Songs where the chords descend in fourths
April 9, 2009 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for songs that have a particular kind of chord progression. Specifically songs that have long sequences descending by fourths. For example: ii-V-I-IV-vii-III-vi, like in Gary Moore's Still got the Blues, and similarly in Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. I'm pretty certain this is ridiculously common, but for whatever reason, I'm coming up dry.
posted by Zero Gravitas to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Beatles, "You Never Give Me Your Money"
posted by equalpants at 8:39 PM on April 9, 2009

I'll do my best here not knowing enough about musical chord progression, I feel like Bobby Blue Bland might have what you're looking for.
posted by nola at 9:08 PM on April 9, 2009

Giant Steps
posted by Aquaman at 9:11 PM on April 9, 2009

Based on your example, you're looking for chord progressions with roots that ascend in fourths. Giant Steps is not one.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:37 PM on April 9, 2009

Island in the Sun by Weezer?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 9:50 PM on April 9, 2009

My music theory is pretty rusty but I think I understand what you're asking. What comes to mind is Die Moritat von Mackie Messer by Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht.
posted by Kattullus at 10:50 PM on April 9, 2009

Best answer: Googling around I came across this musical theory treatise which has not only Mack the Knife but also You Never Give Me Your Money and your example, "ii-V-I-IV-vii-III-vi," all in the same section. Here are the songs it gives following this pattern:

“America,” v. lines 1–2 (lyrics by Samuel Smith, 1827 set to Anacreon Forever)
“Mack the Knife,” every even-numbered line (Kurt Weill, 1928)
(alternates w/ I ii V I)
“Tell Me Why,” v., ch. (Beatles, ‘64)
“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” (Beatles , ‘65)
“Good Day Sunshine,” v. (Beatles, ‘66)
“When I’m Sixty Four,” v. last line (Beatles , ‘67) ||: I VI ii V I :||
“Alice’s Restaurant,” v. (Arlo Guthrie, ‘67) ||: I VI ii V I :||
“Rocky Raccoon,” v., ref. (Beatles, ‘68)
“Joanna,” v. (Kool & the Gang, ‘83)
posted by Kattullus at 11:39 PM on April 9, 2009

Best answer: I agree with ludwig. These chords are ascending in 4ths (or descending in 5ths). Most jazz stadards do this. Most pop songs also do this. Heck, most of western music does it. Basically, you're hitching a ride on the cycle of fifths. Even the resolution of most songs (V7 -> I) is a short ride on the cycle.

If you're interested in songs with long chains of fifths in them (a la Gloria Gaynor), here are a few that do it a LOT:

Autumn Leaves
Fly me to the Moon
Europa (Santana)

There's a reason why this is so common. It has to do with the resolution I mentioned above. The V7 introduces an instability (the tri-tone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord). The dissonant chord tones resolve to consonant ones in the I chord. This makes the chord progression seem to move forward (prograde motion).

Now, you can introduce a II7 to the beginning of this progression: II7 -> V7 -> I. This is called a secondary dominant (because V is called dominant and the II7 is like a dominant to the dominant). This gives you two cycle of fifths jumps in a row. Even some of the most basic music has secondary dominants. Rocky Racoon, mentioned above, resolves to C from G7. It gets to the G7 from the secondary dominant D7. It gets to the D7 from the tertiary dominant Am7. Cool. Also cool: there's a descending chromatic voice on the E string of the guitar that matches this prograssion with chord-tones (G, F#, F, E).

Once you start thinking about this, you realize that you can just keep moving forward through the cycle to create long chains of fifths. This takes you away from the key you're in pretty quickly, but still sounds natural to the ear. The real trick is how you get back to your original key. Each of the songs I listed above comes up with a very clever way to do this.

The 12 bar blues is famous for NOT doing this. It's called retrograde motion because it resolves from the IV to the I, which is the opposite of the V -> I motion of the cycle. Interestingly enough, most blues turnarounds reinsert the cycle in the last two measures, so even 12 bar respects the cycle in a way.

There's one other famous example of NOT doing it: the 'Amen' they used to sing at the end of hymns when I was a kid. That went from IV to I and was called the plagal cadence.
posted by stubby phillips at 4:45 AM on April 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

Note: "prograssion" is a Music Theory Term that I just made up. It means "progression".
posted by stubby phillips at 5:43 AM on April 10, 2009

Spinning Wheel doesn't have as long a chain of descending fifths as many of these examples (only four links), but it uses it over and over.
posted by dfan at 8:54 AM on April 10, 2009

Two standards that do this a lot are "All the Things You Are" and "Round Midnight."
posted by jalexc at 8:57 AM on April 10, 2009

I endorse everything stubby phillips said, but I have to pick this nit:

Rocky Racoon, mentioned above, resolves to C from G7. It gets to the G7 from the secondary dominant D7. It gets to the D7 from the tertiary dominant Am7.

Am7 is not a dominant chord. If the chord were A7 this statement would be true.

Also note that the secondary dominant which stubby refers to as II7 is often labeled, particularly in classical theory, as V/V, and pronounced "five of five." Secondary dominants can also lead to other chords in the key -- you could have a V/vi or V/ii, for example.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:25 AM on April 10, 2009

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performed several songs with this chord progression at the same time, including "Fly Me to the Moon," "Love Story (Where Do I Begin)," "Killing Me Softly With His Song," "Hotel California," and "I Will Survive." I'm not sure "Killing Me Softly" originally had that chord structure, but at least it fits. :)
posted by pmdboi at 10:05 AM on April 10, 2009

Regarding Giant Steps, from wikipedia:

"The changes serve as a pattern of chord substitutions for the ii-V-I progression (supertonic-dominant-tonic)"

Sure it's pretty obscured in the welter of changes, but I think the general root progression would apply to OP's question, no?
posted by Aquaman at 10:23 AM on April 10, 2009

No, not really. It has some ii-V-Is in it, like every jazz tune ever, but it's not based on cycle of fifths progressions. One of the distinct features of Giant Steps is the way the key centers move in major thirds.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:32 AM on April 10, 2009

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