would be vi-ii, but the IV has only a single altered note and is often used to replace the ii. Then, since this is looped progression, you have the IV-I, which is the I-V moved down, and thus quite strong.

But not too strong, and this is important Let’s look at the two other popular four-chord progressions with those chords. You have I-vi-IV-V and I-IV-vi-V. What both of these have in common is that, when looped, they contain a V-I. This such a strong chord progression that it is used to create the strongest ending in western music: the authentic cadence. While the IV-I from before is also used as a cadence, it relies on other aspects to actually feel final, and is quite often used in places without any such sense, such as part of the typical twelve-bar blues progression.

That leaves us with only one other chord that could be the end of our little progression, vi. The problem here is the opposite. The vi-I progression is so weak that it is rarely used. This has to do with the aforementioned ability for the vi to replace the I. Because of that, they sound more like the same chord than a progression.

So this leaves us with the pattern I---IV as our strong looping chord progression. That leaves us with two possibilities: the “Four Chords of Awesome” or I-vi-V-IV. You might think that I-vi would be just as weak as vi-I, but it isn’t, because of the strength of the I chord. It is the near-universal starting chord, used to start most progressions. It can start any chord progression, since any other chord is going to feel like it’s clearly pulling from the I chord, giving it direction (which is what make any two-chord progression strong or weak.) Heck, it was even used in one the most popular four-chord progressions I mentioned above.

No, the problem is the progression as a whole, and how well it works as a loop. It is a weak progression, since the roots only go one direction. And it doesn’t work well for a loop because you either jump back up for the I, or you actually keep going down, meaning you can’t go on forever.

This leaves us with only one four chord progression that works: the I-V-vi-IV or “Four Chords of Awesome.”

Note: To make things easier, I only considered the progression in its canonical arrangement of I-V-vi-IV. But everything I said still works if you start it with the vi, as the OP did, making it vi-IV-I-V. The major difference is that now the cadence is a deceptive cadence, with the V going to a vi instead of a I. This is specifically named because it never feels final. The vi may have a lot of the functionality of the I, but the major thing it doesn’t have is the ability to be the end. This actually makes the looping effect stronger–it just loses the aforementioned “near-universal starting chord.” Hence musicians tend to prefer to start with the I chord.

At first I wasn’t sure, but your idea of the chord work. The tonic, being the chord that describes the key, is definitely a stabilizing influence. And minor chords are traditionally perceived as sad. The dominant’s primary purpose is to lead you towards the tonic, so I can see that as “determination”–you’re determined to keep on going forward. And, while the subdominant has no inherent “hopeful” characteristic, it is being used to resolve the minor chord, so I can see that as hopeful that the sadness will end.

I can see that. though I’ve always seen the #4 as also creating one bit of strangeness. In the Simpsons, it’s pointing out inherent strangeness of that universe.

I don’t really hear that one. The flat-7, by itself, doesn’t really create a hint of the minor to me. You can do that if you play a v chord, but the Mixolydian often just uses a bVII chord instead. I’m not sure what feeling it invokes other than a kinda a rock, strong feeling.

I don’t think it invokes a whimsical feeling so much as it introduces a hint of the major. There’s a light in the sadness. Unlike the Mixolydian, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it with it featuring the ii. It’s always the IV, which sounds like you’re pulling from the harmonic minor. You get a hint of hope.

They make sense and, for the modes, are pretty much the standard understanding, except maybe the Dorian one. I just have always disagreed with the standard understanding of Mixolydian.

Yeah, I pretty much agree with BigT here. As for the Lydian, the #4 does create a strange tension (it is, of course, the tritone of the tonic). I think of it as a bit “spacey”–I’m not sure why. I also find it very cheery and upbeat, perhaps more so than the major/ionian. “Mystical” and “heavenly” kind of come to mind as adjectives, but that’s just my perception of the mode.

BigT is very smart, indeed. Thank you for your detailed analysis! Now regardless of the feelings these scales and modes evoke, what relation do you think they have to the cultures in which they are produced? For example, you’ll find a lot of Dorian mode in early English music, I think. And Mixolydian in the bagpipes of Scotland. And of course Pentatonic in Japanese music. What kinds of factors influence the use of these specific modes in these specific countries or cultures?

Not to me, but they do invoke a sense of whimsy.

That’s me in a nutshell.

They do but I tend to see them as an a-posteriori rationalization of the acoustic properties of the notes and the way they interact with each other in a given key. In other words, I’d say that the very thourough explanation given by BigT comes first, that it is what our brains perceive immediately. But, since we are creatures that like to tell stories, we come up with “interpretations” of these acoustic properties in order to make sense of them.

As a matter of fact, several people have come up with such interpretations. For instance, a quick googling produced this list of musical keys and “how they sound”. It’s pretty clear to me that the keys do not carry any particular meaning. Rather, we assign one to them based on the sounds they contain.

Notice how almost all the Major keys tend to have “positive” feelings associated with them, especially the ones with sharps and how the minor ones “sound” sad, in particular the ones with flats.

I’m inclined to think that this list exagerates the feelings described to a significant extent but the basic idea seems ok to me.

One thing to remember about the characterizations of the keys above (that comes from Schubert, 1806), is that, because equal temperament (ET) had not yet come into vogue, the tunings were some sort of well-tempered system, so the actual relation between intervals in various keys would be different, so there’d be more differences in the tonal color of key than there are today with ET tuning.


Equal temperament has made things easier for many musicians (especially pianists and guitarists) but we’ve lost the subtle distinction between sharps and flats. There was a time when D# and Eb were different sounds. Now, there’re the same for all practical purposes.