What Avril Lavigne Doesn’t Want You to Know About Her Songs: The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression Revisited


Avril, we’re onto you.

In today’s entry I’m going to delve into how the ‘Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression’ got its name (see previous entry on subject), and why anyone would want to know about this.

When I was 15, my sister gave me a book of Frank Zappa guitar solos for Christmas. I had only been playing guitar for about a year, and it was a little too advanced for me at the time (it was transcribed in painstaking detail by guitar virtuoso Steve Vai), but it was a cool gift and made a lasting impression, though perhaps not in the way my sister intended.

One of the songs in the book was entitled  “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression”. This tongue-in-cheek title referred to the ubiquitous ii – V chord progression, which Santana employed in two of his most famous hit songs, “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va” (and possibly countless others, I’m not much of a Santana expert).


Carlos sez: “Franz Schubert died penniless and I made millions playing the same two chords over and over “

Years later, when I heard the same chord progression (iv-IV-I-V) in two of Avril Lavigne’s hit songs (“Complicated” and “My Happy Ending”) I decided to name it the ‘Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression” (since to do something that uncreative you’d have to believe it was going to make you a ton of money and hope no one would notice). I had of course heard it previously in countless other alternative rock hits from the 90s, but this title had a nice ring to it. It was also a sort of tribute to Frank Zappa, one of my all-time musical heroes for his ability to write songs about seemingly any subject, no matter how vulgar or absurd (notable tracks include “The Muffin Man” and “Why Does it Hurt When I Pee?”).



I should make the distinction here that when this chord pattern occurs in Avril Lavigne’s songs, it begins on the 6th or submediant scale degree:

||: vi IV | I V : ||

While in many other songs it starts on the tonic chord:

||: I V | vi IV : ||

I suppose I could call this permutation the “With or Without You” or “When I Come Around” progression, since these were probably the biggest hit songs featuring this progression in the 80s and 90s respectively.

“The Avril Lavigne Secret Chord Progression” however sounds better to my ears, not to mention the fact that you can kind of disguise it by changing the order of the chords, so the title shall remain aptly named.

This progression is one I rarely use when I write music, in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever used it in one of my songs. I tend to rely on variations of the I-IV-V and I-vi-ii-V progressions when I’m writing pop songs, but I also will use variations of the ‘classic rock’ progression (I-bVII-IV) when I’m going for that style (usually when writing something campy).

My goal for this website is to present information that is practical in nature, so as luck would have it, I was working on a melody last night based on the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression, and came up with this:

(©2013 Bryne Carruthers to all you wanna-be swagger-jackers out there)

I didn’t sit down with the intention to write a melody using this progression, I was just playing ‘how I feel’. I like to practice playing the progression to “Pachabel’s Canon” in all 12 keys (this progression is quite enjoyable to play if you’re a keyboardist and music geek like myself) so that may be where this came from (see my previous post on the ‘Avril Lavigne’ progression). It helps confirm my inner music-nerd belief that the “Avril Lavigne” progression may ultimately be derived from the descending harmonized major scale that forms the basis of Pachabel’s Canon in D (played below).

So like I said Avril, we are onto you. If I’m starting to use your secret chord progression in my music, it’s probably time to come up with some new @*#$ (cue Zappa’s “Bobby Brown” from Sheik Yerbouti).


Best album ever

Until next time,

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