[Smt-talk] Raised Issues with the so-called "Sensitive Female Chord Progression"

Devin Chaloux devin.chaloux at gmail.com
Sun Apr 27 16:13:00 PDT 2014

Greetings list,

I had a wonderful time at Music Theory Midwest this weekend, meeting old
friends and colleagues while forming new relationships. I was fortunate
enough to present a paper on Elliott Smith's music. I write today because
of what occurred during the question session of my paper because it would
be unfortunate if this discussion only remained in the confines of Harper
Hall in Lawrence University. This is a topic we need to discuss for many

During the question session, someone raised the point that one of the chord
progressions used in the piece I was discussing was similar to the SFCP
(which I then came to learn stood for the "Sensitive Female Chord
Progression"). I'm certainly familiar with this chord progression in the
abstract (specifically, vi-IV-I-V, but sometimes reoriented to I-V-vi-IV).
It's ubiquitous in popular music.

How did such a gendered expression come to describe such a common chord
progression? It's not a term derived from any academic theorist--but rather
it comes from Marc Hirsh's article in the Boston Globe from December 31,
2008. I don't want to link the article, because at this time, I think it
should get no more publicity--however, Hirsh's term comes from his
experience that this chord progression "seemed to be the exclusive province
of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see." (And then he goes
on to note how it is in tons of pop songs that do not qualify under this

Why bring this up? Several people during my question session raised strong
objections to this terminology. I don't think we need to explicate the
reasons why...I hope it is obvious. However, some of those in the audience
suggested that since it is being used, it is a useful term. While the term
may be used (and yes, googling the phrase "sensitive female chord
progression" will bring up several websites devoted purely for the cause of
finding all I-V-vi-IV chord songs), it is not appropriate. We, as persons
of higher education, however have an even more important moral obligation
to make sure that this type of terminology does not become standardized.
The way we can start doing that is to stop using it ourselves.

Certainly, this type of progression seems worthy of a name. One response
was to call this progression the "Axis of Awesome" progression, named after
the viral video by the parody band "Axis of Awesome" where they play
several songs utilizing this progression in one major mashup. (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ - this version is the
"official" version, though there is a tape of a concert that has over 30
million views).

In the recent years, there have been several independent writers that have
submitted to high volume daily publications (Boston Globe, Slate, etc.) on
music theory topics. It is important to remember that while this is
exciting in some ways (maybe in a fond reminiscence of public lectures by
Leonard Bernstein or widely circulated books by the likes of Charles Rosen
and Leonard Meyer), we still have the obligation to be critical when it is

Hirsh's terminology should have in no way made it anywhere in our toolbox
of music-theoretical language. And while there still may be amateur
musicians and theorists who might still appropriate this term, we should be
active in dismissing this term. Frankly, I hate writing this post because
it shouldn't have to exist.

Anyway, this productive discussion happened only in a matter of minutes
where all of maybe 40 or 50 people witnessed this important discussion. I
hope that I have provided a useful summary of this discussion as well as
reasons why we should not even consider this type of terminology again.


*Devin Chaloux*
Indiana University
Ph.D. in Music Theory
University of Cincinnati - College-Conservatory of Music
M.M. in Music Theory '12
University of Connecticut
B.M. in Music Theory '10
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