A Collection of I – iii Chord Progressions

If you’re my age, and incurably white, when you heard this song …

The chorus made you think of this song:

It’s not just the melody. It’s that progression from the tonic chord to the minor chord on the mediant. When I was at the School of Music, we were always taught that, say, Em was a viable substitute for Cmaj. But they’re not substitutes in the world of popular songwriting – oh no, they’re two very different chords, with only one note different (the tonic shifts down to the leading note), and you can use them to make your listeners cry like little girls.

With only one note changing between the two chords, you might expect a songwriter to use that leading note in the melody. Lady Antebellum’s song does, first popping up to the dominant and down to the sweet money spot (“need you now“). So does the Alan Parsons Project song, coming down from the mediant (“I can re-ad your mi-ind”).

I used this chord progression myself, in a heartbreaking song devoted to my testicles, and played with the way the tonic and leading note change functions against the two chords (from chord tone with auxiliary note below, to chord tone with auxiliary note above). But I wasn’t thinking about auxiliary notes, or the Alan Parsons Project. I was thinking of this song:

Laurie Anderson takes the prize. Only two chords, count ‘em: tonic and mediant. Eight and a half minutes.

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About Peter J Casey

Writer of musical theatre, player of piano, producer of radio.

9 responses »

  1. I always wondered why O Superman was dedicate to Massenet on the album. Maybe he used that progression? Or did he have bed-hair too?

    Reply
    • Act III aria from Le Cid (1885), “O souverain, o juge, o père”. If there’s a prominent I-iii progression in it, I don’t hear it.

      Massenet, from what I can gather, had composer hair, when he had hair. Long, swept back romantically …

      Reply
  2. Hmmm.. can you please commit yourself to identifying the chord progressions/shift that make me cry in all the following songs (particularly the first two, oh mercy)…

    1. Video Killed the Radio Star
    2. The Fireman Sam theme
    3. I Touch Myself
    4. Science Fiction/Double Feature from Rocky Horror

    Reply
    • If I had to guess, Lizzi, your tearjerk progression is IV-V-I. It shows up in three of these:

      Fireman Sam – “He’s always on the scene, (FIREman SAM), and his ENG-ine’s …”

      I Touch Myself – “I don’t WANT AN-ybody else”

      Science Fiction/Double Feature – “SCI-ence FIC-tion (Ooh ooh OOH) …”

      As for Video Killed the Radio Star, it happens in reverse (I-V-IV) at “IN my MIND and IN my car, we CAN’T re-WIND, we’ve GONE too far”.

      That last line always makes me teary.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: How To Write a Popular Song and Make Millions: 5 Songwriting Tricks « Informal Flick-Thru

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  6. Peter J Casey

    And here’s another prominent and best-selling instance of the progression: the first two chords in Evanescence’s “My Immortal”.

    In this case, the I and iii chords really are substitutes for one another. The melody gets off the tonic in time to reach the mediant on the second chord, then plays with the dominant and mediant, the two notes common to both chords.

    The sweet spot is the shift to the vi chord, on “it won’t leave me alone” – that’s where it feels like things are moving on.

    Reply

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