The (i-)#IV-i chord progression is somewhat common in heavy metal from my experience--listen to 0:19-0:25 of this, 1:09-1:12 of this, 0:08-0:13 of this, and 0:16-0:24 of this for heavy metal examples of this chord progression.

However, I've also found this chord progression in non-heavy metal pieces--listen to 1:49-1:59 of this and 2:51-2:56 of this for two non-heavy metal examples of this.

Why does that chord progression sound decent outside of the transgressive heavy metal genre? Such chords with roots a tritone apart and where one of them is minor are unheard of in common practice period harmony, as far as I'm aware. I'm not really convinced that those last two pieces are that strongly influenced by heavy metal...

An interesting development I've found (as of Dec. 27, 2017): As I've previously thought, the i-#IV-i chord progression has also been used in classical music, way before heavy metal was even a twinkle in anyone's eye--listen to 4:06-4:11 of this interpretation of Berlioz's "Marche au supplice" as one example. Admittedly, jdjazz's theory that the chord progression involves alternation between tonal centers may be the best one for this piece, as a sudden and violent swing between G minor (the home key) and D flat major already occurs at 3:30-3:42....

  • @Dekkadeci, I've edited my answer to include the things I mentioned in the comments. That's a nice example you found. To my ear, the fact that the different chords are being played by two different sections creates a division/separation between the two chords. Shifting tonal center seems like the wrong term because we're not really establishing a new tonal center. Maybe someone will suggest a better term to use.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 28 '17 at 20:34
  • What does "transgressive heavy metal genre" mean? Is heavy metal the first transgressive genre in History?! Composers have been experimenting and breaking rules as long as they have been composing.
    – Stinkfoot
    Dec 29 '17 at 12:16
  • @Stinkfoot, as aware as I am of rock's tendency to break societal rules, I generally find it too conservative to use the #IV-i chord progression. I also find that jazz, rule-breaker as it is, tends to use added chord tones too often to use those chords. I wouldn't be shocked to find that progression in prog rock, avant-garde jazz, or concert band music, though. Heavy metal tends to need clean chords often enough and collect enough of a reputation to want to remain on the edge of society to use that progression. But maybe it gets away with those chords because it wants to break the rules...
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 29 '17 at 17:17
  • @Dekkadeci - I think you have way too many stereotypes, and imaginary rules and categories. Things don't break down that way in the real world of music and musicians and they never did. That stuff exists only in books by critics and professors who have little or no contact or knowledge of the day to day life of music people and musicians.
    – Stinkfoot
    Dec 29 '17 at 17:32
  • @Stinkfoot, this is partially based on my experience listening to rock music and listening to and playing jazz music. Admittedly, I strongly prefer instrumental music and that has no doubt skewed my listening preferences, but I've yet to remember a rock song in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band game with the (i-)#IV-i chord progression. (If you do find one, put it in the comments or an answer and I'll listen to it!) I also don't recall ever hearing that chord progression in jazz, especially not the jazz I've played in school bands. Granted, jazz is expansive enough to have that progression somewhere.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 30 '17 at 6:58

The tritone interval has many applications. In C major, a F# chord is half-way round the 'cycle of 5ths'. It's as far away as you can get! So juxtaposing C and F# chords can give a brutal, abrasive effect. This is what seems to be happening in your first example. It's being used for shock value, precisely because it DOESN'T fit.

But it's also common to (thinking in C major again) jump to a F# chord then travel home through a string of (loosely speaking) secondary dominants - F#, B, E, A, D, G, C. And, of course, Gb is the 'b5' or 'tritone' substitution for C7. So Gm7, C7, F might be substituted with Gm7, Gb7, F. Opposites contrast, but opposites also attract!


(at the time of writing, the question looks pretty subjective. I'll do my best to disappoint you with a straightforward pseudo-objective answer.)

The tritone isn't objectively "metal". The interval is simply complex enough that it doesn't sound consonant, and thus introduces some tension. Complexity and tension are of course common traits of metal.

The closest to a functional harmony analysis of this that i can come up with:

#IV - i  substitute #IV for I (tritone sub)
I - i    vi could substitute I (parallel minors)
vi - i

Functional harmony doesn't seem to be of much use here.

Apparently, according to my calculations, the progression also fits inside the seventh mode of the harmonic major scale. But that's just one way to analyze it. You could for example see it as two separate chords - pick any two non-diatonic chords and they will interact in a unique way.

To summarize:

Why does that chord progression sound decent outside of the transgressive heavy metal genre?

Any chord progression sounds decent (context matters). And different progressions will be used for different reasons. If it sounds good, do it.

  • In this context, it isn't a 'progression'. It's a contrast. In my answer above I suggested how it might be included in a progression. But even then, why should it be required to all fit into one scale? Where one scale DOES fit two or more successive chords, it can suggest a strategy for improvisation. But very often, one doesn't. Dec 13 '17 at 13:55
  • 1
    It's not that it doesn't sound consonant...it isn't consonant. Also, not some tension; that interval produces arguably the most tension. Dec 13 '17 at 17:12
  • 1
    @jjmusicnotes Way to complain about wording i didn't even think about. In music, "sounds like" = "is". And it's all about context, a tritone jump can be a release as much as a tension.
    – user43681
    Dec 13 '17 at 21:49
  • @LaurencePayne I admit i didn't listen to the examples, i just explained it as a progression as it was posed ¯_(ツ)_/¯. And i didn't say it all had to fit into one scale, it's just that there is always a scale that will fit.
    – user43681
    Dec 13 '17 at 21:56
  • @YeDawg I think you misunderstand me, I’m not in the habit of complaining, I’m in the habit of giving people the most correct information possible. The fact you didn’t think about it illuminates the inaccuracy of your statement. “Like” connotes a similarity but is not exact. We need to be exact when exact is called for. Dec 14 '17 at 2:20

1. Possible Tritone Sub

One functional harmony explanation is: this a deceptive cadence to a minor iv chord. Working in Cmin, it would be fairly common to see these sorts of progressions:

| Cmin | Cmin | C7(♭9,♭5) | Fmin |

| Cmin | Cmin | F♯7 | Fmin |

As you know (and as the two lines above demonstrate), the F♯7 chord is a tritone substitution for C7alt, and the F♯7 chord wants to resolve to Fmin. When I listen to the songs you linked, I find myself waiting for the minor iv chord to appear. The fact that we move back to the minor i chord (Cmin in the example above) instead of the minor iv chord (Fmin) is surprising.

The progression above doesn't have to have a minor tonality. In other words, it may not be a imin-i7alt-ivmin scenario. We could have something like this:

| Cmin | C7(♭9,♭5) | Fmin | B♭7 | E♭Maj |

| Cmin | F♯7 | Fmin | B♭7 | E♭Maj |

2. Intentional Dissonance/Switching Tonal Centers

The analysis above is a probably bad fit for scenarios where the progression repeats. In the songs you've cited, the progression continues to cycle back and forth between the imin chord and the ♯IVMaj chord. This can indicate a shifting tonal center. After all, Cmin and F♯Maj represent possibly the biggest possible tonal shift that can occur. For one, the roots of Cmin and F♯Maj are a tritone apart, classified as a dissonant interval and generally considered the most dissonant. Secondly, the change from a minor chord quality to a major chord quality represents an additional shift that catches the ear.

(As a note: the F♯Maj and Cmin scales have more common tones than F♯min and Cmin. In terms of key signatures, F♯min is "farther away" from Cmin than F♯Maj is. But Cmin → F♯Maj can still sound like more of a change than Cmin → F♯min because preserving a minor chord quality creates continuity. So when moving the root by a tritone, changing from a minor tonality to a major tonality is arguably a bigger shift than maintaining a minor tonality. The song feels oddly uplifting at the ♯IV chord. This can contribute to the feeling that we're moving between two tonal centers.)

Some of the links you included contain additional evidence of shifting tonal centers. For example, in the last link you shared contains this progression:

| Amin | E♭Maj | Amin | B♭Maj |

It's almost like we're hearing a I-V progression in E♭, but with an A in the bass. This sort of technique--playing related major chords on top of an unrelated minor chord--is not that uncommon in certain types of avant garde music. The desired effect is one of dissonance, and I think you're finding that this element has made its way into some heavy metal music.

3. Phrygian-Like Progression

Another way to think of the progression is that it stems from C phrygian. To see this, we can first consider this very common progression:

| Cmin | D♭Maj | E♭Maj | D♭Maj | Cmin |.

C phrygian scale is an extremely common choice for this entire progression. But if we add the Cmin blues note (G♭), then now we're very close to a G♭Maj chord. In fact, the G♭Maj chord might sound very natural in this progression given the presence of the D♭Maj chord, and the G♭ can have the effect of adding a bluesy feel to a phrygian mood. This explanation provides a way to look at the ♯IV chord as a part of the existing tonal center.

4. Diminished Sound

Another place we might look, when explaining the ♯IV chord, is the diminished scale. In fact, the chord G♭Maj/C is a common voicing for C diminished. A song that switches between Cmin and G♭Maj/C might simply be an example of modal interchange, where the progression is | Cmin | Cdim/G♭ | Cmin | Cdim/G♭ |. One could play C half-whole diminished continuously over this entire progression.

While this is a good explanation for a imin-♯IVMaj progression, it doesn't quite fit with the examples you've provided. In your examples, many of the melodies using the full minor scale followed by the full major scale. I don't think there are any where we hear an actual octatonic scale (or even the same scale) over both chords.

5. Minor Blues Feel

The final option we can explore is a i → ♯IV(♭5) progression. I don't believe the specific recordings you shared fall under this category, but it is an interesting possibility.

To consider a ♯IV(♭5), we might imagine the progression:

| Cmin | F♯Maj | Cmin |

as being something more like:

| Cmin | Cmin7(♭5)/F♯ | Cmin |

Many pianists will use Cmin7(♭5) as a voicing for a bluesy Cmin chord. Putting the tritone in the bass simply adds some heightened dissonance/temporary tension, which releases on return to the Cmin7 chord. If we ignore the root, the voicing can be identical to an A♭7 chord. So we can take the i-♯IV(♭5) progression and characterize it like this:

| Cmin | A♭7/G♭ | Cmin | A♭7/G♭ |

In this way, we treat the ♯IV(♭5) chord as a slash chord: ♭VI7/♯IV (A♭7/G♭ in the example above). The i-♭VI7 progression is extremely common in many forms of jazz, so moving the bass down a whole step from A♭ to G♭ can be viewed as a way to add some variety/dissonance.

  • Unfortunately, I interpret none of the example excerpts as shifting between tonal centers. I keep finding them as squarely in the key of the minor (i) chord, with the #IV(/bV?) chord acting as some sort of embellishment instead of tonicization.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 14 '17 at 21:40
  • tl;dr, but just from the subtitles i can see this is a well though out answer.
    – user43681
    Dec 29 '17 at 22:05
  • @Dekkadeci, I've edited the answer to incorporate more options that retain a C tonal center. Does this answer your question?
    – jdjazz
    Dec 29 '17 at 23:14

If you want to look at it from a voice leading perspective, F# moves a 1/2 step to G(the 5 of a Cmin chord.) A# is Bb the b7 of Cmin7 and C# resolves a 1/2 step down to C, the tonic of Cmin. That is sound contrary motion. Now I doubt that your progression is voiced that way, in which case you should probably just run with it. If it sounds good, it is good. Metal power chords(just the 1 and 5) are very forgiving, especially.

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