The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression

In previous entries, I mentioned that there are certain musical patterns that occur over and over again in songs.

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common chord progressions in popular music, what I call the Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression, or the Avril Lavigne progression for short.

I’ll explain why I call it that in a minute, but here’s what the chord progression looks like:

C | G | A- | F

As a slight variation, it oftens starts on the third chord, but it is essentially the same progression:

A-   | F | C | G

This song was used in literally countless of  ‘alternative’ hits from the 90s. A few examples off the top of my head include “When I Come Around” by Greenday, “Self Esteem” by the Offspring, “Glycerine” and “Machine Head” by Bush X, and “Good” by Better Than Ezra. From the 80s there was of course U2’s ‘With or Without You”.

Surprisingly (or not so much) it still continues to be used in contemporary music today. While I was driving with my friend through the Tim Horton’s drivethrough a couple months ago, three recent songs in a row on the radio had this same progression. Two of them were in the same key!

I call this chord pattern the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression because two of her hit songs in the previous decade featured it (‘Complicated” and the end of the chorus of “My Happy Ending”).  But I could have called it the Lady Gaga progression, because two of her hit songs feature it as well (The choruses of “Poker Face” and “Papparazzi”). I haven’t made an exhaustive list of all the songs this progression is found in, but its in lots.

Why do chord progressions like this keep getting used over and over again, and few people seem to notice?

Well one reason chord progressions are continually reused is, as many jazz musicians learned during the 1940s, you can’t copyright a chord progression. So any chord progression that musicians like (e.g. for the purposes of improvisation) or is commercially successful are bound to be used over and over, forever seemingly, as long as it has a new melody (and lyrics as the case may be).

Back to the “Avril Lavigne” progression, what might its origin be?

If we want to reduce the progression to just I, IV and V chords, the A- or vi chord in the key of see could be seen as a substitution for C, the tonic:

C | G | C | F

So in other words, the G proceeds to A- in the manner of what is called a ‘deceptive’ cadence, where V goes to vi (G to A- respectively) rather than to I (C).  So it may be a rather bland progression with a bit of colour added to it so to speak by the deceptive cadence.

I think there’s something more to it than that however.

One of the most iconic chord progressions in genre of classical music (baroque to be specific) is found in Pachabel’s Canon (shown in C):

||: C | G | A- | E- | F | C | F | G : ||

The underlying musical structure of this is a descending major scale:

C – B – A – G – F – E – D – (D)

The chord progression is essentially harmonization of this descending pattern.

Harmonizing a descending major scale is a very common musical device across many genres, not just classical music.

Take the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, composed by Harold Arlen for The Wizard of Oz, this is probably the most famous example of basing a melody on a descending melodic scale and disguising it by melodic ornamentation in a popular song (I’m not going to do the analysis of that song here but I’m sure if you ‘google’ it you’ll find an apt analysis on some other music nerd’s website).

In any event, my belief is the “Avril Lavigne” progression is an abbreviated version of the progression in Pachabel’s Canon, which is basically a harmonization of a descending major scale. A number of popular songs from the late 60s and early 70s used this progression or close variations of it, including “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harem, “In the Presence of the Lord” by Blind Faith, and “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes. In the case of these songs the original melodic pattern, the descending major scale, is actually played as the bass line.

Somewhere along the line, musicians just used the first three chords of the Pachabel’s Canon progression, skipped the fourth, and added the fifth chord on the end.

That’s my theory, I’ll leave it to music historians to verify this claim with empirical evidence. Personally I’m more interested in writing music, and no one can deny that the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression is used over and over in popular music, even to this day. I’m not exaggerating this in the least, it is so commonly used that it is almost absurd. If you write music, you need to know this because: A) if you’re trying to do something original you probably want to avoid using it; and B) if you want to write a catchy song, you may want to consider including this progression, only I would suggest trying to disguise it in various ways.

Music that is popular and memorable always features a perfect balance of the novel and the familiar. Remember that great artists, don’t borrow, they steal. In other words, they make it completely their own. So if they ‘lift’ a musical pattern from another successful song, they don’t simply plagiarize it, that’s “borrowing”, which is unoriginal (also illegal if it’s a copyrighted melody). They add their own touch and original flair to it, so often you don’t even know they ‘stole’ anything, let alone who from!

Some people think that analyzing music ruins your creativity. I tend to think that knowing how other music works is necessary in making anything original, otherwise how do you know it hasn’t been done before?

To conclude, the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression is an example of a musical ‘meme’ that, like it or not, and for whatever reason, has been extremely successful at propagating itself, similar to a virus. In my humble opinion, artists should be aware of as many of these memes as possible, if for no other reason than to know whether they are following a trend, or being trend setters.

Until next time,

Bryne

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2 Responses to The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression

  1. Jack says:

    Great analysis of pop music on this and all your entries!
    For more on ‘the Avril Lavigne SCP”, have you seen Axis of Awesome’s “four chord song” video! I have long been aware of a) how often this progression is used and b) how just about every massively memorable and stick in your mind-ly song uses it! Basically from years of accompanying vocal students on songs they bring in to perform – about half of them seem to use this progression – and lets be honest, it’s actually a damn good progression. But really we should rename it the “Waltzing Matilda” chord progression – cause that clearly predates most of the great hits it spawned!
    Once again, great work on this site!

  2. brynecarruthers says:

    Hi Jack, sorry for the delayed reply, thanks for so much for checking the site out and taking time to comment.

    It’s nice to have a number of my observations about that chord progression verified by an accomplished and learned musicians such as yourself, makes me feel slightly less crazy. That four chord song is proof that neither of us are being the least bit hyperbolic when we say that progression is used all the freaking time, thanks for sharing. It is a great progression, I might write another entry on the phenomenology of it. I hadn’t heard Waltzing Matilda in years, its good to know where those chords come from historically speaking. I still like calling it the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression, the goal of this site for better or for worse is not historical accuracy but rather fun. 😀

    I’ll take the opportunity to plug your website and awesome tunes again: http://jacks-head.tumblr.com/

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