I've always been a keen music listener but never paid much attention to music lessons back in high school. Now I've decided to (attempt to) teach myself music theory with the hope of developing some rudimentary music production skills.

Having read up the basics, I've taken to trying to identify chord progressions in songs. One that seems to crop up a lot in popular music, yet I seem to have trouble identifying, is the progression that appears in the intro and chorus to Phil Collins' "Easy Lover".

My naive guess would say it's III I II III, yet a quick Google of that progression tells me it's practically unheard of. Which makes me ask, have I misidentified it, or have I (as I suspect) made a mistake somewhere in the notation?

  • @Close voters: In my opinion, this question isn't off-topic because it's about identifying a song. Instead, it's on-topic because it's about identifying a chord progression, using a particular song as an example.
    – Kevin
    Sep 2 '14 at 16:13
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    Thought for the day : ALWAYS do theory WITH an instrument handy. Play the theory - if it sounds good, it probably is, etc., etc.
    – Tim
    Sep 2 '14 at 16:34
  • Absolutely right, @Kevin. And more than that, it's about determining which chord is the tonic, which can be ambiguous. Sep 2 '14 at 16:34
  • Note that any time you see two major chords that are a whole step apart, it makes more sense to start thinking about IV and V in a major key or VI and VII in a minor key, the latter being the case in this example. It's not true that major chords a whole step apart will always be one of those two, but those are the most likely possibilities to start with. Jun 28 '16 at 13:00

You're part of the way there. The mistake you're making, is hearing which chord is the tonic, and so which key you are in. In fact, the first chord is chord one, the tonic (Fm on the live version I just listened to on Spotify), so the progression is: Fm Db Eb Fm etc. In other words, this is i VI VII i using the chords taken from the natural minor scale (i.e. no alterations to the key signature).

Also, it should be noted that there seem to be some extensions to these chords (I only had a quick listen, but there are at least some 7ths used). And, the very beginning of the track has a lovely Phrygian harmony, basically Gb to Fm.

  • You beat me to it, and much more succinctly. Now we get to have fun discussing why VI and VII should or shouldn't be preceded by flats... :D (j/k) Sep 2 '14 at 16:01
  • This is a good question that goes into more detail about this chord progression: music.stackexchange.com/questions/22223/…
    – Kevin
    Sep 2 '14 at 16:10
  • Nice link Kevin. And hello @Caleb Hines - long time no see!! Sep 2 '14 at 16:36

I'll caveat this by saying that I'm just going by ear here, and I don't have a keyboard handy to check my results. Listening to the song, I think you're pretty close. You're hearing the bass/root motion descending a third, then ascending back up by two steps. However, I think that what you're identifying as III is actually the tonic (I). If you listen to the progression, you'll hear it has a strong tendency to move towards that chord, and it feels stable just sitting there. III is a much less stable chord.

Before I go further with that thought, I want to make sure that you're aware that using upper-case roman numerals indicates major chords, while lower-case is used for minor chords. In your progression above (I II III) everything is major, which isn't how that progression would usually go. In a major key, the usual chords would be: I ii iii -- notice the minor ii and iii. (Incidentally, if you replaced either the ii or iii with a major chord, there would be a strong tendency to interpret it as a "secondary dominant" which would want to resolve to V or vi respectively.)

Returning to the song's progression, I believe that the tonic (which you had identified as III) is actually a minor chord (i). Since the progression drops two whole steps before ascending, I believe the final progression is: i bVI bVII i. For example, in the key of A minor, this would be Am F G Am. This happens to be a quite common chord progression, especially in more modal pieces, since it points to the tonic, while avoiding the dominant or the raised seventh scale degree.

One final note, if you think of this progression occurring in the relative major key, it would begin and end on vi (since vi is the relative minor). In that case, the progression would be notated IV V vi. This is the definition of a deceptive cadence.

  • as you alluded to in Bob's answer, if i is Am, then VI will be F and VII G. By calling it bVI it'll sort of end up as Fb, or E, which will normally be called V. Not sure where the flat bit is coming from. In major, the chords are I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and viib5. So starting with vi and calling it i for the relative minor, the chords are i, iib5, III,iv, v (or V), VI, and VII. Mot a flat in sight !!- except IN that half-dim...
    – Tim
    Sep 2 '14 at 16:30
  • Sometimes, VI and VII (ignoring chord quality for now) can be used to refer to the sharpened version of those scale degrees, based on the major scale (e.g. F# and G# in A). Because of that, the flat sign is used to indicate unambiguously that the lower scale degree is intended (e.g. F and G). See the selected answer here: music.stackexchange.com/questions/17426/scale-degree-naming Sep 2 '14 at 17:00
  • I see where you're coming from. But - if i is construed as a minor, and why wouldn't it, then the Roman numerals will refer to the chords spawned from that scale. Hang on though, I forgot about the fact that the MELODIC uses the same last few notes as the major. It's can of worms time... Perhaps this is why most things emanate from the MAJOR. Is a deceptive cadence another term for interrupted cadence ?
    – Tim
    Sep 2 '14 at 17:29
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    For what it's worth, if you were ever to call this kind of progression a "six seven one" during a live jam or whatever you'd probably screw with people's heads. It's a familiar term to reference the major scale when calling out "flat-six, flat-seven, one", or at least I never heard nobody specify modes in such a setting. Where the root is "A" and the chord changes are "F major, G major, A minor", I've never heard anyone call it anything but flat-six, flat-seven, one. On paper you might see that VI VII i business because the context of Aeolian mode is more clearly laid out.
    – Stick
    Sep 2 '14 at 18:57
  • For those looking at the back and forth between Tim and Caleb, the assumption that everything is based on the major scale and therefore these chords would be bVI and bVII seems to be a jazz convention, while in college music theory classes based on classical music, one would be marked wrong for calling the F major chord in the key of A minor a bVI chord. On the other hand, when jamming with jazz players one could cause major confusion going the other way. Sadly, this is not standardized among all musicians at this time. Jun 28 '16 at 13:05

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