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I heard a song with "I - bVI - bIII - bVII" and it's one of my favorite progressions. So I want to know about that progression.

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    Is your I chord minor or major? So Roman numeral systems use i lower case for minor, others don't. Jun 10, 2019 at 20:33

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There isn't a name for this specific progression, but it might make sense to call it a circle of fifths turnaround. Let's assume you're in C; this would make the progression:

| C Maj | A♭Maj | E♭Maj | B♭Maj |

Here are some things that make the progression interesting:

  • the change from major tonality (in measure 1) minor tonality (in measures 2-4)
  • measures 2 - 4 follow the circle of fifths
  • upon repeating the progression, going from B♭Maj to CMaj is a nice parallel movement

The term 'circle of fifths turnaround' might make sense given that turnarounds are typically short, repeatable progressions that lead back to the I chord. And the use of the circle of fifths is a key feature of the progression.

Separately, the reason ♭VII to I sounds good is that ♭VII has the 2nd and 4th scale degrees of the I chord, which draw the ear toward the 1 and 3 of the I chord.

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    The thing that jumped out to me was that the tonic E♭ actually has less chromaticism with the same chords. Not surprising, since the progression is diatonic to C minor, except for the C major triad at the start. I think viewers might even start to hear the progression as C minor or E♭major with a little surprise twist on the C chords... Of course, context is everything.
    – user45266
    Jun 11, 2019 at 3:44
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    @user45266, agreed! Treating E♭ as the tonic is an interesting take I hadn't considered. This makes the progression | VI | IV | I | V |. V → VI would require some finesse to solo over. If we go this route, then my ear wants to hear the CMaj chord more as C7alt. This is totally possible given the current info from the OP. As you say, context matters. For example, if the CMaj chord isn't voiced with a 7th, then it may very well function as a VI7alt. But if the CMaj is voiced with a major 7th, then the first chord is less diatonic & sticks out more. Of course, that doesn't mean it's 'wrong'!
    – jdjazz
    Jun 11, 2019 at 16:02
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It’s likely you mean the I is minor, thus i-, bVI, bIII, bVII. This is a very popular progression (turnaround) in disguise.

It is the same as vi, IV, I, V when you make the bIII the I.

For example, the progression for the verses of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” is F#-, D, A, E.

The key signature has three sharps which could make the song either in F# minor (as indicated by the first chord in the progression) or A Major.

If we agree that the song is in F#- then the progression is i-, bVI, bIII, bVII.

However, if we look at it from the relative major, which is A Major, then the progression is vi, IV, I, V.

Progression = F#-, D, A, E

In F# minor = i-, bVI, bIII, bVII

In A Major = vi, IV, I, V

Same song, same progression, just a different perspective.

We usually look at progressions from the perspective of the relative Major key, hence vi, IV, I, V is popular and the more common way to view. However, it’s equally valid to understand it from its minor perspective, hence i-, bVI, bIII, bVII. enter image description here

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It's VI IV I V

Majorizing the vi chord is an example of modal interchange, which is a fancy way of saying you're borrowing a chord from a different mode of the same key centre.

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To expound upon both UrbanSmash and neil thomas, they have identified that this is a rotation of the common I–V–vi–IV, what Mark Richards called an axis progression in a famous article from 2017.

When the above progression threats the vi as tonic, the progression then becomes ♭III–♭VII–i–♭VI, which is your exact i–♭VI–♭III–♭VI progression.

(Note that, in my first progression, vi is minor, while the requisite tonic in the second progression is major. This latter tonic can be major or minor.)

In Chris Doll's 2017 book Hearing Harmony: Toward a Tonal Theory for the Rock Era, he names these two progressions based on their prevailing mode. When heard in major (i.e., the first progression, I–V–vi–IV), this is the "journey" progression named after Journey's 1980 "Any Way You Want It." When heard in minor (i.e., the second progression, i–♭VI–♭III–♭VI), this is the "zombie" progression, named after the song by The Cranberries.

Doll himself, however, recognizes the ambiguity between these two, saying (as quoted by Richards):

since the journey and zombie schemas are so similar in certain ways, any given progression in a song might be heard as projecting both schemas simultaneously. The fundamental issue here is that some degree of tonic quality is usually projected by both the journey’s I and ↑VI and the zombie’s I and ↓III (the Em and GM chords in Em–CM–GM–DM). If one of the sonorities is clearly more a tonic, then the progression can be understood as a realization of one schema versus the other, but attempting to hear an invocation of the journey as opposed to the zombie, or vice versa, can be a difficult, or futile, task. (2017, 120)

And for the sake of completeness, one addition Richards quote:

Other proposed terms for the progression include “gravitas loop” (Robison 2013) and Boston Globe columnist Marc Hirsh’s notoriously controversial “Sensitive Female Chord Progression” (2008). (paragraph 3)

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