The Science Behind Writing a Hit Song: Minor vi, IV I V Chord Progressions!
“Girls Like You” Maroon 5. Bruno Mars “Grenade”. Adele “Hello”. Green Day “Holiday”. Red Hot Chili Peppers “Snow (Hey Oh)”. “With or Without You” U2.
Ever wonder how so many of the hit songs you hear can sound so similar? It isn’t just similar stylistic production techniques. Facts are there are only so many chord progressions you can string together to write music on any instrument. As a songwriter, I’m always analyzing chord progressions of songs I like to see how I can fit myself inside the restrictions of the music. Lately, I’ve been hearing a particular chord progression that is on EVERYTHING that’s on Spotify. I feel like Adele’s “Hello” took up an entire year on this chord progression. This year seems to be Robin Schluz “All This Love”. So Breaking News. Stop playing online poker, betting on fantasy football, and stop your annual trips to Vegas hoping you’ll strike it lucky. Learning how to use this chord progression can make musicians a lot of money. I find that whenever this stretch of chords hits the song in open chorus it’s a complete homerun hit. To set out with some sonic examples to prove my theory, I locked myself away for a weekend holed up with my McIntosh stereo and my music collection looking for examples.
While we can trace the origins of the minor vi, IV, I, V chord progression being essential in popular music to Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” after a quick Wikipedia search, once you hear the tone of harmonies over this particular chord progression, you’ll start hearing it in a lot of your favorites. As for me, my favorite example of this chord progression lies with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” off his iconic Purple Rain album. While Prince doesn’t loop the vi, IV, I, V progression through out the song like in “One of Us”, he does use it to get all his chords for the song. Prince keyed into the fact that these chords harmonically resonate with listeners.
What is a minor vi, IV, I, V chord progression beyond that you ask? Well accordingly to various mathematicians and music theorists who can speculate among the way certain frequencies interact and connect with each other, Iitcan be essentially mathematically proven that these four chords belong together in this arrangement. Let’s a take a simple view of it in the key of C major. That would give us a key of C, d, e, F, G, a, b, C for our scale degrees. For our chordal degrees we would have C major, d minor, e minor, F major, G major, a minor, b dim, and C major. As such that would make our chord progression a minor, F major, C major, and G major for our Hit Song Progression. Starting any song on the minor vi chord gives a song a more pessimistic view out of the gate with its minor third getting the focal point. Go down a third from your minor vi and you’ll arrive at your IV chord. Go down a fourth and you’ll reach your resolve for the major key I chord. Go up a fifth and you’ll get to a natural progression resolve and repeat chord. While it’s true most V7 chord transitions would resolve back to a major I chord, you can always resolve back to your minor vi because they are relatives of each other. Relative majors and minors that is. *See Circle of Fifths for more info
The latest casual user of the minor vi, IV, I, V chord progression seems to be Maroon 5 with their big hit “Girls Like You”, coming off their other favorite chord progression steal the Jazzier ii, V I from their original hit “This Love”. Ditto for everything pop-punk including the majority of Green Day’s catalogue, and any moody ballad sung by U2 post mid-eighties. One of Taylor Swift’s biggest pop song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” also bears the sonic signature of a minor vi, IV, I, V progression. Taylor liked the results so much she used it a few years later on 1989’s “Shake It Off”. These songs lit up Top-40 Radio and they were formulaic to the core. You may not remember the lyrics off the top of your head, but guaranteed after a listening back to a few bars you’ll be singing along the refrain.
What exactly makes the minor vi, IV, I, V chord progression memorable and catchy? Well the chords are familiar enough with an easy to establish hypnotic groove, but also work well at various tempos and dynamic levels. Most of the time songs cruise between 100-135bpm on a hit song with a chord progression like this. Roughly this tempo range is where hits like to live. The way the chords naturally resolve also easily allows vocalists to stack themselves on tracks with double tracking and harmonies, while also handling a wide dynamic range in the arrangement, sometimes going from multiple extremes in a single song! But I just think people know good songs when they hear them, formulas or not. I do however recommend using a minor vi, IV, I, V chord progression to jump start your writing process! Who knows? You might write the next big hit!