I, IV, V and Beyond

Joe Burns’s analysis of one hundred rock and roll songs from 1955 to 1959 shows that forty-nine percent of the songs in his sample relied on the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords (I, IV, V).[1] Burns’s study focuses on progressions and their frequency of occurrence. He includes all list of the songs in the study and the distinct progressions or each (for example, I-IV-V or I-ii-V-I). Using his data, I calculated that the average number of chords in the songs in this repertoire is 3.55; narrowing it to the years that coincide with the Everly Brothers (1957-1959) yields an average of 3.63. Richard J. Ripani analyzed twenty-five of the top R&B singles for 1950 to 1959. He calculated the average number of chords in use to be 4.68.[2] The average number of chords used in the Everly Brothers’ songs is 4.65, more closely matching that of rhythm and blues than rock and roll. (A comparable study of country or pop music hits of the same period does not appear to exist so no comparison is readily available.) Nine of their singles rely on the standard I-IV-V progression: “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Should We Tell Him,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Problems,” “This Little Girl of Mine,” “Claudette,” “Be Bop A Lula,” “Leave My Woman Alone,” “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.” The Everlys wrote the first three, “Problems” was written by the Bryants, and the rest were written by others. “(‘Til) I Kissed You” is a three-chord song, but it uses I, V7, and vi, the vi acting as a tonic substitute. The nine I-IV-V singles represent about thirty-five percent of their singles; using Burns’s data and calculating a comparable percentage for the years 1957-1959 shows that approximately forty-four percent of the rock and roll songs in his study relied on this set of chords (Table 7‑6).

Year # songs with I, IV, and V only # songs total percentage with I, IV, and V only
1955 6 9 67%
1956 11 19 58%
1957 11 20 55%
1958 11 25 44%
1959 10 27 37%
1955-1957 49 100 49%
1957-1959 32 72 44%

Early Rock and Roll Chord Analysis


[1] Joe Burns, “The Music Matters: An Analysis of Early Rock and Roll,” Soundscapes – Journal on Media Culture 6 (April, 2003).

[2] Richard J. Ripani, The New Blue Music: Changes in Rhythm & Blues, 1950-1999 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006).

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One Response to “I, IV, V and Beyond”

  1. Mark Aisenberg Says:

    Paula:

    Haven’t seen you in years, but… I stumbled across your site while surfing LinkedIn. I share your interest in music, though I haven’t invested the time to achieve your level of expertise.

    I wonder if you’re aware of the Gold Standard Song List by a guy named Wayne Chase: http://www.goldstandardsonglist.com/Pages_Charts_Graphs/Charts_and_Graphs.html#Figure 1

    I’ve read his book (How Music Really Works), but haven’t explored his list much. Anyway, I learned a lot about chord progressions from the book and though I’d bring this to your attention in case you might find value in it. He spends a lot to time in the book talking about what makes a song successful, harmonic scales, how the brain processes sound, etc. You can read a few chapters online for free, if I recall.

    Cheers.

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