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If you’ve ever heard someone complain about the 4 chord pop song, this is what they are talking about.
June 12, 2012 8:33 PM   Subscribe

"I analyzed the chords of 1300 popular songs for patterns. This is what I found."
posted by stroke_count (97 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
Where's the G7, man?
posted by escabeche at 8:38 PM on June 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


So, over the past 2 years we’ve been slowly and painstakingly building up a database of songs taken mainly from the billboard 100 and analyzing them 1 at a time. At the moment the database of songs has over 1300 entries indexed.
Wow. Definitely not a weekend, teach-myself-R project. And he's released the full dataset in a very nice web format as well. This is awesome.
posted by figurant at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


This result is striking. If you write a song in C with an E minor in it, you should probably think very hard if you want to put a chord that is anything other than an A minor chord or an F major chord. For the songs in the database, 93% of the time one of these two chords came next.

See, I reached the exact opposite conclusion. Why write something everybody has heard a thousand times before?
posted by LordSludge at 8:41 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why write something everybody has heard a thousand times before?

No fame and fortune?
posted by sneebler at 8:43 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this a bad place to post Uncle Bonzai's Another Folk Song? Because I think it's quite apropos.
posted by hippybear at 8:44 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know next to nothing about music theory.
Does this now mean that we can calculate the most average song ever written?
Was Huey Lewis involved?
posted by philip-random at 8:45 PM on June 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't know anything about music. So it's stuff like this that makes me think record companies/artists are just manipulating me. I wonder if I even have a choice about what kind of music I like. They've figured out the best set of sounds to make me fork over my cash.
I'm in the musical Matrix.
posted by hot_monster at 8:46 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I say he. I have no idea. And looking closer, I see that this may be more of a pitch for the song database and music theory ebook on that site than anything else. Still, the data looks interesting, and I can't say I'd be too annoyed if whoever's behind this managed to make a bit of money off a pretty cool project.
posted by figurant at 8:47 PM on June 12, 2012


If you really want to be horrified, hot_monster, read books on the science of decision-making like Predictably Irrational and How We Decide.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:53 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


hot_monster, maybe record companies are manipulating what gets airtime but the artists aren't so conspiratorial. Most musicians I know (myself included) just write what we think sounds good, which very often is based on what we like to listen to already. So yeah everything's been kind of figured out now but it's not a big deal.

Keep in mind this is "pop" music. As in music that is meant to appeal to as many people as possible. Formulas are really good for achieving that. It would be like analyzing 1300 bestselling novels and finding out that they tend to employ heroes and villains in a predictable way (okay that would be a lot harder to analyze but I bet there would be some obvious patterns).

Don't sweat it, though. If you really want to hear things that are different than pop, you just need to switch vernaculars. Try jazz, or impressionist era classical, or maybe try some middle eastern music. It's all good stuff.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:02 PM on June 12, 2012


Sometimes I'm just strumming a C chord on my old guitar, and I let the music take me where it wants to go. So I play an F chord. After that, divine inspiration might kick in, and I play a G. It's amazing how that works. After the G, I often come back to the C again and start over.

I don't know if anyone else has tried this progression, but it works for me.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:06 PM on June 12, 2012 [15 favorites]


I don't know anything about music. So it's stuff like this that makes me think record companies/artists are just manipulating me. I wonder if I even have a choice about what kind of music I like. They've figured out the best set of sounds to make me fork over my cash.

No, not really. Music has a structure and a set of interrelated things which work well together, and some things which can expand that set but which are more challenging to the listener, and a few more circles which become more and more challenging and less and less harmonious until you cross out of the bounds of what is generally considered listenable without doing hard work.

His comments about things being in the key of C... Well, C is the easiest key to play on the piano. It's all white keys, they all come in a line, and all the directly related chords (F, G, Am, etc) are also only white keys. On a guitar, the easiest key is probably G, because the related chords of D, C and Em don't involve any barre chords.

Anyway, when it comes to the way musical keys are structured, there are always the same relationships no matter where you start out: the base chord (or tonic), the IV chord, which is the major chord related to the 4th note of the scale, the V chord (related to the fifth note of the scale), and the relative minor, which has the same notes in its scale but starts down a minor third (or on the 6th note of the major scale)...

Clever music writers can wrangle in more chords, use augmentation to keep the chords from being quite so purely structured and use those augmented chords to build tonal bridges to unexpected but fully logical other chords which lay outside the basic musical key.

There have been some movements to try to break out of this pretty classic structure (which goes basically all the way back to early polyphony, just out of the "sing in unison gregorian chant" phase. One of them is 12 Tone, which uses every one of the twelve half-step tones we find on a well-tempered instrument each in succession (and can have complicated rules as to how all this might work). Another is minimalism, which foregoes key changes and what we think of as "song structure" and instead sets up repeating patterns which play against each other and slowly change how they line up, or which sets up a sonic tapestry of a very complex non-standard chord of tones and explores those notes in relation until it is time to shift to another chord to explore.

But when it comes to basic music which has universal appeal, there is a specific set of relationships of tones which "work", and moving too far outside of that leads to tones which "don't work". Which is why we find that most music, from Elizabethan odes right through Bach and Hayden into Mozart and Beethoven and even into Shostakovich and beyond, contains the same structure. The same with other strands of musical development, such as the African descended musics that we find so popular today (blues, rock, jazz). The main exception to this is Asia, where microtonal music is much more prevalent and things like Chinese Opera have their entirely different set of rules not based so much on chords.

Anyway, I'm vastly oversimplifying this, and probably am doing poorly at even that.

Suffice it to say... they aren't manipulating you. The way the human brain is wired to hear music is pretty fundamental and there is a universality of the experience which has to do with math and physics and evolution.
posted by hippybear at 9:07 PM on June 12, 2012 [24 favorites]


As I see it, popular art is based on the push and pull between the desire for the familiar and the desire for the unfamiliar. If there's just too much familiar, a percentage of the audience is going to find it cliched and unexciting. But if there is too much that is unfamiliar, a large percentage of the audience will be alienated by it.

When you're on the more popular end of this spectrum, it seems to me that the unfamiliar is often introduced through unexpected production elements -- the core of the song, such as the rhythm and the chords, will be pretty rigorously standardized, but there will be an additional rhythm, or some unexpected riff or synthesizer sound or other element that distinguishes the song. It's why mash-ups are so doggone easy to make mash-ups, or to sing one song over another.

How familiar or unfamiliar you want a song to be is going to be a matter of tastes, for both audience and songwriter. And different genres will have audiences that may be more or less tolerant of oddball arrangements. Rap, for instance, is often surprisingly avant garde in its arrangements, because the audience prioritizes beat, flow, and novelty; pop music, in the meanwhile, is often much less flexible, because the audiences tend to prioritize a comfortable familiarity over novelty.

But, then, pop music often prioritizes a really novel, earwormy, distinctive hook.

I suppose when you start making music, you must decide what music you are making, who your audience is, and how much you want to challenge them. And I suspect that success has a lot more to do with finding the right balance of these elements than any other factor. This sort of project can be enormously useful for the musician who wants to be a professional, because we end up making these decisions anyway, and it's always best to do so knowingly.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:08 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


maybe record companies are manipulating what gets airtime but the artists aren't so conspiratorial. Most musicians I know (myself included) just write what we think sounds good, which very often is based on what we like to listen to already.

I would be surprised if the musicians you know are representative of the musicians on the Billboard Top 100. The record companies work very closely with artists (often deciding "We're going to create a new hit artist"), coaching them, focus grouping, writing their songs for them, playing their instruments for them, et cetera.

What you hear on hit radio ("pop songs") is not representative of musicians in general. It's what record companies have decided is going to sell the best, which is those standard four chords, a 4/4 beat, and lots of "Oh wah oh"s to pad out the meter because the lyrics aren't even about anything.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:13 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


those standard four chords, a 4/4 beat, and lots of "Oh wah oh"s to pad out the meter because the lyrics aren't even about anything.

(MeFi Music Challenge!)
posted by dunkadunc at 9:15 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


those standard four chords, a 4/4 beat, and lots of "Oh wah oh"s to pad out the meter because the lyrics aren't even about anything.

(MeFi Music Challenge!)


Done and done - the four chord song, by some friends of mine, The Axis of Awesome.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:22 PM on June 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


~Taylor Swift Songwriting 101~
Use the following chord progression:
I
II
IV
V
Cash humongous check
Repeat
The End.


twoleftfeet: "Sometimes I'm just strumming a C chord on my old guitar, and I let the music take me where it wants to go. So I play an F chord. After that, divine inspiration might kick in, and I play a G. It's amazing how that works. After the G, I often come back to the C again and start over.

I don't know if anyone else has tried this progression, but it works for me.
"

Woah dude, you're like all avant garde and shit! You've unlocked the Secret Progression. Can you play that in some odd time signature like, oh I dunno..... 4/4?
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:25 PM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


hippybear: "Is this a bad place to post Uncle Bonzai's Another Folk Song?"

That is Uncle Bonsai. With an "s".

I'm Bonzai. I'm tone deaf.

It's quite sad.
posted by Bonzai at 9:26 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Only a non-musician could think this is very insightful. It's like saying, "I analyzed 1000 popular novels and discovered that the most common letters were E,T,A,O,I,N,S,H,R,D,L,&U!"
posted by straight at 9:28 PM on June 12, 2012 [15 favorites]


His thoughts were red thoughts: "
Done and done - the four chord song, by some friends of mine, The Axis of Awesome.
"

I swear to god I've been looking for this video for year. It illustrates my point exactly. Thank you so much for your divine intervention. I feel complete now.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:28 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bonzai: you are correct, and my fingers were obviously working faster than my brain.

At any rate, Uncle Bonsai is totally awesome, and everyone should know them.
posted by hippybear at 9:30 PM on June 12, 2012


KevinSkomsvold, don't you mean I, ii, IV, V? You won't be cashing any big checks with a II chord in there.
posted by straight at 9:32 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Using the four most common chords to write your songs (looking at you, Nickelback) is like eating nothing but processed food made from white flour and corn syrup, or writing a novel in Simple English with no metaphors, allegory, or conflict or resolution of any kind.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:35 PM on June 12, 2012


I am looking forward to part II, but it will surprise maybe no one that that's mostly because the "what chord comes next" lede implied at the end of part 1 here is basically a really easy layup for a discussion of Markov chains. I don't know if that'll actually happen in the article, but it damned well ought to.

Where's the G7, man?

I gather from reading the writeup that the stats we're looking at make no distinction between the basic triad forms and their variations with extra degrees. Which makes sense from a certain perspective—the choice to move to (some form of) the V from the I is a much more basic, important issue in terms of theory and analysis than whether the minor seventh degree is present or implied on that chord—but, at the same time, yeah, that does matter.

Specifically the fact that, with the songs all normalized to C for comparison purposes, you see G more than C? It'd be really interesting to see whether you see G-but-not-G7 more than C-but-not-C7. My guess is no; you'd see more C than G, and probably more G7 than C7. sus2 and sus4 and 6 and 9 forms would just be batting cleanup.

But it'd be neat to see in any case. And I'd guess if the blogger has bothered to annotate the chords of 1300 songs by hand they've bothered as well to track those variant forms and are just simplifying the core analysis.

Another thing I'd like to see clarified is the breakdown of time spent on each chord per song vs. the mere presence of the chord in a song. I got the impression from reading that the latter was what the chord-frequency chart with G, F, C, Am... was tracking: G shows up at all more in song sections than C, etc. I'd guess songs in C spend more total time on C than they do on any other chord, even if they entirely omit C from chorus or bridge sections more often than they entirely omit G or F from verse sections, etc.

What you hear on hit radio ("pop songs") is not representative of musicians in general. It's what record companies have decided is going to sell the best, which is those standard four chords, a 4/4 beat, and lots of "Oh wah oh"s to pad out the meter because the lyrics aren't even about anything.

To be fair, part of the reason a lot of musicians write stuff with the Big Four Chords is not so much because the music industry cabal is trying to suckle at the teat but rather because THOSE CHORDS ARE AWESOME. Obvious, sure, overplayed, sure, it's really easy to write pap with those four chords, but it's not hard to write pap with different chords as well and in the mean time the classics work because they really work at a psychology-of-music level. On the musicians just as much as if not more so than on the listeners.

KevinSkomsvold, don't you mean I, ii, IV, V? You won't be cashing any big checks with a II chord in there.

Questions of Taylor Swift's chord progressions aside, plenty of big checks have been cashed off a little I, II, IV, V ditty by one Tom Petty about A Girl Who Was American.
posted by cortex at 9:37 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


straight: "KevinSkomsvold, don't you mean I, ii, IV, V? You won't be cashing any big checks with a II chord in there."

Yep my bad. Ca;; mine "Alt-Country."
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:38 PM on June 12, 2012


Nonsense. Using the four basic chords will always lead to a happy resolution back to the Tonic. That's how music works.
posted by hippybear at 9:38 PM on June 12, 2012


cortex: "
To be fair, part of the reason a lot of musicians write stuff with the Big Four Chords is not so much because the music industry cabal is trying to suckle at the teat but rather because THOSE CHORDS ARE AWESOME. Obvious, sure, overplayed, sure, it's really easy to write pap with those four chords, but it's not hard to write pap with different chords as well and in the mean time the classics work because they really work at a psychology-of-music level. On the musicians just as much as if not more so than on the listeners.
"

One of my mefi music songs uses the Taylor Swift Secret Chord Progression. I'm not ashamed to say I like it.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:40 PM on June 12, 2012


Using the four most common chords to write your songs (looking at you, Nickelback) is like eating nothing but processed food made from white flour and corn syrup, or writing a novel in Simple English with no metaphors, allegory, or conflict or resolution of any kind.

To exaggerate maybe a bit, I'd say it's more like writing a James Patterson or Danielle Steel novel without using challenging metaphors or large words. The authors of this blog posting were pretty specific that they limited their examination to "popular" music. So, well...yeah. There are a number of variables in popular music. (1) Harmony is just one of those, and (2) the idea isn't really to "vary" those variables all that much, anyway.

Straight's comment is dead-on. This is kind of a neat analysis for non-musicians, but that's about its limit. Whatever punches they saved for Part II probably should have been folded in here as a single write-up.
posted by cribcage at 9:44 PM on June 12, 2012


Using the four most common chords to write your songs (looking at you, Nickelback) is like eating nothing but processed food made from white flour and corn syrup

This is overstating it. It's more like baking with only flour, sugar, eggs, and yeast. You can bake some really excellent stuff with basic test-of-time ingredients. You can also bake Wonderbread. Blaming the chords is like blaming a car for a car accident when the blame almost always lies with the pilot or another driver.

There's a lot to complain about in pop song production. The chords chosen is nowhere near the top of that list; many seriously excellent songs, and many more perfectly fine ones, have been written using Those Four Chords, and most people (particularly non-songwriters, which is almost everyone) would not even notice the phenomenon if it were not occasionally made a point of contention either in joking formats like the Axis of Awesome medley or as some sort of "this is terrible and bad" assertion in the context of something like this.
posted by cortex at 9:44 PM on June 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


All you need is three chords and the truth, man.
posted by The Deej at 9:49 PM on June 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Short, shameful secret: I've taught enough Taylor Swift songs to know it's actually more often I V ii IV or good ol' I iv IV V.
posted by straight at 9:51 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Shameful confession: the four right chords can make me cry.
posted by asterix at 9:56 PM on June 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh man, I love this topic. I really should be heading for the gate to board my plane but instead I'm gonna sit down here write a few more thoughts about this whole thing.

I believe it was Prokofiev (or was it Sibelius?) who once opined "There are still so many beautiful things to be said in the key of C". And you know, whether he actually said it or not it's still completely true. Chords, chord patterns, tempos, key signatures, scales, rhythmic patterns, all of these things are just components, more akin (in my opinion) to the canvas or the brush than even the oils.

As a songwriter/composer you get to a point where in some ways the chords and the progressions become somewhat meaningless. That is to say, the fact that you might be using the four most common chords or what-have-you becomes irrelevant. They work or they don't work, but they're part of a larger holistic system that you're putting together, which also includes equally important things like lyrics, voices, instruments, breathing, phrasing, acoustic effects, digital effects, weirdness, non-weirdness, etc...

Go listen to some Arvo Pärt for awhile and notice that in many of his most well-loved pieces his chord progressions are shockingly simple. Maybe not so shocking from the pioneer of "tintinnabulism", a man who believes that the space between notes is in some ways more important than the notes themselves.

Some of the best jazz solos are riffing on a two or three chord groove for minutes on end. And they are awesome (in the actual meaning of that word). Traditional blues music is literally just the I, IV, and V chords played in a certain way over, and over, and over, and yet there a hundreds of truly great unique and wonderful blues songs based on that structure.

It's really hard to explain this without experiencing it first hand, writing music. I remember the point where I realized all my songs were using the same chords. At first I was disgusted with myself. How unoriginal! How lame! It took a lot of listening and thinking for me to realize that I was approaching composing in completely the wrong way. I repeat: chords are not the paint, they are the canvas, or maybe sometimes the brush. But the actual color of the piece comes from something else entirely. It comes from the way in which those common tools are used, the pressure, speed, contour of the application.

Nickelback uses common chords, sure. But that's not why their music is so terrible and average (that is, if you feel that way about their music). Their music is crappy because the execution is crappy. There's no dynamic range, no detail. It's just a wash of chromed up grit with no contrast and nothing to say. Musical white noise.

Nobody gets upset that nearly all fine art photography is black and white. It's not like we're all offended that they're only using one color out of the whole spectrum. Because there's so much there to play with: light, shadow, angle, texture, subject, form. This is the same for music.

It really is like Lennon said:

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy

There's nothing you can make that can't me made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need


Nothing is original, there are no new forms. It's the execution of the thing that matters.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:57 PM on June 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh, God, please not Pachelbel's Canon AGAIN!
posted by erniepan at 10:01 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If not Pachelbel's Canon, how do you feel about Blues Traveler's Hook?
posted by hippybear at 10:02 PM on June 12, 2012


Brontosauruses are thin at one end...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:30 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


My brother is a singer/songwriter for a couple of bands, and he's pretty good, but every once in a while he falls victim to the essential similarities of popular music. He's all "and then the bridge comes in like this, and then everything gets all EPIC, and oh fuck I accidentally wrote Hotel California again."

Soon after he got his first guitar, he was noodling around with I ii IV V I and my mom said "Who wrote that?" and he said "Everybody."
posted by KathrynT at 10:52 PM on June 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nothing is original, there are no new forms. It's the execution of the thing that matters.

Of course there are. Plenty of new, interesting, originally stuff being done by creative people all over the world. You don't have to play the same old thing. I mean, you can if you want. Up to you. Rock on.
posted by LordSludge at 11:12 PM on June 12, 2012


philip-random: "Does this now mean that we can calculate the most average song ever written?
Was Huey Lewis involved?
"

It's about the pleasures of conformity.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:18 PM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Done and done - the four chord song , by some friends of mine, The Axis of Awesome."

I swear to god I've been looking for this video for year.


KevinSkomsvold, it gets even better: they have a t-shirt with the chords on it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:16 AM on June 13, 2012


I find the analysis song editor and library to be awesome. I can't figure out how to expand the melody thing vertically, although I see from other peoples' contributions that you can do it. Somebody should mash this thing up with Alan W. Pollack's Beatles essays.
posted by big friendly giant at 12:23 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


He's all "and then the bridge comes in like this, and then everything gets all EPIC, and oh fuck I accidentally wrote Hotel California again."

Sorry, but that phrasing just reminds me to call the Fountains of Wayne Hotline.
posted by sysinfo at 12:32 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


This makes me want to pick up a ukulele and play Hey Soul Sister.
posted by Talez at 1:02 AM on June 13, 2012


You guys killed it with love.
posted by unSane at 3:30 AM on June 13, 2012


obligatory
posted by readyfreddy at 3:34 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Manual by The KLF - How To have No 1 Hit Record.
posted by marienbad at 3:50 AM on June 13, 2012


This is why I listen to noise.
posted by melt away at 3:51 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


However, what this analysis ignores is that popular chord progressions trend strongly over time. It's not a static deal at all. In the 50s we had a ton of vanilla I IV V (blues/rock and roll) and I-bVII-bVI-V7 (the spanish progression used in surf music and lots of other stuff) plus I-vi-IV-V7 (the doo-wop progression). You hardly hear any of those now. Instead we have a ton of I-V-vi-IV and a few others.

The big difference is between diatonic chord progressions and chromatic ones.

Diatonic chord progressions restrict themselves to chords whose tones lie in the home key.

So if your song is in C, you can use C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim.

If you want to extend your chords you can use Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7 and Bdim.

These chords use only white notes and your melody will never be tempted to stray from C major or one of its modes.

Within this set of chords there are some basic, not rules exactly, but ideas. You'll start on the I. Your next chord is a freebie - go nuts. Now apply the following.

-- if you're on Dm, go to F, G or Am or one of their extensions.
-- if you're on Dm7, go to G or G7
-- if you're on Em, go to F, G or Am
-- if you're on Em7, go to Am
-- if you're on F, go to Dm, G or Am, or you may cadence back to C if you want
-- if you're on G, go to Am, Dm or Em. You may flirt with F
-- if you're on G7, go back to C and start another phrase

Vast swathes of (excellent) pop music have been and continue to be written using this trope. The same thing works in minor keys but you can figure it out for yourself.

Notice that you never get to Bdim. That's because it's contained in G7, sort of.

New rule: your bass note doesn't have to be in the chord. You can play a G chord over F or and F chord over G, and so on.

Now if you want to really spice things up, you throw in secondary dominants.. These are the spices of pop songwriting. These are chords which have tones outside the home key, but which lead strongly back to a diatonic chord. You can insert them before the appropriate chord in a progression generated above, according to the following rules:

D7 can be inserted before G
E7 can be inserted before Am
A7 can be inserted before Dm
Bb7 can be inserted before F
B7 will get you to Em

Now you are really working with the good stuff.

For true rocket science, you can use secondary dominants to project you out of the home key entirely. Bb7 can happily get you into the key of F, which is maybe where your chorus will live.

You can also borrow chords from the relative minor key. So in C, you can borrow chords like Fm and Gm and so on. And as a bonus you can borrow THEIR secondary dominants to get to them.

This gives a huge pallette of stuff to work with, still not really straying very far from conventional pop harmony.
posted by unSane at 4:00 AM on June 13, 2012 [26 favorites]


It's fascinating that, despite the simplicity and somewhat formulaic nature of the harmony that is (mostly) used in pop songwriting, there remains something mysterious about what actually makes a good song. Any competent person could churn out dozens of songs that are, from the point of view of analysis, just as good as anything else. But most of them will be bland and forgettable.
posted by thelonius at 5:07 AM on June 13, 2012


Ha, I started working on making my rules above into a card game, where you score 'tricks' by completing a progression by getting it back to I.
posted by unSane at 6:04 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think the crack team of journalists at uh...Cracked have got this one figured out.
And not only does your brain go apeshit when it hears catchy, poppy music, but also it actually derives pleasure from predicting the melodies as you listen, anticipating the emotion associated with certain types of music. This leads to a one-two punch where you get one thrill when your brain is expecting something to happen, and when it actually does another rush of dopamine comes in from an entirely different part of the brain. And this is where your brain enters Addict Mode. The easiest way for it to get its dopamine fix is tunes that are simple, predictable and repetitive -- so that's what it prefers, no matter your views on the artistic merits. That's right -- no matter how carefully hipster you are, or how hardcore a metalhead image you maintain, your brain is secretly into Bieber.
posted by VTX at 6:06 AM on June 13, 2012


I don't agree with Cracked; if music is too predictable, we lose interest. Someone was doing work on a theory that tried to formulate the balance between predictability and surprise/novelty in music that people like, but I do not remember where I read about it.
posted by thelonius at 6:21 AM on June 13, 2012


Does anybody ever tune a piano to anything but C major? I can understand why not: Huge pain for minimal payoff. But how about electronic keyboards? Seems like you could change around the presets at will. Why not make the white keys E major?
posted by whuppy at 6:28 AM on June 13, 2012


Does anybody ever tune a piano to anything but C major? I can understand why not: Huge pain for minimal payoff. But how about electronic keyboards? Seems like you could change around the presets at will. Why not make the white keys E major?

It's a pretty standard feature on electronic keyboards to do transposition, so you play in C, the sounds come out in E or A-flat, or whatever you want. My Yamaha Electric Grand will do that without even having to dig too deeply into the feature menu.

As far as tuning a piano itself to something other than C, I've heard about pianos being tuned in all kinds of ways. My favorite was when I heard about the 88 keys being tuned to a single octave. Can't remember who did that, or what they played on it, but I do recall hearing a chromatic scale being played on it, and it sounded a lot like someone had plucked a string and was tuning it upwards at a very deliberate pace without it losing vibration during the process.
posted by hippybear at 6:31 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


A former colleague of mine did something like this, though more qualitatively, several years ago. Except instead of choosing top-charting songs, he chose top-reviewed songs at Pitchfork. Then he wrote some new songs based on his results that should, theoretically, be critical darlings.
posted by zadermatermorts at 6:37 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wendy Carlos is famous for experimenting with radically different keyboard tunings.
posted by unSane at 6:38 AM on June 13, 2012


Sorry, I borked the links above. The study is here, and obviously this is Pitchfork.
posted by zadermatermorts at 6:41 AM on June 13, 2012


I don't agree with Cracked; if music is too predictable, we lose interest.

It isn't Cracked you disagree with so much as the research the article is based on.

But yeah, I agree that some amount of novelty is required. It's probably a combination of predictable chord progressions and novelty in some other way that makes for a hit pop song.
posted by VTX at 6:55 AM on June 13, 2012


I remember hanging out with a bunch of my music school buddies my sophomore year college. At the time I was a music composition major, kinda technical in nature. We were all listening to my one friend play this song he had written for the piano. It was a doodly, Yanni-like thing. Now I secretly hated this guy's guts - everything about him just seemed fake and hollow, yet no one ever seemed to believe me when I voiced those concerns. (They changed their tunes years later after he slept with pretty much everyone's wives.)

Anyways, the song. It was a fluffy, not much there thing and it was kinda pissing me off that his crap was getting so much attention over what I did. At one point while the music is building he announces, "This is my favorite part. I'm so proud of this." The song then got louder and went up a major fourth.

"So you went up a major fourth?" I said. "Pretty standard."

He stopped playing and just looked at me with this surprised, hurt look on his face. Everyone else looked shocked. I felt fucking fantastic. Still do.

Yay for petty, stuck-up twenty year old me.
posted by charred husk at 7:06 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Does anybody ever tune a piano to anything but C major?

They used to make transposing pianos for that, where you could slide the keyboard relative to the strings and thus play in any key you want without leaving the white keys. Irving Berlin used one, and look how he turned out.
posted by echo target at 7:08 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Cage has music for the prepared piano that definitely changed its tuning and intonation.
posted by Admira at 7:12 AM on June 13, 2012


I don't know why any of this is surprising.

Singer/songwriter music -- as opposed to music written, arranged and performed by highly trained and skilled professionals (e.g., music for Bobby Darin, Whitney Houston, etc.) -- tends to be written in a rather limited number of keys because they are the easiest keys to play on the guitar and piano. This is among the reasons why popular music tends to be sung either by men with very high voices or women with very low voices who actually end up singing the same pitches.

Similar things could be said about the chord probabilities. These tendencies are all entirely within the structure of early classical period harmonic practice as exemplified by, say, Haydn. Except, yanno, greatly simplified. These songs follow the "rules" rather strictly, except that popular music has a great fondness for harmonic retrogression. The main difference is that popular music is, if anything, far more elemental and conservative in harmonic structure and variety compared to early classical period harmony. You say that a modal-borrowed iii chord is very frequently followed by the IV chord or the vi chord?! Stop the presses! Meanwhile, freshman theory students all over America are rolling their eyes. These harmonic progressions are common because they're easy to understand, easy to play, we've all heard it before thousands of times and people like what they know.

I remember reading a paper sometime back in the late 80s where someone had done an extensive statistical study of thousands of popular songs going back some 40 years. One of the questions was: What is the most likely melodic interval in a popular song? This is to say: If the singer is singing one note, what is the next note most likely to be? A whole tone away? A third? A fifth? The answer: By far the most common melodic interval in popular music is the unison -- meaning that the most likely note for the singer to sing next is the same note he is already singing. Some popular songs consisted of over 80% unison.


I'm not running down popular musical idioms. There are plenty of things that popular music is good for. It's just that harmonic and melodic (etc.) innovation and complexity are not generally speaking among them, certain notable exceptions notwithstanding. If we're looking at these things, I would suggest we're looking in the wrong direction. Some above have suggested that the best thing to do would be to compose songs with less statistically-probably chord progressions, but this would actually work against the popular success of the piece. People like what they know, and the listening public is increasingly less sophisticated with respect to harmony and melody.
posted by slkinsey at 7:13 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Argh... e minor in the key of C major is not modally borrowed.)
posted by slkinsey at 7:17 AM on June 13, 2012


It's notable that in songwriting, what constitutes a 'song' from the point of view of copyright is the top-line melody and the words.

In other words, if I use the lyrics of (say) YESTERDAY, I'm infringing.

If use the melody of YESTERDAY, I'm infringing

If I use the chords of YESTERDAY, I'm not infringing.
posted by unSane at 7:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


A
I say roadrunner once -- roadrunner twice --
A
I'm in love with rock & roll and I'll be out all night
A
Roadrunner, roadrunner
A
Going faster miles an hour
A
Gonna drive to the Stop 'n' Shop
A
With the radio on
A
(Radio On!) I got the radio on
(Radio On!) I got the radio on
(Radio On!) I got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the car, got the AM
(Radio On!) Got the AM sound, got the
(Radio on!) Got the power of the AM, got the
(Radio On!) Got the car from Massachusetts, got the
(Radio On!) Got the world, got the turnpike, got the
(Radio on!)
(Radio on!)
(Radio on!)
(Radio on!)
(Radio on!)
posted by Herodios at 9:18 AM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


This analysis notably skips classical and jazz. In rock, I IV V (in various orders) are pretty common, but never in jazz, where II V I is the default simple progression. Jazz is a bluesy subversion (or variant, if you want to be less value-laden about it) of classical theory.

Rock is not. In the key of C, you can lead up to the tonic by playing A-flat and B-flat. Never in jazz!

After playing jazz for years and dipping back into rock now and then, I get confused. Nirvana, for example. Do they just make those chords up randomly? I can't make sense of them. Yet, paired with the melody, they work beautifully. They are one of many examples of throwing out the playbook but still coming up with pop hooks.

I can see why they chose not to tackle jazz. The results would be more logical (in the sense that it makes use of the classic tension/release mechanism - the release triggered by a couple of half-steps that beg to be resolved). But it would also be a hell of a lot more complex, especially with the usual modulated bridge.
posted by kozad at 9:24 AM on June 13, 2012


From a guitarist perspective - C, G, A, and D can be played using open shapes on guitar comfortably (without barre chords.) F requires two barre chords, so I would expect to see E higher in rank as it requires only one barre chord) G is a fifth up from C and F is a fourth down, so I would expect to see those in the top spots. On piano and guitar, using C, G, F are the first you typically learn (one sharp for G, one flat for F)

The Eb thing (rank 3) is surprising and I wonder if that is driven by guitarists tuning down a half step (for heavier tone, and so the singer can reach the high notes.)

"If you write a song in C with an E minor"

That's because the progression sounds static. C is CEG and Em is EGB - the chords share two notes. You can make it interesting by adding tones for more color.
posted by borges at 9:25 AM on June 13, 2012


The Eb thing (rank 3) is surprising and I wonder if that is driven by guitarists tuning down a half step (for heavier tone, and so the singer can reach the high notes.)

E-flat Major is a pretty felicitous key on the piano.
posted by slkinsey at 9:38 AM on June 13, 2012


The Eb thing (rank 3) is surprising and I wonder if that is driven by guitarists tuning down a half step (for heavier tone, and so the singer can reach the high notes.)

Nothing to do with the fad for detuning guitars. Eb is a horn key.

Songs written by/for string* players tend to be in # keys.
*Most stringed instruments in their standard tuning have open E, A, D, and G strings.

Songs written by/for horn* players tend to be in b keys.
*Wind instruments like the Bb trumpet, Bb clarinet, Bb or Eb sax, Bb trombone, Bb or Eb french horn, etc.

Vehicle by Ides of March is a good example of the latter. The song was written by the guitarist, and the record features a prominant guitar solo. BUT: what really makes it is the horn riff. So the song is played in Eb so those horns will sound their best -- full throated. (Easier to play, too). In this case, it affects the guitar part (and sound) not a whit. Eb is a bit of a drag for the bassist, though. (Bob Ice's version is in the wrong key, too.)

Iisten to the horns on Soul Man by Sam and Dave and by the Blues Brothers back-to-back. On the latter they dropped the key from the original G (an OK horn key) down to E (a not at all great key for horns), I assume to accomodate Belushi's limited vocal range. The horn parts, even as played by these triple-scale session player don't sound quite right.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:04 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good point about horns - common soul arrangement to stack the Eb and Bb instruments for fifth.
posted by borges at 10:25 AM on June 13, 2012


Excellent thread. Thanks to whoever posted "The Four Chord Song". This tells much of the story. If one analyzed the progressions of say, Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli (remember him? he's still recording), the brilliant Stevie Wonder, Sting, Paul Simon, later-periiod James Taylor, Earth Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald, and of course the Beatles, among others --- conclusions would be quite different. (I wish I could think of more contemporary examples but, by and large, there aren't many, IMO.)

As someone else noted here is a somewhat different fashion, that's because current pop music is stuck in diatonic progressions in the simplest ways. Thus pop writers are slaves to what is contained in the diatonic triads (and perhaps extensions) of the 7 note major scale (As "the Four Chord Song" proves). (Minor scale songs tend to follow sort of slightly different rules.)This is what made the Beatles so different and revolutionary in their times. Among many innovations, they' even change KEYS in the middle of a song, for God's sake ("Martha My Dear", "You're Gonna Lose That Girl", the list goes on). That's something you don't hear much anymore.

Like it was in early 1960s pop, it is simply an uninspiring and lousy period in American pop songwriting, comparatively. There is a "sameness" that exists, and songs don't seem to have "legs" anymore. They're mostly here today and gone tomorrow. (With exceptions like "Moves Like Jagger" and "Call Me Maybe", perhaps a few Adele tunes.) T=I believe that the muse that was in pop music has gone elsewhere into other fields of creativity. Hopefully, it'll return sometime soon, if everything does go in cycles, as many believe.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 10:37 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


A similar (and I think a bit better) analysis posted previously here: A Corpus Analysis of Rock Harmony.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:48 AM on June 13, 2012


(though the findings, i.e. that I and IV are everywhere, were basically the same)
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:49 AM on June 13, 2012


lots of interesting stuff here, to which I'd like to add ... Sound Chaser

How the hell does it fit in?

Solo piano version
posted by philip-random at 10:58 AM on June 13, 2012


"So you went up a major fourth?" I said. "Pretty standard."

This is a perfect example of what's useless about this kind of analysis.

It's like watching a gymnast and saying, "So next you did a flip? Pretty standard." Of course she did a flip (although it might a have been a cartwheel or a spin or one of a small handful of other things). What matters is how she did it, what kind of flip, what came next, how it fit with everything else.

When I was a kid, I mentioned to an older kid that I liked a particular album and he said, "Yeah, it's okay. If you like lots of ninth chords." At the time I was crestfallen, but now I just think, "What a total poser."

"Hitchcock? Yeah, he's okay, if you like close-up shots."
posted by straight at 11:34 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


*puts on Innervisions to wash out brain*
posted by The World Famous at 11:46 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying chord progressions don't matter. Of course they do. But they get analyzed vastly out of proportion to how much they matter in whether a song is good or not for one simple reason: Unlike most other components of a musical performance, chord progressions are objective, easy to describe, and easy to compare from one song to another.

The basic drum rhythm pattern ("the beat") would be the other simple way to categorize pop songs by a basic building block. But interestingly, it's pretty common to play a pop song to a different beat and have people still talk perceive it as being the same song. It's not unheard of to cover a song using a different chord progression, but it's less common and often gives more of a feel that the song has been rearranged into something new.
posted by straight at 11:50 AM on June 13, 2012


It's not unheard of to cover a song using a different chord progression

Can you provide any examples? (I'm not doubting, just curious)
posted by piyushnz at 1:29 PM on June 13, 2012


Ha, I started working on making my rules above into a card game, where you score 'tricks' by completing a progression by getting it back to I.

I did a bit more work on this (as well as writing a little computer program to simulate it). It's really interesting. I added some 'modifier' cards which you can play in combination with chords. For example, you can play a 'borrow from minor' chord to allow you to play a chord from the minor, for example Bb7 in C, and there's an 'avant garde' card that allows you to play any chord you like. Then there's a 'moody' chord that allows you to play some less obvious progressions such as ii-iii or IV-iii. Each chord card has a list of permitted chords that can be played onto it, and the deck is stacked by having more of the obvious chords and less of the unobvious chords. A dominant chord always forces a resolution. If you can't play a chord you have to take another card.

I still haven't quite worked out the mechanics, but I quite like the idea of tricks counting against you so the other player is always trying to force you back to I and you are always trying to resist it.
posted by unSane at 6:11 PM on June 13, 2012


(and the resulting chord progressions are rather pleasant -- although that could be changed very easily with a different ruleset)
posted by unSane at 6:12 PM on June 13, 2012


Here's Bruce Cockburn singing the Christmas carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" in a minor key instead of the usual major chord progression.
posted by straight at 7:20 PM on June 13, 2012


It's hard to think of examples of the most common form of changing a song's chord progression, because often a musician will swap a single chord--e.g. major chord (C) for it's relative minor (Am)--to change the feel of one passage in a song a little bit. (I think the They Might Be Giants version of "Istanbul" varies from the original in a few places like that.)

Another common example lately (which arguably might not count) is mash-ups that take the vocals from one song and put them with the instrumentals of another song, often with a strikingly different chord progression:

Fixing a Hole vs. Kelly Watch the Stars

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band vs. Paradise City

This cover of Purple Haze by The Cure has a very different chord progression; it's almost more of a mash-up than a cover.

But there are also artists who will do a significant re-arrangement of the entire song, which often entails new chord progressions. Here's a couple examples by the duo Pomplamoose:

My Favorite Things; Single Ladies
posted by straight at 8:37 PM on June 13, 2012


I still haven't quite worked out the mechanics, but I quite like the idea of tricks counting against you so the other player is always trying to force you back to I and you are always trying to resist it.

I feel like this could have a baby with Oblique Strategies and change the world for at least half a dozen people.

But there are also artists who will do a significant re-arrangement of the entire song

I have the dimmest memory of Cat Power doing a take on Satisfaction that involved giving approximately three tenths of a fuck about the original chordal arrangement.
posted by cortex at 9:04 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


straight:
"At the time I was crestfallen, but now I just think, "What a total poser.""
Yeah, that was pretty much all of us back then.
posted by charred husk at 6:03 AM on June 14, 2012


"More Than A Feeling" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" share the same chord progression. So, yeah, don't get too myopic about chord progressions.
posted by whuppy at 7:48 AM on June 14, 2012


straight: Pomplamoose…My Favorite Things…
Oof. That's like a cover of the Coltrane version by people who heard it one time sitting in an airport Chili's.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:52 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"More Than A Feeling" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" share the same chord progression.

I'll feel really dumb if I'm wrong about this, but I've heard that said a lot and it's just not true.
posted by The World Famous at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2012


Nirvana mashing up More Than a Feeling + Teen Spirit live on stage.
posted by unSane at 8:10 AM on June 14, 2012


Yep. Different chord progression.
posted by The World Famous at 8:13 AM on June 14, 2012


On the other hand, Sister Havana is totally the same chord progression as Peace of Mind.

And the chorus of Ava Adora by the Smashing Pumpkins is almost the same chord progression as the verse of Ziggy Stardust.
posted by The World Famous at 8:18 AM on June 14, 2012


The World Famous, the first two chords of Teen Spirit are the same progression. I think it's that and also that it's four chords in a similar rhythm. Also both songs do the quiet verse / loud chorus thing. So I think people hear the quiet verse and then you jump into a loud chorus with what sounds like the first two chords of More than a Feeling and people don't notice that the next two chords are completely different.
posted by straight at 9:14 AM on June 14, 2012


Indeed. That people insist the two have the same chord progression has driven me up a wall lo these many decades.
posted by The World Famous at 9:17 AM on June 14, 2012


By the way, Nevermind is quite a bit older now than Boston was when Nevermind came out. Doood.
posted by The World Famous at 9:19 AM on June 14, 2012


"More than a Feeling" is the very common - I IV vi V
"Teen Spirit" is I IV bIII bVI

It's more common in pop music to hear the bIII chord when a song modulates and stays there for the bridge or a guitar solo. The solo in ZZ Top's "La Grange" is an example. What makes "Teen Spirit" so arresting is that you get that same "we're kickin' it into a higher gear" feeling compressed into a single riff (with diminishing returns, of course -- but that intro was pretty powerful the first time you heard it).
posted by straight at 9:34 AM on June 14, 2012


... but to be clear, as the unSane link points out above, it's not as if Nirvana were denying an obvious similarity. In fact, I'm pretty sure the first time I ever heard about the similarity was via a Kurt Cobain interview, where he made a point of pointing it out. I think it was in response to a question that asked, to what did he attribute the song's amazing popularity?

"Ummm, maybe the fact that it's a rip off of More Than A Feeling."

Something like that.
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on June 14, 2012


But, returning to the subject of this thread, it's a similarity that doesn't really show up when you just list the chord changes.
posted by straight at 10:58 AM on June 14, 2012


Talking to my wife about the I V vi IV chord progression, she mentioned that a week or two ago she saw a segment on TV about the "one-hit wonder chord progression" - a chord progression that appeared in a ton of one-hit wonders.
posted by Bugbread at 6:51 PM on June 14, 2012


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