A New Take on the I-IV-V-I Progression

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books will get you writing songs, and can help stamp out writer’s block for good. Click here to read more.

You’ve often heard me say that one of the problems with chord progressions is that they can often be too complex. Usually (not always), simple is better than complicated. But if you find that the standard I-IV-V-I progression is too simple for your needs, it’s possible to move it to a new key, even in the middle of your melody, to great effect. Here’s a way that might work.

Let’s assume that the melody for your song is in C major. That likely means that your melody starts on one of the notes from the C triad: C, E or G. Let’s also assume that each chord (I IV V I) is held for two beats each, with a melody of: E E C C B C D E, sounding like this:

EXAMPLE 1 (Opens in a new browser window)

But what if that’s just the first part of your verse melody? You’re probably worrying that two more phrases like this might be too repetitive. One obvious solution is to create a second melody that might function as a pre-chorus. But here’s another possibility: Take the entire thing and shift it up into a new key. Here’s an example where I’ve taken that melody, and moved it up into Eb major, resulting in I-IV-V-I a minor 3rd higher:

EXAMPLE 2 (Opens in a new browser window)

Moving it up gives the melody new life, and gives the song a shot of energy at the same time.

You have a couple of options after that upward modulation:

  1. Immediately return to the original key of C major, and go through the process again.
  2. Replace that final I-chord in Eb with a chord that allows you to better slide back into C major, such as a G chord.
  3. Keep sequencing the progression higher, by doing a chorus in Gb major. (Careful with this, because you’ll need to break out of this pattern at some point.)

The likelihood is that you’ll want your chorus to be in C major. And perhaps you can think about a similar plan for your chorus: a relationship between C major and Eb major.

You can also consider an upward modulation of some other interval. For example, try moving everything up a 4th, so that the first part of your verse is in C, then changing to F.

And be careful of downward modulations; they can sap the energy. They’re quite possible, but you need to give it a good listen before you decide if it works.

Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books will get you writing songs, and can help stamp out writer’s block for good. Click here to read more.

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