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

Christopher Doll dollchristopher at yahoo.com
Sun Apr 27 16:57:25 PDT 2014

Hi Devin,

Yes, it is a terrible name, for too many obvious reasons (Hirsh himself admits as much). "Axis of Awesome progression" is also a tad cumbersome, in my opinion. I refer to it as the "zombie" in my upcoming book, because it seems never to die (or is already undead) and because of its use in The Cranberries' "Zombie," which might be the first hit to loop the progression for an entire song. The zombie refers to a (say) Am-FM-CM-GM progression only when it is centered on A (but regardless of which chord it starts on).When that same progression is centered on C (again, regardless of the rotation), I call it the "journey," named after the band Journey, who may have been the first people to loop it for an entire hit song, in "Any Way You Want It." Of course, the progression is often centrically ambiguous, so the zombie and journey interpretations are often heard simultaneously. (Other centric orientations are not common.) I spend quite a bit of time in the book
 tracing the history of these, and many other, popular-music progressions; hopefully the book will come out later this year.


Christopher Doll, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Music
Mason Gross School of the Arts
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

 From: Devin Chaloux <devin.chaloux at gmail.com>
To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org 
Sent: Sunday, April 27, 2014 7:13 PM
Subject: [Smt-talk] Raised Issues with the so-called "Sensitive Female Chord	Progression"

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 reasons.

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 observation.)

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 deserved. 

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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