Four chords that changed the world (and how to use them)

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Writer and musician Ellie Mckinsey explores one of the most common chord sequences and explains how to harness its power

Every songwriter wants to be unique. Who would not want to write a piece, the likes of which have never been heard before? Once upon a time, it may even have been possible, but the sad fact is that pop music has now been around for so long, it is hard to create new, inventive harmonies. In fact, how would you feel if we told you that it did not really matter anyway? How would you feel if we told you that many classic pop songs just used the same four chords?

I, V, vi, IV

Harmony works around the concept of a major scale. The major scale has eight notes, and each of these has a chord attached to it. Imagine them like little chord families, with mother, father, and the baby chords. Each one has their own place, with some holding more power
than others.

The I and V chords in a scale are the strongest, almost like the mother and father. They hold everything together and keep it from becoming a jumbled mess. The other chords are the ones that add character to the group, like the sons and daughters.

I, V, vi and IV all refer to the chords in the family. In C major (a scale that has no sharps and flats) the chords would be as follows:

I – C Major
V – G Major
vi – A Minor
IV – F Major

Now you have seen it with the actual chords and not the Roman numerals, does it seem more recognizable?

What Songs Use These Chords?

The list is too vast to categorize them all. Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey. Let It Be by The Beatles. Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers. The most comprehensive list is the excellent video by the comedy band Axis Of Awesome. In this video, they sync together around six minutes of popular music history that solely use this chord sequence.

How Can We Use Them in Songwriting?

These chords are such a staple, that you can use them as they are. Try to challenge yourself to create unique, catchy melodies over the top. Try playing them in different ways or changing the rhythm and playing technique.

Ideas for Experimentation

The beauty of these chords is that because they are so strong and established, they offer ample room for experimentation. One way you can really experimental with these chords, it to attempt to ‘riff’ them up a little, instead of playing them straight. If we look at Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, the chords are played in a 4/4 rhythm, and the bass in the background joins them together by using descending and ascending bass notes. See if you can add some small melodies or bass parts to link them together in this way.

One other tactic is to play them in a specific rhythm. Pick out a short sentence, then attach the chords to each syllable. This should create a Back In Black style rock riff, using the four magic chords we have spoken about. As an example, our sentence is going to be “Four chords that changed the world”. Broken into syllables it goes like this;

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So, we are going to add a chord to each syllable. We will say the line, and play the chord along with each syllable, creating an easy rock riff.

I          I      I          V       vi                vi      IV

Extending the Chords

Once you have a pattern or riff, you can try extending the chords. This means that instead of being basic, three-note triads, they now have added notes. You will have seen extended chords before, as they are the 7ths chords used in music.

Just like we spoke about basic chords having families and relations, extended chords have families too. In fact, the chords you have been playing with have extensions that will work well, and you can try using all of them or some of them.

Chord I can be extended to a major 7th chord. It will have a very dreamy, far away quality.

Chord V will be a 7th chord. This is different to a major 7th, and a normal 7th will have a clashing, bluesy sound that wants to resolve to something else.

Chord vi will be a minor 6th. This chord will have a dark romanticism about it.

Finally, chord IV will be a major 4th, and have much the same qualities as chord I.

You can add all of these to your piece, or none, it just depends on the sound you want to create. They are just a guide, and there are no hard and fast rules. Try experimenting by placing 7th chords in places you would not expect, and you may come up with something even better.

You can, of course, go even further than this, and you will get the 9th and 13th chords you may have seen or even played. However, extending to these chords will require an article in itself. Feel free to try them out and drop them into the progression if you already know how to play them.

Changing the Key

Once you have the pattern, you can try changing the key. Simply work out a major scale starting on a new note. Then find out the I, V, VI and IV chords. They will follow the same pattern, with I, V and IV being major chords and VI being a minor. We have added a handy cheat below to help you out.

D Major – D Major/A Major/B Minor/G Major

E Major – E Major/B Major/C# Minor/A Major

F Major – F Major/C Major/D Minor/Bb Major

G Major – G Major/D Major/E Minor/C Major

Take Up the Challenge

Once you know what these chords are, and how many great songs they have created, what can you do with them? Can you manage to write a classic using chords I, V, vi and IV? Try it out and get your four-chord hit out to your fans as quickly as possible!

Ellie Mckinsey has been writing about playing musical instruments and creating new songs for a number of years and writes prolifically on the subject for

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