The Null Device

The Sensitive Female Chord Progression

Musicological concept of the day: the "Sensitive Female Chord Progression" (or vi-IV-I-V, for the musicians), which you have undoubtedly heard numerous times:
Let's call this the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, so named because . . . well, because when I first noticed it in 1998 (when I became keenly aware that Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" sounded an awful lot like Joan Osborne's "One of Us"), it seemed to be the exclusive province of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see. Think Jewel's "Hands." Melissa Etheridge's "Angels Would Fall." Nina Gordon's "Tonight and the Rest of My Life."
So what is the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, exactly? It's simple enough for the music theory-inclined: vi-IV-I-V. No good? Well, for a song in the key of A minor, it would be Am-F-C-G. Still confused? Here's an easy way to see if a song uses the chord progression: Just sing Osborne's lyrics, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?" over the suspect four chords. If it fits, you've just spotted one in the wild. Once you're attuned to it, you'll hear it everywhere.
Composer and conductor Rob Kapilow, who hosts National Public Radio's "What Makes It Great?," says the magic of the Sensitive Female Chord Progression lies in the way it can be played over and over and return smoothly to the first chord each time. "What this allows is for it to be very fluid. You're really not centered anywhere. What it does is not have that kind of resolution, that kind of firm, declarative 'We're here.' That's part of the appeal for rock. You want to just keep cycling."
It's not just the "sensitive female" artists who use this progression; one well-known piece is in Iggy Pop's The Passenger.

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