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Many of music's most popular chord progressions are pieces of the fourths sequence.

V to I

I – IV – vii – iii – vi – ii – V – I

For example, V to I is far and away music's most common chord progression. The V chord has a strong pull resolving to the I chord.

In music theory the V – I progression is called a perfect cadence or authentic cadence since it creates such a strong resolution. It sounds final and complete. (A cadence is a musical ending.) In fact, it's so common that a V chord resolving elsewhere is called a deceptive cadence.

When a listener hears the V chord, subconsciously they expect it to go to the I. Most of the time it does. We can use this expectation to propel music forward.

For example, the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman” is in the key of A major. It begins with a riff on an E9 chord (an E7 chord with an extra note). E7 is the V chord in the key of A. The tension of this riff on E9 drops you off at the first chord in the verse—the I chord (A).

The ii-V-I Progression

Moving backwards one more chord in the series, we get the ii-V-I progression.

I – IV – vii – iii – vi – ii – V – I

The ii-V-I progression (two-five-one) is another very popular progression. Again, it gracefully guides you to the I chord.

In jazz, you will find this progression absolutely everywhere. Many jazz songs are just the ii-V-I progression in several different keys.

It's not only common in jazz, however. It's in everything from Bach to the Beatles to reggae to country.

The vi-ii-V-I Progression

Stepping back another chord, we get the vi-ii-V-I progression.

I – IV – vii – iii – vi – ii – V – I

There are many songs which simply revolve around these four chords: I-vi-ii-V-I-vi-ii-V-I...

Many early R&B songs (Sam Cooke – You Send Me) or early rock 'n roll/doo wop songs (Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers – Why Do Fools Fall in Love) used this.

This progression can sound a bit old-timey, but people are still using it. For example, Bruce Springsteen – Hungry Heart and The Arctic Monkeys – Fluorescent Adolescent both use the I-vi-ii-V progression.

This progression is often used as a turnaround. A turnaround is a progression which leads you back to the beginning (usually the I chord). Someone may tell you, “At the end of the verse, play a one-six-two-five turnaround.” They might even just say “turnaround” and assume you know it's this one.

The iii-vi-ii-V-I Progression and Beyond

The further back you go in the series, the less common the progression becomes.

I – IV – vii – iii – vi – ii – V – I

Starting from the iii chord is still very common. For variety or a different effect, many songs will use a iii-vi-ii-V turnaround rather than a I-vi-ii-V turnaround.

Going backwards more, the vii likes to lead to iii, and the IV likes to lead to vii.

I - IV

Another very common progression occurs at the very beginning of the cycle: I- IV.

I – IV – vii – iii – vi – ii – V – I

Many songs simply go back and forth between these two chords. For example, The Temptations – My Girl, Wilson Pickett –In the Midnight Hour, or The Staple Singers – I'll Take You There.

The Full Diatonic Chord Cycle

Some songs will use the entire cycle of the seven diatonic chords. For example, The Beatles – You Never Give Me Your Money (beginning section), or the jazz standard Autumn Leaves both make it all the way around the cycle.

Rules? I Hate Rules!

I remember taking a music theory class with a not-so-good teacher. She explained this concept very rigidly. She said, “The V always has to go to I,” or “the iii always leads to vi.” Being a rebellious teenager, I thought, “Oh yeah? I'll show the world. My fives are never going to one!” Guess what that produced? Garbage!

These aren't rules. You don't have to follow this sequence. But, a lot of people have been playing music for a lot of centuries, and they've found things which work. Remember, theory doesn't create music; music creates theory. We're just explaining that which sounds good.

So, please don't stop looking for more progressions and new sounds, but don't ignore something which is timeless and proven either.

In Summary

Since this movement between chords in ascending fourths is so common, it is a good idea to get familiar with the sound of this entire progression. Practice the diatonic chords in fourths as in the exercises. This won't be the only progression you play, but you will encounter it in bits and pieces everywhere.

Listen to or play the recommended songs, too!

In an upcoming lesson we'll work on a few basslines on chord progressions moving in fourths.