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



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