This is an excerpt from the course Making Theory Practical.
If you want to hear about it when enrollment is open, get on the list.
Humans like stories.
If you’ve ever watched a TV series, you know about cliffhangers.
They tell you part of a story, but make you wait to find out what happens next.
Western music is just like this—tension, then release.
If I play the major scale, but stop before it gets back to the root…
…it makes you a little crazy.
[not hearing anything when you hit play? -> flip that switch on the side of your phone to disengage silent mode.]
Even though you already know how it ends, you still crave that sense of completion.
When we put chords to the “melody” of the major scale, that sense of tension & release is intensified:
It’s a story. Stories without conflict are BORING.
Music without tension is boring too.
The second-to-last note of the scale—the one that’s one fret away from the root note—is called a “leading tone.”
The tension of the leading tone leads your ear back to the root (which resolves that tension).
But leading tones aren’t just for major scales.
Any time you move in half steps, you’re harnessing that same pull.
Probably the best example of half steps pulling you along is the lick from The Beatles’ Something:
We’ll explore “voice leading” in depth another time.
In this lesson, I want to show you one of its coolest chordal applications, the four minor.
But first: let’s blaze through the basics of chords & progressions.
Crash Course In Chord Progressions
1. The major scale.
We all know the sound:
We could talk about the formula to make one…
But why bother?
It’s mere trivia, like knowing that table salt is made of sodium and chloride.
The taste of salt, the sound of the major scale… these things are life itself.
2. Stack up every other note of the major scale and you get chords:
Chords that are made up exclusively of notes from the key are called “diatonic.”
You can combine these “diatonic” chords in all sorts of fun combinations.
3. When we talk about these chords, we often use a numerical shorthand:
- “the one chord,”
- “two-five,” or
- “the bridge starts on the six.”
4. When we write them down, we use Roman numerals:
- I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi.
- Major chords in upper case.
- Minor chords in lower case.
5. No matter what key we’re in, the diatonic chords show up in the same order:
- one, four, & five are major chords:
- I, IV, V
- two, three, & six are minor chords:
- ii, iii, vi
- seven is an oddball that we can ignore for now:
6. Mini chord progressions are called “cadences”:
- I – IV
- V – I
- ii – V – I
7. There are zillions of songs that use nothing but the “diatonic chords.”
But again: more tension = more opportunity for release.
So we frequently use “non-diatonic” chords too.
8. These non-diatonic chords are sometimes called “borrowed chords.”
We name them with the same numerical shorthand we use for the others…
…and describe them in relation to the diatonic chords.
- a two chord that’s major instead of minor is called the “two major”
- written: II
- a major chord a half-step lower than the six is called a “flat six”
- written: bVI
- and a four chord that’s minor instead of major is called “four minor.”
- written: iv
The Four Minor
The most basic version works like this:
- Step 1: Play the IV
- Step 2: Play the iv
- Step 3: Play the I
Which sounds like this:
Most music theory is a bunch of BS, conjured up after the fact to explain why someone did something cool.
(Like… does it need a reason beyond “it sounds good”?)
But the official music school explanation of this is oddly compelling, and it’s tied up in the leading tone/voice leading thing we discussed earlier.
Here’s how it works in C major:
The IV chord is F.
This note is the “major 3rd.”
When we lower that note (“flat the third”), the chord becomes Fm:
Then we complete the “cadence” by playing the I chord:
Notice the voice leading:
Anyway, that’s the music school explanation.
As music school explanations go, it’s decent.
It doesn’t reek of academia or contain a dozen qualifiers we have to parse.
But it’s still a bunch of BS.
Because even when we take away that smooth voice leading, this cadence is still cool as hell:
We *could* put on our nerd hats and “explain” this with music theory…
…but instead let’s just remember The Universal Rule Of Music:
If it sounds good, it is good.
Again: humans like stories, so our brains want to concoct one about why something sounds good. But that story isn’t why. The why is “because it sounds good”. The story is just a roadmap to help you get back to the sounds you like.
Music theory isn’t a set of rules you have to follow. It’s not a handbook that’ll give you the “right” answer for the musical situation you’re in. It’s just the names we give to cool-sounding things we want to remember (and/or convey to other musicians).
Let’s look at some real-world examples.
iv chords in the wild
(To help center your ear to the key, I put a V-I cadence before each example.)
Don’t Look Back In Anger – Oasis
- We’re in the key of C.
- (If you’re not sure how we know this, check out How To Figure Out The Key Of A Song.)
- After my cheesy V-I cadence, we drop right into the song’s Pre Chorus…
- …which goes F – Fm – C…
- …aka IV – iv – I:
In My Life – The Beatles
Where did Oasis learn that cool trick? From The Beatles, of course:
- We’re in the key of A.
- After the V-I cadence, we drop in at the top of Verse 1.
- (If the names of song sections aren’t obvious to you, check out Labelling Parts Of Songs: The Most Basic (And Important) Music Theory)
That Thing You Do – The Wonders
And when Adam Schlesinger was tasked with writing a Beatles knockoff for the movie That Thing You Do, he went to his toolbox and immediately pulled out the four minor chord:
- We’re in the key of E,
- and the intro goes from E to Am…
- …aka I-iv in E:
This isn’t the only time the iv chord shows up in this tune.
But since it’s basically a two-and-half-minute masterclass in songwriting, I think we’ll save a more detailed dissection of this for the SONGS section of Making Theory Practical.
Space Oddity – David Bowie
I especially love this use of the four minor because the vocal melody makes the phrase feel less like IV-iv-I and more like iv-I-IV.
Listen for it at “papers want to know whose shirts you wear” and “time to leave the capsule if you dare.”
We also get to see another borrowed chord—the III:
Creep – Radiohead
The “borrowed” III chord is also featured in Creep…
…though this time we’re in the key of G:
Nobody Home – Pink Floyd
This one also has the iv and III chords:
Two sweet songwriting moves to point out here:
#1: Slash Chords like E/B
The III chord here is somewhat disguised by the fact that the bass doesn’t play the E chord’s root, but rather a B. That’s what the slash means—E chord on top, but the note B on the bottom:
Slash chords are like a musical mullet that never goes out of style:
Nobody Home is full of them:
- E/B (“E over B”)
- E/G# (“E over G sharp)”
- F/C (“F over C”)
- C/G (“C over G”)
(And of course, we’ll do an entire masterclass on slash chords in Making Theory Practical.)
You know what’s even cooler than the super-smooth voice-leading of IV-iv-I?
Doing *two* of that half step walk down at the same time:
(This super-slick II-iv-I is also in the chorus of The Beatles’ In My Life.)
Of course, it’s not only Brits and faux-Brits who use the four minor chord…
I Will Follow You Into The Dark – Death Cab For Cutie
We have a bunch of things you’ve just seen…
- IV – iv – I,
- the III chord,
- and slash chords.
…but this our first time seeing it in the key of F:
Interestingly, singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard isn’t playing it as if it’s in F—he’s using a capo on the 5th fret and playing it as it if it’s in C.
These roman numerals come in super handy when translating your capo’d chords into something the rest of the band can use.
“It’s in F and it goes I – vi – IV – I” is way easier than trying to figure out what C – Am – F – C is with a capo on the 5th fret.
Wake Me Up When September Ends – Green Day
I simplified the chord names so we wouldn’t get distracted.
The classic IV-iv-I works just as well in a pop punk rock opera as it does in an indie love song.
The Joke – Brandi Carlile
This is the first one we’ve seen in the key of D:
It’s also the first time we’re seeing the “five minor”:
We could keep going:
- Roy Orbison’s Crying,
- Bread’s Everything I Own,
- Sam Cooke’s Hold On…
…but I think you’ve got the basic idea.
Let’s do one more and call it a day.
Nowhere Man – The Beatles
The Beatles loved them some four minor, so it’s only fitting that we close it out with another one of theirs.
This has a way-cool ii-iv:
- Start with the major scale, stack up every other note, and you get chords.
- Doesn’t matter which key you do it in, they show up in the same order each time:
- Major Minor Minor, Major Major Minor
- I ii iii IV V vi
- Anything that uses only the notes in the key is called “diatonic”…
- …which means I, ii, iii, IV, V, & vi are “diatonic chords.”
- But of course we’re not limited to just these diatonic chords.
- We can also use “non-diatonic” or “borrowed” chords.
- They introduce more tension, which is even more satisfying when we resolve it away.
- This is the crux of western music: tension and resolution.
- One of the best-loved tension & resolution maneuvers is “voice leading.”
- Voice leading is when we move between chord tones with the smallest possible intervals.
- The smallest interval is a “half step”…
- …aka one fret on a guitar.
- The half-step/one-fret intervals in a scale are called “leading tones.”
- Leading tones are exactly what they say they are: tones that lead our ear on to the next thing.
- Playing the iv between the IV and I gives us extra leading tones, which sounds cool.
- Of course, the leading tone/voice leading explanation is music school talk (and should be met with suspicion).
- The important thing here is that iv chords sound good.
- Tossing a Frisbee doesn’t require you to understand thrust, drag, lift, and the latest theory of gravity.
- Music theory doesn’t require you to wear a monocle and pontificate about “double harmonic major” or “Picardy thirds.”
- That’s because music theory is practical.
- It’s just descriptions of cool-sounding things.
- Theory is useful in explaining things to ourselves…
- …and/or other musicians.
See you in the next one,