The Four Chords of Modern Music

by Alain Abou Atmeh, Jun 7, 2017 . 3 min read

The Four Chords of Modern Music

One great way to learn more songs on the guitar is to listen for chord progressions. Fortunately, when it comes to modern pop music, there’s a surprisingly ubiquitous chord progression that, if you listen to it, seems to crop up just about everywhere. As the comedy rock group Axis of Awesome claims in the introduction to their genius medley “4 Chord Song,” “All the greatest hits from the past 40 years just use four chords.”

Just four chords!

While they exaggerate the case just a bit, there is a certain chord progression that you can hear in an amazing variety of popular music, and it comes in two variations.

That’s all it takes to be a star

One of the most famous songs that uses the I-V-vi-IV progression highlighted by Axis of Awesome is the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Others include the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and U2’s “With or Without You.”

The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Coined by Boston Globe music columnist Marc Hirsh, the term Sensitive Female Chord Progression (SFCP) is the name of the vi-IV-I-V variation of this progression. As Hirsh explains:

When I first noticed it in 1998 (when I became keenly aware that Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” sounded an awful lot like Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”), it seemed to be the exclusive province of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see. Think Jewel’s “Hands.” Melissa Etheridge’s “Angels Would Fall.” Nina Gordon’s “Tonight and the Rest of My Life.”

The chord progression, explained

Whatever key you are playing in, the chords are indicated with Roman numerals, starting with the first note in the key. Major chords are in capital letters and minor chords are in small letters.

So the I-V-vi-IV progression in the key of C major is C-G-Am-F.

The SFCP progression for the key of C major (also its corresponding minor key of A minor) is Am-F-C-G.

Song lists

The Axis of Awesome have made things easy for anyone who wants to learn a bunch of new songs that all use the same chord progression by labeling each one on the YouTube video of their performance linked to above.

Even more convenient is the list that appears in the Wikipedia entry “Four Chords,” which shows songs the band incorporates in other renditions of their medley. (The Axis of Awesome 4 Chords list)

And here are more lists and discussions to help you out:

List of songs containing the I–V–vi–IV progression

What is the Most Common Chord Progression in the World? with Shawn Persinger

Six Four One Five: The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Four Chords Is All You Need: The Limited Nature of Pop Music

Boston Globe, Striking a chord



Subscribe to Gain Access to our Alternate Tuning Library & Accompanying E-Book Guide
Discover the origin of the most popular tunings, some less-known facts, AND most importantly, learn how to play songs in your desired tunings.

Check out some other similar articles

The 5 best websites for ukulele tabs will help you build a diverse repertoire.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Sep 19, 2022 . 3 min read

Today we’re going to share 7 Tips Productivity Tips for Musicians. As creative people, musicians sometimes need a bit of help staying on top of things.

Frederik Nielsen
Sep 5, 2022 . 5 min read

Today we’re going to talk about the hardest guitar chords every beginner should master.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Sep 2, 2022 . 5 min read

Welcome to Learning Ukulele: The Ultimate Guide. Here, you are going to learn everything you need to know about learning this wonderful instrument.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Jun 24, 2022 . 9 min read

Today we’re going to learn how to bend notes on guitar. Bending is an essential technique that is applied mostly on single lines.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Jun 17, 2022 . 3 min read

These 8 tips to sing and play guitar at the same time will help you turn two things into one.

Rodrigo Sanchez
Jun 13, 2022 . 6 min read
We'll be bringing you recommended tabs and plenty of interesting quotes from guitar legends along the way!