The vi-IV-I-V Chord Progression

How To Create Bittersweet Songs

The vi-IV-I-V is sometimes called the "sensitive female" progression because it has a distinct melancholy feel.

Starting a progression out on a minor chord is a great way to lure listeners in.

If we were in C major, the chords would be Am-F-C-G.

Because it doesn’t loop as a cadence (IV) it is easier to keep this progression going for longer than other more common variations like I vi IV V.

Why It’s Unique

Since the progression ends in a deceptive cadence, the music tends to feel unfinished.

The dominant chord leads into the submediant when it repeats, making us feel like the movie isn’t over yet.

With the lack of resolve that is built inside, this progression feels infinitely loopable- which is one of the main reasons songwriters use it.

This progression isn’t unique in the sense that it’s rarely used, but rather, it is special because of the order the chords are placed in.

Thoughts and Criticisms

“It seemed to be the exclusive province of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see.” -Hirsch

As with most popular chord progressions, the vi-IV-I-V hasn’t always been well-loved.

Many have called it overused and cliche.

Marc Hirsh, a music critic for the Boston Globe, was the one to dub it “The sensitive female chord progression”.

He first notices this progression in the late 90s at the Lilith fair..and then? He couldn’t stop hearing it.

His "08 article “Striking A Chord" talked about the pervasiveness of the progression.

In the article, he described the progression as “inescapable”.

The critic quoted other music experts, including Jack Perricone, chair of Berklee’s songwriting department.

This quote sums up the chord progression very poetically.

"It starts on a sense of maybe disquiet," he says. "In a sense, it's three-quarters major and one-quarter, but a very important quarter, being minor…."And I think that has to do with credibility, what people experience in life. . . . I mean, that's not a bad mixture, one-quarter sadness or darkness and three-quarters light." -Jack Perricone

Famous Examples

The progression is often used in movies, musicals, and bittersweet/emotional pop songs.

  • “Girls Like You” by Maroon Five
  • “Zombie” by The Cranberries
  • “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson (progression goes the whole song)
  • “Hands” by Jewel
  • “All of Me” by John Legend
  • “Rewrite the Stars” from “The Greatest Showman”
  • “One of Us” by Joan Osborne
  • “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi
  • “Numb” by Linkin Park
  • “Let It Be” by The Beatles (Chorus)

Taylor Swift returns to this progression time and time again, with tunes like “Teardrops on My Guitar”, and “Back to December” and also uses it in smaller sections of the song where she is feeling stuck or sad.

Sometimes the progression goes the entire length of the tune, such as in the Kelly Clarkson example.

Others save it for the chorus, like in “Let it Be” or Toto’s “Africa”.

It can also feel hopeful yet longing- Like in “Stronger” and “Rewrite the Stars”.

Drill-down: You find the chords for this progression, as well many other, in all keys, in my complete ebook 52 Chord Progressions | Learn How To Connect Chords and Create Great Songs

In Pop Punk

  • “Check Yes Juliet” by We The Kings
  • “Holiday” By Greenday
  • “Face Down” by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
  • “My Happy Ending” by Avril Lavigne

vi-IV-I-V is also called the ‘Pop-punk Chord Progression” because it lends well to catchy, energetic yet angsty sounds.

The minor start gives us a pessimistic edge, leading the artist to pair it with bleak lyrics like “Do you feel like a man when you push her around?” or the dejected “So much for my happy ending”...

In short, this is a must-know chord progression for all guitarists interested in learning early 2000’s music.


No matter the order, the pop chords we use almost always hover around I, vi, IV, and V.

But the order in which we put them can determine the flavor of the song.

The Doo-Wop Progression ( I vi IV V)

Another common way to order these chords is called the “50s” or “Doo-Wop” chord progression.

“Earth Angel” first released by The Penguins in the late 1950s is a textbook example.

The bassline with this progression was usually in descending thirds, with the time signature being in a 6/8 feel.

In C, this would be C-Am-F-G.

The progression can sound upbeat, nostalgic, or even bittersweet depending on the way you use it.

To me, the I vi IV V is a blank slate.

Most commonly used progression in pop/indie music, like Justin Beibers’ first major hit “Baby”, and even Neutral Milk Hotels' “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

Sometimes the ii chord is used instead of the IV chord, but the effect is similar.

I V vi IV

In this order, you have The Axis Of Awesome’s “Four Chords”.

The variation is used far, far more often than vi-IV-I-V.

It isn’t as loopable, but it feels a bit more upbeat.


Using the minor iv instead of the major iv is a common example of a borrowed chord in music.

If you play the regular vi IV I V first, and then follow it with vi iv I V, you can create a beautiful section that stands out... just by swapping a single chord.

Radiohead’s “Creep” uses this at the end of their progression.

The Anime Progression

i-iv-VII-III is often used in the music of anime- But in some ways, this progression feels very much like vi-IV-I-V as it feels like it’s going to the relative major, therefore acting as a sort of replacement for I-V.

How to Make it More Interesting

  • Play with texture
  • Add in a iii chord
  • Keep the tempo up
  • Ornamentation
  • Use the minor iv variation

Some people may argue that this chord progression is overused.

But keep in mind that there are many other aspects to composition that you can take advantage of.

For example, in the Beach Boys “Surfer Girl” Brian Wilson took the Doo-wop progression, played it once, and then played iii-IV-I-V, making it more harmonically interesting than simply looping the prog.

Adding in a iii chord or the much spicier minor iv will go a long way.

Texturally, you could play the “Sensitive Female Chord Progression” over and over, and add things like rhythmic tapping on the body of the guitar, or add or take away an instrument at the time of each repeat, so the listener has something new to latch onto.

vi-IV-I-V: The Key to Making a Bittersweet Hit?

Most songs with the pop chord progression live in the 100-120 BMP range, or a bit quicker.

The next time you go to write a song on the guitar, try Am-F-C-G.

You might be surprised by what you come up with.

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