Help me unlock the power of the four chords.
May 29, 2009 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Why exactly is the appeal of those notorious four chords in pop music? I hear them everywhere, and I am starting to lose my shit.

Like many people, I'd been making fun of "the four chords" for years before the Axis of Awesome spoof hit the internet. I had wryly accepted that many songs I like are essentially the same as some of my less favourite songs (even though the starting place of the chords is sometimes switched up: one version goes 1, 2, 3, 4, and another goes 3, 4, 1, 2).

But lately mirth has been giving way to indignation and bafflement. Every day I hear crappier and crappier versions of the same melody. When I do, I grit my teeth and wonder:

1. Can anyone explain why people are emotionally sucked in by this particular chord cycle? My google-fu has failed to turn up any serious account of its popularity. Is there one? Or even a more general account of affective responses to music that could help explain the phenomenon? Or just a bloody hunch?

2. How self-aware is the songwriting/recording industry about this? Do the bigwigs just say, "We need a hit. You know what to do"? (I know it doesn't explain Arthur Russell and David Byrne doing it, but still.)

3. Who started this horror? Pachelbel/Green Day misses by a hair, and I think it's only the Pet Shop Boys' cover of "Always On My Mind" that goes there; the older Elvis version has a bass note in chord 2 that changes it.

Apologies for the many questions. They all boil down to a single howl of frustration.
posted by Beardman to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 130 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're looking at it from the wrong side of the equation--somebody has to play those songs, and the fewer, and easier, the chords, the better. I'm a beginning guitarist, and am thankful for the myriad songs that I can play with relative ease. Beatles? No way. Eagles? Yeah!
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:55 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Predictability is a comforting feature of songs. It's easier to sing along when you've got a good chance of singing the right note.

2. You don't need this song structure to make a hit. There are many other standard templates/tempos/dynamics that have been used in thousands of hits (and misses).

3. Impossible to know.

From a guitar perspective, these chords feel "natural" when writing a song. Sure they've been done to death, but you have a limited palette to choose from.

For pop music it's the voice and the image of the performer that sells - the underlying song structure may be all too familiar, but few Akon fans are going to be pissed because it sounds like Journey.
posted by Paid In Full at 10:57 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: When I was in sixth grade, I realized that Cinderella's "don't know what you've got" had the same chords as the Beatles' "Let it Be". I got over it.

Basically, using the tonic, dominant, and subdominant (look 'em up in Wikipedia) is the basis for almost all Western music theory.

Basically, it's like telling a story. Start out with your main character (tonic). Heap on some adversity (subdominant). See how character responds to this adversity/climax (dominant). Then wrap up the story (tonic again).

a II-V-I turnaround is like a false climax or a plot twist.
posted by notsnot at 11:01 AM on May 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

it all started around a campfire.
posted by philip-random at 11:08 AM on May 29, 2009

There is a reason why this particular chord structure is so popular, and it has to do with harmony (the part of musical theory that says what sounds "good" with).
posted by _dario at 11:10 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: On a pedantic note, you're talking about chord progressions, not chords.

There's realistically only seven chords available to you (barring key changes and the fact that most people won't distinguish a D7 from a D or Cmin7 from Cm), and a lot of those transitions sound really weird, so there's really not all that much available to a songwriter. Frankly if you heard a song that completely broke the mold in terms of chord leading, you'd say "This doesn't sound right, this guy sucks at writing music".

This is sort of like complaining that every car uses four wheels and that's why there aren't any original-looking cars anymore - it's not the fact that the '08 Mustang has four wheels that makes it suck, it's the fact that it's a shitty-looking underperforming car that makes it suck. Sticking an extra wheel in the middle isn't going to make it any better. For example, blues music is extensively based on the same standard set of chord progressions but is definitely not lacking in originality. People like peppy G C Am D songs the same way they like formulaic teen slasher movies and chocolate for dinner. It's fun, get over it.

Regarding (1): I don't know of a from-first-principles argument, but the "chords sequences that resolve to the tonic" principle is well-known and well-documented.
(2): It's Really Really Hard to build a song that people will like without using a well-understood chord progression. In music, familiarity breeds enjoyment; studio execs don't want experimental prog-blues-fusion on the radio because that's not what 90% of people want to hear.
(3): Keep going back. Way back. Music theory is oooooold.
posted by 0xFCAF at 11:15 AM on May 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

I would agree that music theory is old, you could essentially trace it back to the cavemen...However, our western music theory is basically based on about 250 years of music. This chordal pattern that happens over and over, is basically the main reason I listen to jazz. I know that the same patterns exist there also, however, it seems to my ear to use much more interesting chords. Just my 2 cents.
posted by snoelle at 11:22 AM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: Here's my theory:

It's very similar to the standard doo-wop progression, which goes back at least to the '50s: I vi IV V, or C A minor F G (if you're in the key of C). Most doo-wop songs use this (e.g. Earth Angel), and so do some later songs (e.g. I Will Always Love You).

It just takes some very minor, unadventurous tweaking to get from I vi IV V ... to I V vi IV, which is the progression you're talking about (a quintessential example being Let It Be, as noted above). Once you decide to go from I to V, instead of I to vi, the rest kind of just "falls into place."

But that doesn't explain why I V vi IV seems to now be preferred over the very similar I vi IV V.

Here's my guess. You can get a feel for what's happening if you focus on the last chord (IV) resolving to the beginning of the progression (I) -- for instance, F to C (again, assuming you're in C). Why is this (potentially) more satisfying than the progression that ends on V before going back to I? Well, V to I is traditionally the most important resolution in Western music. I to V back to I is what all of Mozart is based on. (Listen to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik!) Later on, composers like Schubert (a very early Romantic composer -- early 19th century) started venturing more into using IV in place of V (though V continued to be important). Somehow, this seems to loosen things up a little. It feels slightly less grandiose and formal. V to I is more of an overt resolution of tension; IV to I feels more relaxing. It's not an accident that Paul McCartney chose to sing "let it be" over the F to C resolution.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:38 AM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: People like peppy G C Am D songs the same way they like formulaic teen slasher movies and chocolate for dinner. It's fun, get over it.

I think what gets under my skin is that the emotional effect isn't what I'd call peppy, but kind of yearning and earnest. That tends to be the lyrical content that gets paired with the chords (cf. my links, with the exception of the Russell/Byrne disco number). And that seems to be at odds with the dervitative chord progression. "This is my deep, deep song; that I borrowed from a lot other deep, deep songs."

So maybe the better analogy would be sappy romantic dramas, not teen slasher flicks?
posted by Beardman at 11:41 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to understand this stuff. How would this fit on the everything2 page linked above? It seems to me it's something like I-V-III-IV but I don't see that anywhere.
posted by bink at 11:43 AM on May 29, 2009

I don't hear it. By which I mean as someone who has no real musical talent and damn near zero musical training, I can't hear the magic chord progression as common. I think that's part of the reason why. You can hear it because you know what's going on. Untrained plebeians like me just go "Hey that's catchy!"

And you should blame Pachelbel.
posted by chairface at 11:43 AM on May 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

I am positive the recording industry pop hit factory lords are aware of this.

Related: Early Britney Spears songs- Hit Me Baby, Drive Me Crazy, Oops I blah blah blah blah
are all basically the same song.

Same with Toxic and Womanizer.

there are infinite examples...
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

OK, I realize it's example 5 from that page. Never mind.
posted by bink at 11:55 AM on May 29, 2009

And you should blame Pachelbel.

As the OP pointed out, Pachelbel's Canon doesn't use this chord progression.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:05 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: As 0xF says, "in music, familiarity breeds enjoyment" ... at least it does in pop born of Western European music theory. Or at least it has for a while now. However, I find that the problem is not that the chords used are frequently exactly the same (although that's a big part of it).

It's that (many) people putting a bunch of these tunes together of which you speak often choose to not bother doing little tiny things to the chords to change em up, or make them more interesting. They write boring-ass melodies. They don't use interesting sounds or rhythms, or arrange the song in a way that you have not already been beat over the head with a zillion times. Perhaps music schooling would help some of these people see more options, perhaps not, or perhaps they simply wouldn't care that they could do something a little more inventive. (I think ZZTop once said in an interview, something like "it's a good thing we can make this music with only 4 chords, 'cause that's all we know.")

Now I'm not saying making stuff that's been done to death into something that sounds fresh is easy to do, given the limitations of the even-tempered scale that we seem to have been stuck in for a while now... but to me, that's the genius of good pop songwriters, and I don't think there's a whole lot of those. And, even when those guys write great stuff, there's no guarantee your ears will ever get to hear it : ).

Finally you also have the fact that every time new peeps are born, everything is new to them. Perhaps with the ubiquity of easily accessible music all over the internets, over time, we will get more and more interesting pop-ular stuff happening.
posted by bitterkitten at 12:07 PM on May 29, 2009

When I was taking guitar lessons, certain classic chord progressions were introduced to me. They're standard in folk, rock, and pop music and can create infinite variety within that form. Giving each chord in a given key a Roman numeral name, you get I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII. In a major key, the II, III, and VI are minor chords. Musicians sometimes use these chord names to call out a progression to others, and they can be used no matter what key you're in.

So some songs are I, IV, and V songs - the major-key, happy, G-C-D or E-A-D songs like "Gloria" or "Peaceful Easy Feeling." Most blues songs fit the I, IV, V pattern. Some songs are are I, IV, V, IIm songs in which the minor chord is thrown in to 'darken' the piece. And some of course can be more complex. But these patterns have existed in Western music for a long time, and are very very common in simple (non-fine-art, non-church) musics like folk and rock music. I wager there hasn't been a time when this progression was out of fashion - I can think of Child Ballads whose melodies fit that chording. it's like asking when a part of the alphabet was in fashion. So it's not that someone 'invented' it. Some musicians discover this through ear training, some are taught the theory behind it, but we're all working in the Western pop music vernacular and this is just part of it.

Better talk about chord progressions.
posted by Miko at 12:07 PM on May 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't have a guitar at hand and my ear isn't that good, but the progression in question sounds like I, V, VIm, IV. Part of the 'hook' of that progression is that it's sort of reversed - to Western ears, the V sounds like the 'climax' moment with the highest notes in the key. Putting the IV in as the last chord in the progression thus makes the phrase feel unresolved, which lends itself well to wrapping back around and starting another verse or going nuts on a chorus.

The questions you're asking and the comparisons you're making and the ideas you're developing are the stuff of music theory and musicology. You'd probably be really interested in a music theory class. Music theory is just that - a way of quantifying, describing, and explaining just why music seems to 'work,' or not, within a specific tonal system. Songwriters definitely do think about this stuff, whether they have language and training for it or are approaching it more expressively and in a self-taught manner, so another thing you might like is listening to the series Art of the Song in which songwriters talk about stuff like this.
posted by Miko at 12:15 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: The harmonic relationship between chords that this progression contains are rock-solid, absolutely fundamental components of western music going back hundreds of years. They're the biggies, the faithful stand-bys, the starting points in one sense or another for a tremendous proportion of written music.

In music theory parlance, the chords you're dealing with are:

- the tonic (I), the root chord of the key in which the song is written (so, e.g., C major if the song is in the key of C major),
- the dominant (V), which is a major chord whose root note is the fifth of the tonic (so G major, based on the G note in the C major built out of C-E-G),
- the subdominant (IV), a major chord whose fifth is the root note of the tonic (so F major, which is built of F-A-C),
- the submediant (vi), a minor chord that share two tones with the tonic but which has a sixth instead of a fifth (so A minor, which share the C and E of the C major chord but is built A-C-E, with that A as its root in place of the G that the tonic has).

That may look like throwing jargon around for the hell of it, but all of the above is day one Music Theory 101 stuff. Why these chords work and produce an emotional response is a huge question, but it's not one that practically answers your question of why these chords and these particular progressions get so much practical use, so setting that aside:

Practical use is key. Writing a song without a tonic chord isn't strictly impossible, but neither is writing a novel without the letter E in it. Possible does not equal practical, though. So stunts aside, your song is going to have a tonic in it.

Ditto for writing songs with only one chord. Doable but not something you see happening much, because movement is a big part of what makes music interesting. So, a couple chords, at least. And that second chord to go along with your tonic is almost certainly going to be the dominant. Why? Because it sounds good. It has a strong, meaty feel to it. Just going back and forth between the I and the V feels like something's going on, and it's something that has oomph. It's movement. The tonic sets the tone, the jump to the dominant gets big and triumphant, the return (the "resolution") to the tonic makes it feel like things got settled.

In a really aggressively reductive sense you could look at western music composition as consisting of (1) the tonic, (2) the dominant, and (3) whatever else happens on the path from the one to the other.

Again: chord transitions are about movement. A sense, in an abstract way, of a change of state, of something that we'll probably never totally understand in psychoacoustics and acculturation that maps the transition from one harmonic moment to another to a feeling or a set of feeling.

The subdominant produces a sense of movement like the dominant does, but with a different sort of impact, and moving between the tonic and it has what you might call a softer feel—movement, but not necessarily so decisive a feeling. It keeps the root note of the tonic in place—the C in a C major piece—and so that feeling that we're on steady-ish ground remains even with the chord changing.

The classic, basic resolution of a song is a return from the V to the I, but there's another resolution you'll recognize if you've ever listened to western religious music: the Amen cadence, a resolution where a song moves to the IV and then settles to the I. It still feels resolved, but it's a gentler way to finish out the movement of the song.

The submediant bears an important theoretical relationship to the tonic: it's the "relative minor" of the major tonic root of the key. They're very similarly harmonically—you change one note to transition between the two. And like the subdominant, the submediant retains the tonic root note. So between the submediant accomplishes two things at once, when we transition between it and the tonic: it introduces a minor chord (with the attendant shift in emotional impact and mood) while still keeping things very steady in terms of the listener still feeling grounded in the familiar territory of that tonic chord. Movement without being jarred too much.

There are other chords, and interesting things to say about them and their interaction with these and with each other, but the key thing here is that these four chords do a tremendous amount of work in laying out the ground of western song construction. These are the workhorses, the keystones. They're very effective, they're very common. Everybody recognizes the sound of transitions between them even if they haven't got the first clue about music theory: you can't help but be exposed to them.

Which all comes back to the central "why" of the question. Why do so many songs use I V vi IV?

- Because it works. These chords work together really, really effectively. For whatever mysterious reason, culture and psychology and neurofunction have conspired to make a I V vi IV (among other arrangements) something that people like hearing. Smart songwriters write songs that people like to hear. Stupid songwriters end up doing it too, because it doesn't take a genius to put this stuff together in an order that sounds nice.

- Because it's hard to avoid. Building a western pop song that doesn't contain at least three of them probably doesn't happen much, and there are only so many ways to permute those chords, which means any given progression of them you can think of has also happened a tremendous number of times. That I V vi IV shows up in thirty or forty famous pop songs is not that big a discovery: pick any permutation of those chords and somebody with a good internal jukebox can give you a list of matches.
posted by cortex at 12:18 PM on May 29, 2009 [261 favorites]

I can't listen to your examples at the moment to verify that they're all the same progression, so I'll take your word for it. Before clicking the more inside I had assumed you were referring to I vi IV V, but as Jaltcoh says, Let it Be goes I V vi IV.

There's realistically only seven chords available to you, and a lot of those transitions sound really weird, so there's really not all that much available to a songwriter.

This is an oversimplification bordering on wrongness. What this comment is getting at is that there are seven diatonic chords in any major key. What this means is that if you begin with a major scale, which consists of seven notes -- we can use C major as an example, which consists of C D E F G A B -- and stack notes on top of each other in thirds,* and limit yourself to chords made of three notes (aka triads) and you don't use any notes outside of your original scale, you get 7 chords. Those chords will look like this: I ii iii IV V vi viidim. That means the chords built on the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale are major, the chords built on the second, third, and sixth notes of the scale are minor, and the chord built on the seventh is diminished. The proper symbol for the diminished chord is a raised circle.

So in the key of C you get C Dm Em F G Am Bdim. If a piece of music sticks to only these chords, it will be very easy to follow for any listener as everything implies the same key center and the same major scale. The I is of course necessary to provide resolution and establish the home base. The IV and V are the remaining two major diatonic chords, they can both resolve satisfyingly to the I as Jaltcoh explains, and between the I, the IV, and the V you get every note of the major scale and you firmly establish your key. The vi is good because of its similarity to the I chord -- it's just a I chord with the 5th degree raised by a whole step, so they share two notes in common and thus the vi is often preceded by the V in what's known as a deceptive cadence.

to say that "there's realistically only seven chords available to you" is just goofy. A brief glance at the catalog of The Beatles shows how untrue that is. Even their earliest and poppiest songs contained liberal usage of non-diatonic chords (sometimes key changes, but more often just chords borrowed from other keys). There are many popular songs with simple, entirely-diatonic changes, but there are also many popular songs with interesting, more complex changes. If you'd like a deeper explanation or examples of these types of chord progressions I'd be happy to oblige.

In any case, I agree that pop music is a limited form, as are most forms. Listening to how an artist manipulates the cliches of the genre is part of what makes it interesting. If you go too far away from the conventions, it ceases to be pop music, but if you hew too closely to them you will sound (to some, anyway) like a hack. I'd say this is true in any well-established medium.

*A third is an interval, or a distance between two notes. If two notes are a third apart that means there is one note between them, like C and E or D and F. Written on the staff, they will be on adjacent lines or spaces.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

However, our western music theory is basically based on about 250 years of music.

Not quite. Dunstable was including chords in his notation 600 years ago, and there's no reason to believe the practice began with him. 9th century organum can be analyzed using the modes we use today.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: Perhaps with the ubiquity of easily accessible music all over the internets, over time, we will get more and more interesting pop-ular stuff happening.

Pop songsmiths are getting worse because the standards are so incredibly low, due in part to the long-drawn-out collapse of the popular song industry. Prior to 1950, and even well into the 1970s, most songwriting was still something one arrived at after a long spell learning standards, blues, honky-tonk C&W, etc. We've been through several eras of songwriting, but we're stuck in the doldrums now.

For instance, the reason jazz musicians still mostly improvise on the golden era standards written before the 1950s is not lack of imagination: it's because the Tin Pan Alley era songbooks have a richer harmonic vocabulary and more melodic variety. This is not a "get off my lawn" moment, and there were insipid songs written back then; yet even the songwriting from the 1960s was better than it is now: there's also a reason blues-based bands like the Stones and the Beatles spent so many formative years playing other peoples songs.

The chord sequence in question in this post is banal and was not used much until recently: pop banality becomes most noticeable when it concerns ballads.

(Increased simplification and overall poor musicianship has filtered into indie pop as well: songs increasingly sound as if written by someone still learning the basics of guitar. A lot of indie songs tend to lack a beginning, middle, or end, and the result is just mush. I think there are exceptions to this: Wire mad little punk-pop gems, as did the Minutemen). But generally pop songwriting has been dumbed down.
posted by ornate insect at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry if a duplicate: read this book (warning: um..., MUSIC!) ;) Seriously, great book.
posted by TigerMoth at 12:50 PM on May 29, 2009

Seconding This Is Your Brain On Music. Just finished it, and it addresses this issue and much more.
posted by kpmcguire at 1:24 PM on May 29, 2009

@coolguymichael-Yes you can use organum, and counterpoint...etc...but the majority, of our theory we study now (practical) is about 250 years. I studied 16th and 17th, music theory, but is not practical to what most theory covers. Even in college, those are specialized courses. Basic music theory is pretty limited to those time periods, Baroque, and forward. Which roughly equals about 250 years.
posted by snoelle at 1:31 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: Rock music is principally about decay and degeneration. It's an expression of the primal urge to render the highest parts of our nature into gut-felt, instinctual force. As such, it reverses the forms of the past and dulls complexity. The fact that the more popular variant of rock music tends towards assimilation into a single form is a natural result of this situation.

To be more specific: pop-rock is only inverting the form of jazz in this sense. Jazz formed out of a number of sources, but had two distinct roots: popular, traditional songs, simple in their chord structure and rural in their provenance, which arose in the far South at the end of the nineteenth century—and the cosmopolitan strains of the emerging entertainment industry in the industrialized North, cultivated within the market in sheet music and dance bands and Broadway musicals. In both of these roots, however, there were shades of subtlety that were not immediately obvious, shades of subtlety introduced chiefly by the fact that these musics were created by a lower class of society, a class of erstwhile servants and slaves. Jazz represented, in its primordial form, what happened when high (read: white) society deigned to allow low (read: black) society to entertain it, to play it songs and to accompany dances. This had already been going on in the far Southern areas where jazz first took root for a long time; there is a classic old song called Cake Walkin' Babies From Home (played to particularly great effect by Clarence Williams and Sidney Bechet) which attested to the old southern cake walks which provided an opportunity for blacks to “participate in society parties” in “Cake Walks” that, through a sort of secret language in dance, let them lampoon and parody the white society figures who condescended to them.

But jazz was a deepening and broadening of this phenomenon; it was the supposedly inferior black musician, given an instrument and told he could play at the local dance, creating music so complex and so detailed that anyone who really paid attention could see that no white person had ever been so bold or brilliant. The common chords which made up the songs which are the stuff of jazz, the rural and urban folk-songs played at dances and other public functions, were changed, substituted, modified, until the result was something which on its face was recognizable and to the dullest ears even simply traditional but which carried within it a great potentiality for expression.

Take, for example, this recording of Fats Waller's signature tune, “Ain't Misbehavin',” taken from the movie Stormy Weather from 1943. I've been playing this tune for years, so I can tell you quite honestly that the chords for “Ain't Misbehavin'” are so simple that a child of four or five wouldn't have much trouble plinking them out on a piano. They go like this:

No one to walk with..............all by myself
No one to talk with.........but I'm happy on my shelf
Ain't misbehavin'........I'm savin' my love for

See that? That is essentially the entire song. The same chord progression continues except for the bridge, when you go to vi for four bars. And while that video isn't exactly the pinnacle of jazz performance, you can get a good impression of what a lot of white folks probably felt like watching it at the time: “gee, those crazy negros sure are fun!”

Heh heh. So much for simple chords. This is an example of the way that Fats Waller sometimes played these simple, simple chord progressions:

No one to walk with..............all by myself
No one to talk with.........but I'm happy on my shelf
Ain't misbehavin'........I'm savin' my love for

These simple structures from Broadway showtunes and old folk-songs were increasingly complexified and changed until the result was a new sort of society music, a music that soared on its own pride and boldness. And even then, in the late '40s and early '50s, when jazz had come into its own in a way that was finally largely acknowledged by the still-dominant white establishment, this still had some great potency: the next wave of jazz, beebop, was formed as a clarion-call specifically against conformist harmony. Thelonius Monk best summarized the movement and its revolution when he said in its early days: “We're going to create something that they can't steal because they can't play it.” I think that anyone familiar with what was created over the next four decades in jazz knows what length and breadth that kind of thinking about what might have seemed to be simple chord progressions can extend to.

But rock has always been a way for (particularly white) people to process and deconstruct the American music forms, especially blues and jazz, and to recapitulate them more as something brute and wild and yet primal and wrenching. When rock music further devolves into nothing more than a mechanism for lucre and becomes pop-rock, it should come as no surprise that its formal manifestation is strikingly pure: a medium in which every popular song produced in the space of several decades can not only be reduced to one of two or three simple chord progressions (which is true of most musics) but is recognizably similar to every other song, so that it actually requires a certain force of will not to confuse these songs with each other.
posted by koeselitz at 2:21 PM on May 29, 2009 [12 favorites]

Is there a good website where questions like this are asked, discussed and answered on a regular basis?
posted by bink at 2:22 PM on May 29, 2009

Oh, and one last thing…

Beardman: Apologies for the many questions. They all boil down to a single howl of frustration.

I have only four words for you:

posted by koeselitz at 2:26 PM on May 29, 2009

…sorry, I know I've already made a huge comment, but I wanted to say a few things about the theory behind what I was pointing out in that Fats Waller tune:

Pop-rock is remarkably homogeneous in its use of chords and its utter lack of chord modification. As a jazz musician (though admittedly not a great one) I'm always playing rock tunes and trying to stick in a seventh chord here or a diminished chord there or a substitution somewhere else, and every time I'm struck by the fact that it just doesn't sound right when you play rock or pop-rock music without cleaving closely to the simplest chords possible. Attempts to “dress up the harmony” generally just sound either pretentious or just plain wrong—they don't accord with the spirit of the music—and as a result you'd be hard-pressed even to find so much as a seventh chord in the pop charts today.

Jazz, on the other hand, is much more malleable, and actually represents a dramatic leap beyond the realm of possibility for modification of chords. To take but one example, which is evident from this line of the song I quoted above, which probably should have been rendered as:


…ignoring the wonkiness that goes on at the end of the phrase in the modified version, look at the way that a II♭7 chord is substituted for a IV chord. In terms of music theory, this seems (to the classical mind anyhow) to be remarkably weird and dissonant; II♭ is seven half-steps (or a sharp fourth or flat fifth) away from IV. This interval—the flat fifth, which happens to be exactly half of an octave—is known in music theory as the tritone, the most dissonant interval possible. (Try this out for yourself; it's fun to play those two notes together, if only because it makes a horrible sound.) There were even those in the time of Beethoven who referred to the tritone darkly as “the devil's chord.” But here's that tritone, not only at the end of the phrase (in the V7♭5 chord) but also in this substitution!

In fact, these tritone substitutions—substitutions of a chord a tritone above (or below, it's all the same since it's half an octave) the chord—are actually quite common. They usually occur, as they do in our example, in the place of a fourth that would have moved to a ii; and they work because they make the line form a stepwise movement from I to ii. This is a very inventive and interesting way to circumvent the old rules of music theory.

Rock music, and particularly pop-rock, is generally free of the 'pretentions' that lead people to try to inventively circumvent old rules; it's more about destroying old rules forcibly or, in the case of the perversion that is pop-rock, ignoring them in order to provide a sort of liberating opiate.
posted by koeselitz at 3:01 PM on May 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Pop-rock is remarkably homogeneous in its use of chords and its utter lack of chord modification.

I'm not sure where you're drawing the boundaries for "pop-rock," but I'd say The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Zombies fit pretty squarely within the genre and put lie to your statement, along with the many bands influenced by their music in the decades since. Or in other words, listen to more pop.

There were even those in the time of Beethoven who referred to the tritone darkly as “the devil's chord.”

Not quite.

They usually occur, as they do in our example, in the place of a fourth that would have moved to a ii; and they work because they make the line form a stepwise movement from I to ii.

Tritone substitutions typically replace the V in a ii V I progression. ♭II is a tritone away from V, not IV. ii to I is already a step-wise root movement -- the tritone substitution makes it a chromatic root movement. And it works because the third and seventh degrees of the V7 chord are both present in the ♭II7 chord.

But that's quite a digression.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:52 PM on May 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Listen to more jazz. Then learn about the 2-5-1 or 3-6-2-5-1 chord progression. Same thing. That pattern is EVERYWHERE.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:19 PM on May 29, 2009

Ditto for writing songs with only one chord. Doable but not something you see happening much, because movement is a big part of what makes music interesting.

True. John Lee Hooker has a couple numbers, however, all in one chord. Can't remember the names right now. Very hypnotic technique.
posted by telstar at 6:02 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: I don't have nearly the music theory background that others here do, but from the philosophy angle, this is really old. Like at least 2500 years. Pythagoras mucked about with the proportions in harmony, and Plato used some of those ideas in constructing his concept of the human soul.

There's still a going faction in musicology which holds that certain chords and chord progressions are actually objectively beautiful because of the proportions involved. This view has fallen out of favor somewhat, but the idea that there's something significant going on with the things discussed here is not new, even if no one has ever been able to definitively say what that something is.

I think maybe the reason this is so gratingly apparent recently is that we've only just entered the second century of recorded music, meaning that most people never had much opportunity to compare what two different songs sound like, let alone the few dozen in the Axis of Awesome clip. So yeah, pop music may suck, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't tons of tripe produced in the Middle Ages and earlier. Also, unlike in pre-industrial cultures where only a fraction of the sum of creative output was preserved, and usually the best stuff at that, everything that is recorded today basically sticks around forever, regardless of whether or not anyone particularly wants it to.
posted by valkyryn at 7:13 PM on May 29, 2009

Best answer: It seems to me that you are, in part, asking about the connection between mood and music. I agree with you and find those chord progressions also bring up for me the feelings of earnestness and yearning. Typically those feelings are connected both with love and passion, the meat and potatoes of pop music all over the world.

It is interesting to think about what triggers moods, especially feelings of certain types of enjoyment. Universally certain smells are considered disgusting while others are thought of as wonderful. It would make sense that certain chord progressions predictably trigger pleasurable emotions.

Adding the following to the symphony of opinions in this thread:

In the ancient system of Yoga, certain sounds are connected with different parts of the body-mind, called chakras. Each sound has a particular "seed syllable" associated with it.

The Institute for Music and Brain Science.

Essential Tones Of Music Rooted In Human Speech
It's not something one can hear directly, but when the sounds of speech are looked at with a spectrum analyzer, the relationships between the various frequencies that a speaker uses to make vowel sounds correspond neatly with the relationships between notes of the 12-tone chromatic scale of music.

This delightfully contemplative comment by jamjam and this thread.
posted by nickyskye at 1:32 PM on June 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Epilogue: in the week since I posted this question, I was reminded of the efforts of Young Marble Giants and Iggy Pop.
posted by Beardman at 5:21 PM on June 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Epilogue 2: Rubbing It In, or, I Just Can't Help Myself

Today I entered the gym changeroom and heard another catchy tune by Akon. AutoTune and the four chords seems to his secret sauce. So beautiful!

An hour later, I take out my earplugs and am greeted by this gem from Brandy.
posted by Beardman at 11:49 AM on June 9, 2009

Response by poster: Shit man.
posted by Beardman at 2:48 PM on June 13, 2009

Response by poster: Awwwwwwww motherfucker.
posted by Beardman at 7:19 PM on June 19, 2009

Response by poster: The National/Obama do it too.
posted by Beardman at 8:21 PM on June 22, 2009

Coming terrifyingly late to this thread to say that this book by Victor Zuckerkandl introduced me to music theory but also went deeper into the Why of music's inner workings than any other textbook probably ever.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:38 AM on April 20, 2010

Best answer: Cortex et al. are mostly right when they say that these chords are common because they "just work," but I think that explanation misses a very very important dimension of pop music. I will bold it because it is so dang important.

Western pop music heavily relies on our pre-existing associations with music we already know for its emotional power.

The I-V-vi-IV progression works because we have heard it before. We already know how it works, so we don't have to figure it out. It's familiar to us. That makes it pleasant and even comforting. (How many times has it been married with lyrics that essentially tell us "everything will be OK"?)

So, to avoid going to those chords, you're working against hundreds of years of cultural hegemony, culminating in a behemoth of an industry that is in its desperate last throes and will do anything to keep its hooks latched into our brain. And I-V-vi-IV is the hook that's probably most deeply lodged in there right now, so of course they're going to hold onto it as tightly as they can.

The problem is the one that you've found -- if you use it too much, it loses its power. It fades and becomes wearisome and obnoxious if you begin to notice it all over the place. This is not to say that you can't still get some joy out of it when you hear some new variation, some melodic twist or clever instrumentation, but it will never have quite the same impact it did when you were getting to know it, when its secrets were first being revealed to you.

This is why pop music is out of necessity in a permanent state of adolescence. By the time you are older and start to grow tired of these things, you are probably not as much of a pop music consumer anymore.

Anyway, tl;dr:

Yes, I-V-vi-IV "just works," but that in itself doesn't explain its sheer ubiquity in Western pop music. Western classical music is based on the same chords, but generally uses a much wider variety of arrangements and other chords. Balinese gamelan music doesn't rely on I-V-vi-IV. Persian classical music doesn't rely on I-V-vi-IV. Klezmer music doesn't rely on I-V-vi-IV. Chinese opera doesn't rely on I-V-vi-IV. And so on. The main reason it's ubiquitous is because it's ubiquitous. Yes, it's tautological! But that's how inertia works.

There's a reason the kooks call it "mind control" -- because in a sense, it is.
posted by speicus at 1:58 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh wow. I didn't realize how old this thread was. Oh well, I stand by my after-the-fact rant.
posted by speicus at 3:53 PM on April 20, 2010

Specius - for some reason I never get tired of pop music. But the thing I AM tired of is - I can see when people are lazy (or just plain untalented or not knowledgable) and still just spit out the same duplicate of what is essentially somebody else's tune, or is just boring in its delivery and structure. To me the trick is: how can you 'pull the wool over somebody's eyes' to make people think it's something new - when it's not? The people who can do this, I think, are melodic geniuses or know more about structure than the average electronic music maker who has had zero theory instruction. (Yeah yeah I know they're not all like that I went to school for electronic music too, I'm just sayin, trance tunes that are all I V I V I I I I I VVVVVV IIII... you get the idea).

Also: I believe we could 'break free" from a lot of the cultural hegemonic pounding, but it's going to take something extreme to do so. I dunno what. But microtones are out there, just ask the Indians....
posted by bitterkitten at 10:54 AM on April 21, 2010

IANAM, but how did we get through this whole thread without any mention of George Russell and his landmark Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization? Dude wrote it while laid up with tuberculosis in the early 50s, but later credited the inspiration for the work to a remark made by the then 18 year old Miles Davis:

Russell codified the modal approach to harmony...inspired by a casual remark the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis made to him in 1944: Miles said he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned he might try to find the closest scale for every chord...Davis popularised those liberating ideas in recordings like Kind of Blue, undermining the entire harmonic foundation of bop that had inspired him and Russell in the first place.[5]

Or, echoing koeselitz: listen to more jazz.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:32 PM on April 21, 2010

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