I wanted to make the I-IV progression a little more interesting by having the I fall a third to its relative minor, vi, before moving to IV (so, I-vi-IV). I do like the melodramatic I-vi progression, and the hopeful IV chord creates an interesting juxtaposition. That being said, the movement from vi-IV (descending third) feels retrogressive and slow.

Do you have other suggestions for how I can expand the tonic or otherwise alter the progression to make the I-IV progression more interesting? My first thought was to expand the I (move to first inversion, go to the relative minor, etc.) but perhaps I should look at the IV chord instead?

I want to be creative with my progressions, but, at the end of the day, maybe nothing can compete with the simple beauty in the “plain ol’” I-IV progression? I’m not sure. Thank you!

  • 1
    Try something as simple as I --> I7 --> IV. The IV is common to the ii, so I --> vi --> IV can be replaced with I --> vi --> ii. The famous jazz ii-->V-->I and the IV-->V-->I are intimately related.
    – user50691
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 22:17
  • You can often use diminished 7th chords in situations like this to add flavor. They work either as secondary dominants or as passing chords.
    – user9480
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 20:13

2 Answers 2


Root progression by descending third like I vi IV ii is a standard thing in classical and pop music. I think you should not consider it a retrogression. Technically harmonic retrogression means not following the functional flow of pre-dominant, dominant, tonic. The descending thirds progression is all pre-dominant in that sense. If it continues to a dominant, it isn't retrogression.

A secondary dominant is common: I V7/IV IV like C C7 F.

In pop: I iii IV or I III IV (minor or major mediant chord) are used.

I V IV I is a retrogression ...but it's still an option. It can work for blues/rock/pop.

You could also try some modal flavoring. Like mixolydian: I bVII IV.

If you haven't ruled out mode changes on I and IV themselves, try I iv I for the borrowed chord feel or i IV i for a Dorian feel.

Try diminished seventh chords: an E diminished seventh before the F, or a common tone diminished seventh which would be an F diminished seventh before F major.

Of course you can try a variety of add and sus changes.

You will need to work out the specifics of voicings, harmonic rhythm, surround harmony, etc. to get things to work.

I'm not sure if you mean to only consider I IV, but it seems worth mentioning that I IV I or IV I can often work as an embellishment of the tonic chord, or it's sometimes called a tonic prolongation. That may sound like classical harmony hair-splitting, but I think I IV I in rock music often works exactly as a tonic embellishment.

Contrast that with IV acting like a pre-dominant. I IV ii V, I IV V, etc. basically anything where IV doesn't go to I but some other goal. IV sounds more "assertive" in that "functional" role.

I think when trying the possibilities for how to incorporate IV it's good to keep in mind that embellishing versus functional distinction.

  • amazing response. Thank you very much. Are there other (simple) examples of embellishing versus functional chords? Also, what do you mean by "surround harmony"?
    – 286642
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 0:08
  • About "embellishing" chord: to get to the source look up cadencial 6/4 and figured bass. Basically the idea is the 6/4 above the bass are a double appoggiatura (an embellishment) that resolve down to a dominant chord. I suppose you can think of other chords in a similar way, like ii6 the supertonic might step down to the tonic to form IV. A passing chord, like a passing 6/4 or diminished chord is also a kind of embellishing chord, in that case all passing tones. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:14
  • As far as embellishing chord versus functional goes, I was thinking of a pattern like I ? I where ? is the embellishing chord. To the extent the progression could just be reduced to I - a single chord - it didn't go anywhere and so it sort of non-function. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:16
  • Surrounding harmony: all the other chord. So, last night I tried out that Mixolydian idea I bVII IV. In order to make that sound like a temporary shift to Mixolydian with a lowered seventh scale degree I included V somewhere else: | I | bVII IV | I | IV V |. When we look at the whole progression - the surrounding chords - we can see how the feel of IV paired with bVII is really made sensible as some Mixolydian shift from the later inclusion of V. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:40
  • In other words C: I bVII IV could be F: V IV I if there wasn't something happening to make C clearly the tonic. That clarification happens with the surrounding chords. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:40

Another angle to approach this from: If you really want to play a certain chord change, say I-IV, but you find it too "slow" or plain, perhaps the key lies not in more complicated harmony, but in better arrangement.

I assume you have your own preferences that lead you to that particular chord change. If you feel something is too slow or plain, try adding a bit more rhythmic complexity. Maybe your bass part doesn't need to just hammer away at the root note (in other words, try inversions). Maybe your parts that are holding down the harmony can have some countermelodic motions and phrases, provifing interest and a sense of motion to an otherwise bland transition. Maybe you just need to play the darn song a little faster. :)

Also, often times the fix can come from removing rather than adding. Do you really need a 13-piece band to play that I-IV cadence in unison? Try splitting up whatever ensemble you have into lines that are more independent of each other (diferent rhythms tends to do the trick). Sometimes, it even makes sense to eschew the tradition of having something playing the chords at all - they can be implied surprisingly well just by melodies and context.

Most of these little tricks fall under the umbrella of arranging/orchestrating techniques, even if you're writing an original song. I'm not saying that harmonic complexity is useless, but I think too often composers get caught up in this idea that the reason their music isn't where they want it to be is because the harmony is too simple (I know I did). Often times, all it takes is a fresh take on the song to turn it from a lifeless set of chords to a living, breathing piece of music.

Oh, and there really is no substitute for trying out as many ideas as possible. That's the only way you'll be able to figure out what you like the sound of, and it'll help you develop your own compositional styles and identity.


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