YOUR MUSIC: I-IV-V (and a “Fun” case study)


Kalman “Passover Song” — notation with lyrics

Calvin “Song 1”

Keagoe “Oak Life”

Danica “Ballad” — Danica’s ballad


CASE STUDY: Fun. “We Are Young”


I chose this song because it’s the current #1 song on the Billboard chart. While “We Are Young” doesn’t use only I, IV and V chords, it does rely on these chords to signal important points of transition and arrival in the progression of the song. Set in the key of F major, here is an outline of the song’s form and chordal structure (each chord is held two measures, except for those in parenthesis which together last for two measures):

0:08  Verse (X2):                I – vi – ii – (IV – V)

0:41   Pre-chorus:              (ii – iii ) (vi – V – ii) (ii – V)

0:49   Chorus (X2):             I – vi – IV – (I – V)

1:31    Verse:                          I – vi – ii – (IV – V)

1:51    Chorus (X2):             I – vi – IV – (I – V)

2:33   Bridge (X4):              (I – IV) (vi – V)

3:14    Chorus (X2):             I – vi – IV – (I – V)

3:55    Pre-Chorus:             (ii – iii ) (vi – V – ii) (ii – V)

4_05  Final cadence:         I

First, note that each and every line above ends with a V chord, thus creating a sense of anticipation at the end of each phrase that is satisfied (in every instance except the pre-chorus) by a I chord that begins the next progression. In accordance with standard tonal procedure, however, this satisfaction is fleeting since each phrase ends on an imperfect cadence, that is, a V chord (preceded somewhere along the way by a IV chord) which only pays off momentarily at the beginning of the next progression. For the listener familiar with Western tonal practice, ending every phrase in this manner is likely to create a sense of continual longing. Under the right circumstances, this can likewise translate to heightened emotionality or even an anthemic grandeur. Of course, many other factors come into play in creating this impact among listeners so-inclined, including instrumental arrangement, vocal range and timbre, use of melisma, lyrics expressing melancholy or grandiosity, and so on.

Further reinforcing this sense of perpetual longing is the fact that each of the progressions in “We Are Young”, except for the pre-chorus, is some permutation of the “doo-wop progression.” Since the late 1950s and early 1960s, this progression has served as shorthand for teenage romantic disillusionment and angst—but with a tinge of the ecstatic, i.e., pleasure and pain intertwined. The 1960s “girls group” combos were also well-known for using this progression, and for years now it’s been in vogue again in songs across the spectrum from indie pop to mainstream pop (check out this medley if you can tolerate an out-of-tune guitar).

It’s in the chorus that “We Are Young” comes closest to the standard doo-wop progression (I – vi – IV  – V). The I chord as the penultimate chord, slipped in between the IV and V chords, simply adds another twist of the screw before ending on the dominant. What’s more, the staccato eighth-notes piano chords outline the progression in a stereotypical 50s/doo-wop/girl group style that further heightens the wistful emotional rush of the chorus, especially taken together with the soaring vocal line. However, it could be argued that the song achieves something more than straight-up nostalgia or emotional string-pulling. The use of the “teenybopper” chords, when combined with tempo shifts and an idiosyncratic arrangement, arguably takes this familiar musical structure into a new realm.

Here is another analysis of the song, accompanied by an acoustic version where the chordal progression is made even more clear.


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