The IV-V-iii-vi chord progression is, in my experience, the definitive chord progression in modern Japanese music, particularly in pop music. That said, I’ve heard it in many different genres. One theory is that it originated from 80′s European dance/pop music. It is indeed the chorus to the classic Rickroll, “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, among many other songs from that era. Why this progression is so popular in Japan, but not used much outside the Eastern music world, I don’t know. It’s a catchy, versatile progression that can sound upbeat and fun in some situations, or lonely and melancholy in others. In this article, I’m going to show you what it sounds like and explain how it’s used.
In the key of C, a IV-V-iii-vi is F Major, G Major, E Minor, A Minor. Oftentimes, 7ths are added: Fmaj7, G7, Em7, Am7. It is often followed by a IV-V-I or a ii-V-I, before being repeated. Here is an example in the key of G, one of Yui’s image songs from the anime K-On!
The chords drive the song forward in a very upbeat way. Part of this may have to do with it starting on the IV chord. To my ears, the IV chord has a sense of movement, it wants to go somewhere. The V chord is a natural place to go from the IV, but rather than resolve to the I like in the cadence that follows, it moves to the iii chord, Bm7. Since Bm7 shares 3 notes with D (the entire D chord actually), this is a smooth transition. The Bm7 then resolves at Em7. The iii chord resolves very strongly to the vi chord, and that relationship will be explored more in-depth in another article when I discuss alterations to this basic progression.
Here’s another example in the key of Bb that makes use of the 7ths a little more. This is Lisbeth’s image song from the anime Sword Art Online.
This example adds a 7th to the IV chord, and inverts the V chord so that its 7th is on the bass. It still sounds very upbeat, with a little more of a jazz feel to it. The melody here accentuates the major 7th in the Eb chord (the first note of the chorus is a D). The melody keeps things sounding positive by ending the 2nd bar with the root note, Bb, over the Gm7 chord.
Lastly, here’s an example of the chord progression used in a slower, more solemn manner. This is another song from Sword Art Online, this time Suguha’s image song. Notice how the chords aren’t changing as quickly as in the last two examples, so there’s no need for extra chords to bridge the gap between different parts of the chorus.
Despite the different extensions such as 9ths and 11ths, it’s still a IV-V-iii-vi. As in the last example, the melody emphasizes the extensions of these chords, with the 7th of Cmaj9 being used prominently in the first two bars. The 7th of Bm11 is also made clear as the melody alternates between A and G in bar 5.
There are many different uses for this chord progression, and it doesn’t always have to be in a chorus. It’s great as a prechorus, or to throw into a more complex chord sequence as a little segment in the bigger picture. As a popular chord progression, it can be found everywhere, especially in mainstream Jpop music. In a future article, I will discuss variations on this chord progression, with chord inversions, quality changes, and substitutions.