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I've noticed a bunch of pop songs have the same four-chord progression running in a continuous loop:

ii -> V -> I -> vi (or V/ii) -> (starts over on ii)

Characteristics:

  • One chord per bar (equal length)
  • Tonic (I) comes on third bar of the four-bar sequence
  • Every move is a progression in terms of functional harmony (root moves down a fifth, or down a third)

This is ubiquitous enough to make me ask, does this have a name?

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    Maybe not, but in jazz, ii>V>I is more than ubiquitous. It's basically from the 'cycle of 5ths' (or'circle of 4ths'), and is pretty well a natural progression of where music can, and does, go. Check out 'Axis of Awsome'.
    – Tim
    Nov 11, 2021 at 14:18
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    Its name is literally “ii -> V -> I -> vi”. That’s how all chord progressions are named. You can hear people talk about a “I - IV - V” or “ii - V - I” progression all the time. Nov 11, 2021 at 19:34
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    @ToddWilcox - why not make that the answer?
    – Tim
    Nov 12, 2021 at 11:41
  • Sometimes the first part is called a "2-5-1 (or ii-V-I) Turnaround".
    – Theodore
    Nov 12, 2021 at 22:21

4 Answers 4

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ii -> V -> I -> vi (or V/ii) -> (starts over on ii)

I think it is unlikely that enough people have referred to that progression by a specific non-systematic description to justify claiming that it has a name. Why I think so:

  • Chord progressions are usually referred to by their systematic descriptions that consist of numeric scale degree names, written as Roman numerals and sharps and flats. Such a name is quick to say, and contains a description of the actual progression, so it only requires the other person to know the number system.

  • A special non-systematic name might be used, if there's something special, non-trivial or otherwise significant about the progression. Some non-systematic names come from a composer or a particular tune. Here's a list of chord progressions, where you can see what sort of progressions have been given non-systematic names: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_chord_progressions

  • There's nothing special about the history or usage of the ii - V - I - vi progression. Like you said, it's used in many songs, and I don't think anyone can find a significant historical first use or a composer or arranger for it.

  • Saying "two five one six" is quick and easy enough.

  • ii - V - I - vi doesn't have any significant musical "geometry" or feature. In many songs where it's used, you could use a different progression, and nobody would complain. Try something like IV - V - I - vi, or even IV - V - I - I. Or maybe V7 - V7 - I - I?

  • ii - V - I - vi could be seen as a variation of ii - V - I, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ii%E2%80%93V%E2%80%93I_progression about which the Wikipedia page says: "The ii–V–I progression is 'a staple of virtually every type of Western popular music', including jazz, R&B, pop, rock, and country." In ii - V - I - vi, there's just an additional glue chord between I and the next ii. You can leave out the vi, or instead of the vi, you could use many other glue chords like VI major or I# dim.

Maybe if there was a popular book or movie that featured the progression as a part of the plot? "Rambo ii - V - I - vi"... then people might start calling it the Rambo progression.

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  • What I was hoping for is something like the "50's progression" page on wikipedia with a list of pop songs. Similar progressions like ii-V-I and vi-ii-V-I, are referred to by numerals. Nov 13, 2021 at 19:45
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    @wrschneider I don't think there is any such name, for the reasons listed here. Or if there was, it was used by a small number of people for a limited period of time, and it's been forgotten by now. From what I can see, it's a trivial chord progression with no significant musical or historical properties. Nov 14, 2021 at 10:55
  • accepting, as several other common progressions do not get names like the "50's progression" Nov 20, 2021 at 0:11
  • What I was hoping for is something like the "50's progression I don't see a great difference between 1625 and the fi80 progression, actually it's just the same only starting on another point. You will easily find a list of songs: Nov 20, 2021 at 13:48
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I, IV, V (or perhaps the Blues variant, I7, IV7, V7) is the 'Three chord trick'.

There's a very common 'Four chord trick' (though it isn't particularly called that) - I, vi, IV (or ii7), V. One of the two pieces even non-pianists can play (the other is 'Chopsticks'). Usually with a version of Hoagy Carmichael's 'Heart and Soul' as the melody. Ubiquitous in 50s and 60s pop tunes. I see some people call it the '50s Chord Progression' though I'd never encountered that particular term until today!

And yes, the current popsters seem fond of an 'inside-out' version of it - ii, V, I, vi. No accepted name for it, AFAIK. Not even a definitive song, in the way that 'Heart and Soul' became synonymous with I, iv, IV, V.

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ii -> V -> I -> vi (or V/ii) -> (starts over on ii)

Because of the repeat you could hypothetically reposition the bar line and have...

vi -> ii -> V -> I

...which should make is clear that the progression is a roots by descending perfect fifths.

Someone can give that progression a "name," some identify it with the song I Got Rhythm, some might point out it's a segment of the circle of fifths sequence. MoneyChords puts the rotation in I vi ii V and calls it "Standard Progression." The same site presents the same fundamental progression with different chord qualities in I IV7 II7 V7 and calls it the "Ragtime Progression."

But roots by descending fifth is the most fundamental harmonic progression and has been used for centuries in many different musical styles. Giving it a catchy name is more likely to obscure how fundamental the progression is by associating it with some particular usage.

I think a purely descriptive, and short name, that most people will recognize is: descending fifth progression.

That may seem a bit vague as to which chords of the key are indicated, but that's sort of beside the point. Descending fifths progression move toward the tonic, or if not, do something like a half cadence or modulate to a new key by way of descending fifths into that new key. At which point the important thing isn't the descending fifths aspect but the phrase structuring importance of the non-tonic destinations. In other words, many standard songs are built nearly entirely of descending fifths progressions where deviations from descending fifth harmony is the result of phrases moving to different tonal centers.

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I call the I-vi-ii-V the sixteen-twentyfive progression.

So ii-V-I-vi must be the 25-16

You can also choose the name of the town with the postal code: 2516

in Switzerland this would be Lamboing, a small village in the Jura.

But twentyfive-sixteen sounds more international to me.

As we can see, my labeling of 1625 is not quite original:

https://www.pianogroove.com/jazz-piano-lessons/1625-436251-progressions/

So 2516 would be very logical.

What I was hoping for is something like the "50's progression

I don't see a great difference between 1625 and the fi80 progression, actually it's just the same only starting on another point. You will easily find a list of songs:

google search for 2516 progression

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    Important to note that those are unofficial and people won't know what you're talking about until you explain these names to them. But it's certainly creative, and hey, a trend's gotta start somewhere :)
    – user45266
    Nov 13, 2021 at 20:14
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    Yes, neat and ingenious, but only muddies the waters by suggesting there IS a name for it! Nov 14, 2021 at 13:06
  • the downvotes have motivated me to google for some support of my answer (this isn't the first time that I've thought that there is nothing new under the sun and someone else out there must already have had the same ides as I: pianogroove.com/jazz-piano-lessons/1625-436251-progressions Nov 20, 2021 at 13:42

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