What Content Marketers Can Learn from Songwriters: The I-V-vi-IV Approach to Blogging

I’m not a musician. But I married one, and because of that we have musical instruments lying around our house, and because of that our 11-month-old son believes he can point to one and invoke music (see Figure 1).

And guess what: he can, even when I’m taking care of him, thanks to the power of the I-V-vi-IV chord progression.

In other words, because of this extremely simple but wildly versatile song formula, I am able to perform a variety of popular favorites to entertain my son (who, to be fair, is not very picky).

Figure 1: Malcolm gently suggesting our next activity

The best part: during one of our early-morning jam sessions (aka me fumbling through a ukulele arrangement of “Let It Be” while trying not to wake the neighbors), I realized that content marketers can learn a lot from I-V-vi-IV songs.

Here, I’ll explain how you can apply the I-V-vi-IV formula to make blogging easier – without creating content that feels in any way formulaic.

Background: The I-V-vi-IV Chord Progression

The I-V-vi-IV (pronounced “one five six four”) chord progression is really common. How common? Check out this Axis of Awesome video:

As you can hear, everyone from the Beatles to Bob Marley to Maroon Five to the guy who wrote Auld Lang Syne (and pretty much everyone else) has tapped into the power of I-V-vi-IV. And they’ve used it to write some bangers.

When I’m with my husband and a I-V-vi-IV song comes on, he likes to alert me. I’m always surprised because to my untrained ear, these songs sound nothing alike.

And therein lies the power of I-V-vi-IV: it’s a tried-and-true formula that doesn’t sound formulaic. It’s an organizational tool that you can use to make your life easier but that your audience will never notice – except maybe to notice that they enjoy your content or that it hangs together nicely.

Musically, this has to do with the way the chords are related. I won’t get into the details (if you want the nitty gritty, check out this post on StackExchange), but consider this progression a trope of Western music. We’ve heard it so much that we’re expecting these chords to show up together, even if we don’t realize it.

But as you’ll notice when you watch that video, these songs don’t otherwise have that much in common.

In the wild, they’re in different keys. They have different melodies and rhythms. They’re played at different tempos with different instrumentation. The singers’ voices have different qualities. And that’s why we, as listeners, don’t feel like we’re listening to the same song over and over.

Here’s how you can use the same approach – working with a highly effective underlying formula – to consistently create content that resonates with your audience, gets your core message across, and entertains in the process.

I-V-vi-IV Elements of a Blog Post

In songwriting, each Roman numeral refers to a chord. String them together, and you get the core of a song. Here’s how to think about these elements when you’re planning a blog post:

  • I – Subject matter: In songs, the I chord is the key the song is in. For a song in the key of C, the I chord is C major. In blogging, think of the I as your primary subject matter (which might be one of your products or services). In this specific blog post, that subject matter is content marketing. Laaaaaaa.
  • V – Audience: The V chord is the major chord that starts on the fifth note of the key scale. In C, it’s a G major. In blogging, think of your V chord as your audience. This will determine how you position the subject matter. For this blog post, our audience is startup content marketers who are very busy and are looking for ways to make their jobs easier. Laaaa.
  • vi – Anecdote: The vi chord starts on the sixth note of the key scale. It’s in lowercase Roman numerals because it’s a minor chord. In C, the vi chord is A minor. It’s a counterweight to the other chords and provides a nice balance for the song. In blogging, think of your vi chord as humor, personal anecdotes, references to current events, or a framing device. In this post, my vi chord is the story I’m weaving about my musical family, my bumbling role within it, and what all that’s taught me about my job. La.
  • IV – Message: The IV chord is the one that starts on the fourth note of your key scale. In C, the IV chord is F. In blogging, think of your IV chord as the specific message you're conveying about your topic for your audience. Here, my message is that bloggers can learn from songwriters to make their work easier by leaning on a formula – without producing content that sounds formulaic. La la laaaaa!

So how do all these things fit together? Glad you asked.

Putting a I-V-vi-IV Blog Post Together

Note that the I-V-vi-IV chord progression isn’t a structure for a song (it doesn’t address verses, choruses, or bridges). And I’m not suggesting that it can be used as a structure for blog posts, either. Instead, think of the I-V-vi-IV elements as essential components to define before you start actually writing.

By defining your main topic, target audience, related anecdote, and core message before you start writing, you make sure that you’ve got all the elements you need for your blog post to resonate and feel complete.

On the one hand, this is pretty basic.

On the other, defining these things out of the gate can save you a lot of time in writing and editing, if, for example, you’re asking yourself any of the following questions:

  • What should the blog’s primary call to action be? (Depends on your main topic)
  • Do you need a background / definition section? (Depends on your audience)
  • How will this post stand out from all the other posts on this topic? (Fun / timely elements)
  • How the heck do I wrap this up? (Hint: what’s your message?)

Another delight of this formula is that it can help troubleshoot when something isn’t quite working in a blog post. For example…

  • Does a word or phrase sound “off”? Maybe it’s positioned for the wrong audience.
  • Does the post feel a little all over the map? See if you can unify examples and metaphors with a single narrative thread / newsy tie-in / anecdote.
  • Do you feel generally unsatisfied after reading it? Try weaving your anecdote into the conclusion. Aim for three references to this sub-plot throughout the piece.

Chances are, you’re doing a lot of this anyway. But if you aren’t laying it out at the start, you may be spending more time than you need to solving problems in revision.

All the Other Stuff: Melody, Rhythm, Tempo, Instrumentation, Etc.

As I mentioned earlier, the reason I-V-vi-IV songs don’t sound formulaic in music is that the chord progression is just a starting point. It allows for infinite variety in melody, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation, lyrics, genre, production, and more.

The same is true for the I-V-vi-IV blog formula. Rather than a rigid structure (like the five-paragraph essay), it’s a cheat sheet to help you, the content creator, ensure that you’re giving your readers information in a way that will feel satisfying and complete.

Like the chord progression, this formula is versatile because of how broad it is – and wildly useful for anyone tasked with creating new, original content on a regular basis. You can apply it to blog posts for any industry, for any audience, with any supporting narrative element – and it will work every time.

If it’s Good Enough for the Beatles…

When you’re in charge of creating new content for your startup day in and day out, you may feel like you're saying and doing the same things over and over.

First of all, you probably are. And that’s good. Different parts of your audience will respond to different nuances of your message and will come across your content at different times. Variations on a theme is the soul of content marketing.

Secondly, we all love patterns. (Malcolm, for example, loves the pattern where his father comes into the living room each morning and relieves me of ukulele duty.) If your audience consistently finds your content useful, then there’s a good chance they want more of the same.

Finally, repetitive tasks are part of any job, to some extent. Even if the content of every blog post you write is different, the process of writing it is likely similar. The I-V-vi-IV approach to blogging will make the repeated parts easier and faster so that you can pour more energy into the creative parts – and into other parts of your job that require innovation and analysis.

And, I mean, come on. If the I-V-vi-IV approach is good enough for the Beatles, why not give it a spin?

When I find myself in times of (blogging) trouble, I try the I-V-vi-IV method