Apparently, a lot of pop music is based on the same four chords, the video does not say which those may be. Any idea what four chords they are talking about?

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    The four chords are I, IV, V, vi, in arbitrary order. Pop songs rarely deviate from one diatonic key, or use the iii or vii(dim) chords. Commented May 21, 2018 at 17:59
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    Note that while some of the songs they reference in the video (e.g., "With Or Without You") are literally the same four chords over and over again, others (e.g., "Under The Bridge") use that progression for just one part of the song, and they chose to sing that one part. Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:26
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    You'll find that if you play I-vi-IV-V it sounds like about half the songs written in the 1950's, especially in the doo-wop style. Just playing the chords on a keyboard now immediately put "Teenager In Love" in my head :-) Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:26
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    Here's a similar video of a cellist ranting about the constant reuse of the same chords, starting with Pachelbel's Canon.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 20:37
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    It's funny but oddly their asserting that if you write a song using those four cords it's an instant hit, and their most popular song is the one that uses the four cords.
    – coteyr
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 3:41

3 Answers 3


This chord progression is common enough to have a Wikipedia page:

I–V–vi–IV progression

The 'axis of awesome' video you refer to is talking specifically about those chords in that particular order - I–V–vi–IV - which is a feature of many prominent pop hits. (I'm sure you're aware of this, but for any other readers: just because this is one common chord progression doesn't mean that there aren't dozens of other common chord progressions in pop... as well as some uncommon ones! The idea that all pop songs are based on the same 4 chords is a joke, not a serious assertion.)

Of course those 4 diatonic functions - the Tonic (I), Subdominant (IV), Dominant (V) and Submediant (vi) - are arguably the 4 most important in major tonality, so it's unsurprising that these chords are common, and as b3ko mentions below, that many other popular chord progressions use these 4 chords.

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    please also note that there are variations of this progression that have the same chords in different order, or mostly the same chords with one chord being substituted out. Also for beginners note that you can play the same progression in many different keys and get the same "flavor" and all the pop songs in that video are likely to not be in the same key as in the video.
    – b3ko
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 17:36
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    @toop morto, i agree, i was just clarify for people that may not know as much about music. The way the original question was worded made it sound like there were literally just 4 chords, like C, G, a and F. I wanted to point out that if a beginner was to think "I will just learn to play 4 chords and tried to play along with all these songs" they would run in to major issues.
    – b3ko
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:34
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    3 major issues and a minor issue.
    – b3ko
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:54
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    While it seems like the songs referenced do use the chords in the same order, not all of them start on the I chord (e.g., "Africa" and "Kids" both start on the vi and then go VI I V). Commented May 21, 2018 at 19:30
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    @ToddWilcox: I think the songs referenced consistently contain "I V vi IV" in that order in some prominent place, but they also contain other sequences. Don't Stop Believin', for example, uses the repeating 8-chord sequence "I V vi IV I V iii IV".
    – supercat
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 21:09

To quote Leonard Cohen: "It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall". Then "the major lift" is another fourth. Those plus the tonic give you your four chords.

If it's good enough for the Lord, it's good enough for pop.

  • That's cool, never realized that. Not a very practical answer but still cool.
    – MCMastery
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 18:30
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    I don't think the "secret" chord is one of those though--it's the III7 (or, if you prefer, the V7/vi) on the word "composing", voiced so the raised third of the chord is on top, resolving up to the root of the vi. A bit awkward in Standard tuning (0-2-2-4-3-4 to 5-7-7-5-5-5) but maybe that's why it's "secret".
    – supercat
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 22:03
  • His chords are in a different order, and it would he odd if he meant to refer to I IV V vi when the lyrics referred to IV V vi IV.
    – Ben I.
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 23:11

Go to music and harmony theory by Tchaikovsky (I'm name dropping), or any other source. Mel Bay chord melody system for guitar players. The FACT is you can harmonize the entire major scale with just three chords I, IV, and V (or V7 to get the 7-->8, 4-->3 resolution). The vi chord is a viable substitute for the I (I6 and vi-7 are identical). So you see, three chords (and their inversions) is all that is needed! It is inherent in the mathematical structure of the western scales and present in music from the Renaissance era to today. In fact when rock guitarists, or blues, country, etc, make the old joke "All you need to know is 3 chords" I think many folks interpret this as saying modern music is over simplified. In fact the same can be said for Bach. Pop learned from, and borrows from the same old masters as every other style.

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