Practical Chord Progressions: IV (The Subdominant or “Neighborhood Chord”)

If you’ve completed the first two exercises in this series, then you should already be getting a feel for the idea of a harmonic home. So far, however, we’ve basically stayed there on the I, borrowing the V only to reinforce our sense of place. Whole songs can be written with those two chords, but let’s start getting (slightly) more adventurous and explore our immediate harmonic neighborhood. We’re going to stick with C major as our I, so that makes G major our V and F major our IV (here’s a chart). And again, if you’re itching to write, feel free to skip the background section at first.

If we stick with the metaphor of distance from home, then the IV, or subdominant chord, is almost as close to the I as the V. We can think of the IV and V together as our immediate neighborhood. Moving around this harmonic space keeps things more interesting than staying on the I, but it never takes us that far from home.

So what’s so special about the IV, and what is its relationship to our other two chords?

For starters, the relationship between the I and the IV is almost the same as the relationship between the V and the I. Just as the V has a magnetic pull toward the I, so does the I have a magnetic pull toward the IV. The only difference is that when we do a good job of establishing a sense of place on the I, the pull toward the IV is weaker. [For the more curious, notice that C major functions as the V when F major is the I]

Think of the relationships this way: when you’re sitting at home, you sometimes get bored and want to go for a walk, just to clear the air a little. Where should you go? If you just want to walk around your street, go to the V. But if you want to go out to the surrounding streets, go to the IV.

One thing you’ll notice is that when you move from I to IV, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a new location. You can hang out on the IV for a while and there won’t be the same pull back home we found with the V (let’s say it’s because there’s more to do on the surrounding streets than your immediate street).

Now if you want to return to your starting point, you have two choices: you can either rush directly back to the I or you can make a smoother journey through the V.

Once all three chords are in play, we’re getting close to the so-called “three chord trick”. Most of the blues and a good deal of rock ‘n roll is built from these chords alone. Since it’s not the purpose of this site to get too deep into conventional progressions, I won’t have much more to say about blues progressions, but I’ll mention that part of their power is in the strong sense of home they maintain, which allows for simple and direct melodic exploration, as well as more adventurous rhythmic and melodic ideas.

Hopefully you’re curious to see how this all actually sounds! That is the point, right? So let’s develop on exercises one and two and see what the IV adds to the mix.

Get comfortable on the I chord again (we’re using C major). Come up with a melody or revisit your old one. Jump to the V (G major for us right now) and back again from time to time. Get a sense of home.

Now focus on how limited this is. Wouldn’t it be nice to go somewhere new? Well, don’t just wish for it; move to the IV (F major).

You’re in a new location now. Can you hear that? Try singing the same melody you sang over the I. It feels a little different here, doesn’t it? Notes take on different meanings depending on where you are harmonically, and this is a simple example of that.

Reading a book at home feels different from reading that same book at the local coffee shop, right? Think of the IV in this way, as a new environment in which old ideas can take on new meanings, and new ideas can sound even more fresh.

Ok, now you should be establishing a sense of place on the IV. But if you don’t return to the I, you’ll start to lose a sense of home. You can jump back to the I for an abrupt reminder. Or, to really get that satisfying sense of return, move to the V first. Once you’re on the V, you should feel that familiar pull home.

Now here’s a nice trick: stick with that tension for a moment. It’s more satisfying to get what you want when you have to wait a little, right? Same principle here. Establish a desire to return to the I first, and then go there.

If you’re not coming up with anything you like, try starting with a little melody on the I. Then move to the IV and repeat it. Now go up to the V and see what happens. You’re getting very close to the blues here, so chances are you’ll hear a new melody as soon as you hit that V. Play around with that idea for a while.

And of course you’re now free to move between these three chords in any order. A staggering number of songs stick mainly to these three chords, so it’s possible that you could build a small career on this harmonic neighborhood alone.

But we won’t settle for that, right? Tune in next time and we’ll explore a much more dangerous location, the relative minor!



How to Explore Your Neighborhood (remember: you should be singing a melody as you go!)

  1. Get comfortable on the I (we’re using C major), moving to the V (G major) and back again from time to time to establish a sense of home.
  2. Journey out to the IV (F major). Notice how you’ve entered a new location. Play around with that.
  3. Return home, either directly to the I for an abrupt reminder, or go to the V first for a smoother, more satisfying transition.
  4. Keep exploring! The possibilities are endless with these three chords alone.

Next: vi (The Shadowy Twin)

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John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

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