[Smt-talk] I-V-vi-IV

Mark Yeary mark+smt at yeary.net
Tue Apr 29 13:22:20 PDT 2014

I've been thinking about this for a while—not the label, which is crude, but the harmonic progression. Here are three ways that we might regard I-V-vi-IV, with an eye and ear toward appropriate nomenclature.

One: the phrase model. The harmonic "work" in this progression happens in the plagal direction, and I suggest that we may understand it as an instance of a *plagal phrase model*. This is most readily revealed when comparing it with an authentic phrase model such as I-vi-IV-V: whereas pre-dominant chords set up the D-T motion that marks a new hypermeasure, I-V-vi-IV uses the dominant to set up a S-T motion. In both forms, the vi harmony is a bridge or extension, and in both it may be removed—but often it's kept in popular music as a way to establish four-bar hypermeter. (Yes, I know, vi as "deceptive cadence" and all that, but this hearing prioritizes an authentic model that does not fit with the plagal harmonic syntax found in much popular music.)

Two: support for melodic motion. The plagal phrase model permits an "early" arrival on ^1 over a non-tonic harmony, and herein lies the difference: the authentic phrase often sustains a tonic degree before setting up a stepwise melodic motion to ^1 or ^3, whereas in the plagal phrase, ^2-1 happens in the middle, and the return to tonic harmony is done without stepwise motion to ^1 or ^3. From here, it's easy to set up a dualist system of authentic and plagal phrase models in melody and harmony.

(Note that if vi is turned into a tonic, forming in the common minor variant of this progression, then the model is authentic—tonic, VI as bridge, III as tonic extension, VII as dominant—and therefore would support different melodic motion. If there's *anything* to be said about affect in these progressions, let's at least consider the melodies—you know, the things that these "sensitive" musicians typically sing over these harmonies—and how the alignment of tonic scale-degrees and tonic harmony might be interpreted semiotically.)

Three: the vehicle in which the progression is introduced. Although I think the phrase model approach is potentially productive, it won't stick, because names are easier to remember; this was illustrated for me by Philip Tagg, who offered the name "James Bond chord" as a more catchy—and less opaque—label for a minor triad with major 7 and 9 extensions.

We've got a name for the authentic phrase model; it's the "Heart and Soul" progression, named after the Hoagy Carmichael tune. (Yes, Carmichael's tune actually uses a ii chord instead of IV, but the version learned by many beginning pianists uses ^4 in the bass.) I'll defer to Chris Doll's forthcoming book for a closer look at the history of this progression; "Journey" is a good start, but "Any Way You Want It" is more syllables than "one-five-six-four," so its utility is limited.

Of course, the three-chord plagal progression, with submediant absent—I, V, IV—is certain to have an equally juicy history. Personally, I consider The Who's "Baba O'Riley" to be the definitive statement of this progression; its chords harmonize a ^3-2-1 melody with arrival on ^1 on a weaker measure, and it's a wonderful example of how the bogeyman of parallel fifths need not haunt us in the modern era.


Mark Yeary, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
School of Music, University of Louisville

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