And you giiiiiive yourself awaaaaaaay
April 19, 2010 4:11 PM   Subscribe

"All the greatest hits from the past 40 years use the same four chords." From Australian comedy group Axis Of Awesome.

Previously, a song in a similar vein.
posted by Rory Marinich (91 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
man, I could swear this is a double, but apparently not.

I'm totally not a musician but the last time this came up - and I swear it did - someone said those aren't same same 4 chords per se, but it's the same four-chord progression. There's apparently some sort of distinction.

Also, waltzing maltida.
posted by GuyZero at 4:13 PM on April 19, 2010


It was done by Rob Paravonian years ago. (And I think he had a better setup ...)
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:16 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Comrade_robot, you'll notice I linked to Rob in my post.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:19 PM on April 19, 2010


Saying 'same chord progression' just means 'if they all started on the same chord, all the subsequent chords would be the same too'. (similarly, Song A's first chord was 2 notes lower than song B's, all the other chords would be 2 notes lower as well.)

It's a trivial distinction, but an important one for musicians.
posted by Fraxas at 4:22 PM on April 19, 2010


This smells like a Metafilter Music Challenge to me...
posted by Pecinpah at 4:23 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


G D Em C
posted by Ironmouth at 4:23 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Now I know why I thought I had seen it - there was a question about this on Ask Me.
posted by GuyZero at 4:24 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


from A to B,
again avoiding C, D, and E,
'cause E is where you play the blues
.

posted by Burhanistan at 4:25 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


yeah, they're changing the key of a bunch of these songs so they fit
posted by nathancaswell at 4:26 PM on April 19, 2010


I hate, hate, hate this chord progression just because it's been beaten to death.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:36 PM on April 19, 2010


It becomes obvious that the Australian definition of "greatest hits" is different from mine.
posted by doublesix at 4:37 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I-IV-V-I

amirite?
posted by cazoo at 4:37 PM on April 19, 2010


Close. Sounds like I-V-vi-IV, as discussed in this comment of the Ask Me thread.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:42 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


In any case, you're not seeing e alive again until you hit b and a major!
posted by kid ichorous at 4:44 PM on April 19, 2010


Ugh. This is like when I noticed that verse-chorus-verse structure is so overused.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 4:50 PM on April 19, 2010


AC/DC did fine with only three chords.
posted by bwg at 4:55 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of punk bands in the area seem to pull chords out of a hat.

However, I'm pretty sure they're all too drunk to do better.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:56 PM on April 19, 2010


Four Chord Gord?
posted by empatterson at 4:58 PM on April 19, 2010


Looks like everything is built from just 3 elements: v,i, and the shift key.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:00 PM on April 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


Looks like everything is built from just 3 elements: v,i, and the shift key.

Nope. Emacs has chords, that can beat the crap out of vi's "modes". Just sayin'.
posted by qvantamon at 5:09 PM on April 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


emacs has chords that you need organ pedals to play. Just sayin'.
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


A song will only get really popular if it has enough familiar, comfortable elements, including chords and progressions that their ears understand only because they've been trained to understand them over and over again. Ask anything more of listeners and you might as well be teaching differential equations to 4th graders.
posted by naju at 5:11 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Ramones achieved total awesomeness with only three chords -- so there!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:15 PM on April 19, 2010


All the best-selling books use the same 26 letters. All the hit movies are on 35mm film or digital.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:16 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Poker-Face-Barabie-Girl half-second mash made me laugh.
posted by The Whelk at 5:18 PM on April 19, 2010


Four chords? Three chords? It's ALL too many, if you ask me. I'm with Junior Kimbrough, when he says: "My songs, they have just the one chord, there's none of that fancy stuff you hear now, with lots of chords in one song. If I find another chord I leave it for another song."

Yeah.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:28 PM on April 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


Oy only need too or free kords mesowf. But if dey wants ta get fancy wif it, den so be it!

Love, Sid.
posted by snsranch at 5:32 PM on April 19, 2010


I bought my first guitar about 10 years ago, and not being much of a self starter let it collect dust between fits of trying to learn how play with no results. And every time I'd ask a guitarist what to do in order to improve or even just make some sense of the stupid instrument they'd just give me that condescending " Practice, dude." I still hate those guys. But one night at a party a few years ago I cornered the guitarist after he played and asked my usual question. This time though, I added a "And don't just tell me to practice!" He just told me to learn three chords and I'd know about a hundred songs right off the bat. Best advice I ever got in my life.
posted by jake1 at 5:35 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think I would actually prefer to teach differential equations to 4th graders than listen to anything by Journey.
posted by DU at 5:38 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Saying 'same chord progression' just means 'if they all started on the same chord, all the subsequent chords would be the same too'. (similarly, Song A's first chord was 2 notes lower than song B's, all the other chords would be 2 notes lower as well.)

It's a trivial distinction, but an important one for musicians.


Nah, to musicians, the important part by far is that it's I-V-vi-IV. What actual key it's in (E in this video) is about as important as what font you use to typeset your novel. To me, these songs really do literally have the same chord progression.
posted by dfan at 5:40 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


drjimmy11: "All the best-selling books use the same 26 letters. All the hit movies are on 35mm film or digital."

Close. "All the best selling books and movies use the same formulaic narrative arc" is the better analogy.
posted by idiopath at 5:43 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


flapjax at midnite: "he says: "My songs, they have just the one chord ..."

Just one note, except the solos.
posted by idiopath at 5:46 PM on April 19, 2010


Just noting that these are the first four chords of Pachelbel's Canon as well. I V vi IV, as noted above.
posted by doteatop at 5:51 PM on April 19, 2010


So?
posted by jonmc at 5:58 PM on April 19, 2010


I doubt the people playing this are trying to spread some cynical "down with pop!" message. I'd actually bet they're big fans of all these songs. It's possible to poke fun at a convention of music without hating said convention.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2010


All the best selling books and movies use the same formulaic narrative arc

All animated Disney movies not only use the same formulaic narrative arc, they also have the exact same characters.
posted by DU at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


B.B. King on Lightnin' Hopkins, "He ain't got but three notes. He make them sing!"
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2010


The thing about the I-V-vi-IV in Pokerface is that it's built around the minor, so it starts at vi, halfway "out of phase." The chorus of Paparazzi, on the other hand, is a more straightup I-V-vi-IV.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:02 PM on April 19, 2010


All animated Disney movies not only use the same formulaic narrative arc, they also have the exact same characters.

Emperor's New Groove.
posted by The Whelk at 6:02 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think it would be worthwhile to go listen to some of the original songs and see how much we're being b.s.'d here. I have a suspicion that the original songs may be singable over those four chords but the original musicians are making more interesting choices, at least occasionally. You find this a lot in summer-camp songbooks, for example -- way easier for a song leader to learn 4-5 chords and cover everything pretty close than actually try to learn the crazy-ass suspensions, etc. that good composers will use.

At a quick glance, for example, it looks like "Let It Be" (my favorite example from both Rob Paravonian and these guys) does indeed go I - V - vi - IV -- except it's actually I - V - vi - IV/maj7 (resolving to IV/sus6) when Paul plays it, which is way more interesting.
posted by range at 6:03 PM on April 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Anyways, oscillating back and forth between the major and relative minor and hammering IV and V are probably the two biggest tropes in pop music, so a chord change that manages to hit both of them is going to stick around.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:03 PM on April 19, 2010


I think it would be worthwhile to go listen to some of the original songs and see how much we're being b.s.'d here. I have a suspicion that the original songs may be singable over those four chords but the original musicians are making more interesting choices

My music theory is a little rusty, but it's easy to change the key a song is sung in, Pomplamoose does this really well, but a more subtle change would probably be less noticeable.
posted by delmoi at 6:21 PM on April 19, 2010


The intervals are the same, but the songs are all in different keys, is that right?
posted by clockzero at 6:21 PM on April 19, 2010


the actual chords in the vid are
E B C#m A
(I V vi IV)

Pachelbel in the same key would be
E B C#m G#m A E A B
(I V vi iii IV I IV V)
posted by bhnyc at 6:22 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing about the I-V-vi-IV in Pokerface is that it's built around the minor, so it starts at vi, halfway "out of phase."

The vi is like a secret wormwhole into anywhere harmonically. Raise the fifth in that chord, as an ornamental note bend, and suddenly you're in I#, the furthest place in the harmonic universe.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:23 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is why I listen to Dream Theater.

So, you know, it's your fault.
posted by LordSludge at 6:36 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


dfan: Nah, to musicians, the important part by far is that it's I-V-vi-IV. What actual key it's in (E in this video) is about as important as what font you use to typeset your novel. To me, these songs really do literally have the same chord progression.
I am not a musician, but doesn't universal temperment make you incorrect? I.e., there's an audible and irritating difference betwen transposing a song to a new key, because the chords and progressions sound different (tuning an approximation of every tone with a basis of 440Hz means the imperfections of each key's perfect fifth are a little different). Am I wrong about this/hearing things?

Then again, it's not horrifically noticeable, so similar to the "These aren't the real, complexly colored chords used in the original songs, but just simplified versions that still function harmonically", the differences between a song in A and one in D isn't critical- but I disagree that musicians simply wouldn't care.
posted by hincandenza at 6:43 PM on April 19, 2010


Pachelbel in the same key would be
E B C#m G#m A E A B
(I V vi iii IV I IV V)
posted by bhnyc at 6:22 PM on April 19 [1 favorite -] [!]


You just saved me a lot of work. I probably have to play that darn piece at a wedding next month. THANK YOU.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:43 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


hincandenza: "doesn't universal temperment make you incorrect? I.e., there's an audible and irritating difference betwen transposing a song to a new key, because the chords and progressions sound different (tuning an approximation of every tone with a basis of 440Hz means the imperfections of each key's perfect fifth are a little different)."

No, the fact that all the fifths are fucked up is because all the fifths are exactly identical with equal temperament - mathematically the same ratio if you are tuned properly. The step from one note to the halfstep above is the 12th root of 2 with equal temperament. A whole step is the 12th root of 2 squared, aka the 6th root of two, etc. Period. No exceptions.
posted by idiopath at 6:53 PM on April 19, 2010


I.e., there's an audible and irritating difference betwen transposing a song to a new key, because the chords and progressions sound different

I dunno from the technicalities of tuning, but singers have songs transposed into other keys all the time when they cover other people's stuff, and you probably don't notice it. It's about locating the song within the singer's own vocal range. A song written and originally recorded in F might end up with notes too high for another singer to reach, so you transpose the whole thing down to, I dunno, D or something, and then they can hit all the notes.

(This is why you have the common line in movies when a singer walks up to the pianist and says something like "Gimme Maybe This Time in B-flat.")
posted by dnash at 6:56 PM on April 19, 2010


idiopath: "No, the fact that all the fifths are fucked up is because all the fifths are exactly identical with equal temperament"

Sorry, I need to correct myself here, in interest of not going to deep into it I oversimplified to the point of error.

The problem is that you only have twelve notes in an octave, and those twelve notes are supposed to capture all the ratios needed for all the transposed keys. In order to fudge this, equal temperament was invented - every ratio is a little bit wrong, some moreso than others, the fifth being the most egregiously out of tune. But the reason for this problem is exactly so that you can transpose to any of the twelve tonics for any given scale and have identical ratios each time.
posted by idiopath at 7:04 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


*every ratio but the octave is wrong - OK I am going to stop correcting myself now because I am sure nobody even cares
posted by idiopath at 7:06 PM on April 19, 2010


that was fantastic
posted by zeoslap at 7:28 PM on April 19, 2010


....and now I know what would happen if Jack Black was born Australian and Kyle Gass was split into a guitarist and pianist.
posted by revmitcz at 7:32 PM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Scale temperament fascinates me. Just intonation produces the weirdness hincadenza mentions, while equal temperament is what idiopath describes. Barbership quartets sing with just intonation; most popular music uses equal tempered. In equal tempered, fifths are pretty close (it's arguably the most important interval after octave), but the major third interval is quite sharp, for example.

If you look at the harmonic series, and keep following the circle of fifths around, you never quite get back to where you started. Adding more notes to the octave gets you more options, but quickly gets out of hand; imagine a piano with 36 or 72 (or more!) notes per octave. Fretless instruments have an advantage here, but it's a lot easier to play accurate chords on a guitar than a violin. On a guitar, you can bend strings to get at the juicier blue notes outside of the 12 tone scale. On a piano, you have to fake it by playing minor second intervals.
posted by and for no one at 7:41 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love their parody of the annoying song "Superman" which they call "Birdplane". They do a bit of it in the linked song as it fits the 4 chord thing, but the whole thing is worth a listen. I also could have sworn I came across both on the blue but i guess not.
posted by DanielDManiel at 7:45 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am not a musician, but doesn't universal temperament make you incorrect? I.e., there's an audible and irritating difference betwen transposing a song to a new key, because the chords and progressions sound different (tuning an approximation of every tone with a basis of 440Hz means the imperfections of each key's perfect fifth are a little different).

Nope, this is not really true anymore, since the invention of equal temperament a few hundred years ago. The frequency ratios associated with given intervals are the same no matter what key you're in.

I have perfect pitch and a bit of musical synaesthesia (e.g., E sounds metallic, F sounds kind of fuzzy), and although I can tell that a song has been transposed, it really doesn't make any semantic difference.
posted by dfan at 7:46 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


In order to fudge this, equal temperament was invented - every ratio is a little bit wrong, some moreso than others, the fifth being the most egregiously out of tune.

Actually, fifths are the least out of tune interval in equal temperament (and a good thing, too). The thirds aren't so great though. See the "difference" column in the table here.
posted by dfan at 7:49 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Next you'll be telling me that women never really faint and that villains always blink their eyes.

Just watch me now.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:53 PM on April 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


The thing about the I-V-vi-IV in Pokerface is that it's built around the minor, so it starts at vi, halfway "out of phase." The chorus of Paparazzi, on the other hand, is a more straightup I-V-vi-IV.

Yeah, a whole section of this medley is out of phase. They switch over at around 3:25 with "Africa" and back out around 4:30. It's done pretty seamlessly, which is impressive.
posted by dfan at 7:55 PM on April 19, 2010


Heh -- like the Tim Minchin throw in.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:14 PM on April 19, 2010


Wasn't it Bill Gates who said, "I-V-vi-IV ought to be enough for anybody"?
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:17 PM on April 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


In order to fudge this, equal temperament was invented - every ratio is a little bit wrong, some moreso than others, the fifth being the most egregiously out of tune.

Huh? The perfect fifth (and by definition, the perfect fourth, the inverse of the perfect fifth) are the closest notes to just intonation other than the octave itself.

The problem: The fifth, in just intonation, is a ratio, 3:2. If you multiply the frequency of the pitch by three, then divide by two, you've just raised the pitch by a fifth.

By the scale, then, 12 perfect fifths are seven octaves -- this is the Circle of Fifths, C G D A E B F# C# Ab Eb Bb F and back to C.

The problem: Doesn't work out. After 12 fifths, you're not back at C, you're well above it*. Each equally tempered Octave, the interval between your lowest note and highest is is 24 cents, after seven octaves, you're a semitone and a quarter off.

Equal temperament fixes this by redefining the fifth as 700 cents, not the 702 the 3:2 ratio would give you. So, in Just intonation, on the C scale, you find F# at 612 cents above the C, but Gb at 588 below -- not the same note. In equal temperament, the F# is 600 cents above, and the Gb is 600 below. So, in equal temperament, Gb and F# are the same note. In a Pythagorean scale based on perfect fifths, they're *not* -- they're 24 cents apart, and the different, the comma, leads to oddities in just intonation where most of your fifths are quite harmonic, but one isn't -- the wolf interval.

* In fact, you're at B#. This is C in equal temperament, but most definitely not C in just intonation. Indeed, B# and Gb pretty much disappear in Equal temperament, replaced by their identical forms -- C and F#
posted by eriko at 8:27 PM on April 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


dfan: "Actually, fifths are the least out of tune interval in equal temperament"

eriko: "Huh? The perfect fifth (and by definition, the perfect fourth, the inverse of the perfect fifth) are the closest notes to just intonation other than the octave itself."

Yeah, I messed that one up, I don't work with tonality and my memory was a bit hazy because the imperfection of the fifth interval is the imperfection people obsess about the most for obvious reasons.
posted by idiopath at 8:31 PM on April 19, 2010


Here an earlier version of that song, it was first performed in the Sydney University Arts Revue in 2006 (it has quite obviously been updated for the Comedy Festival). These guys have been working their stuff at Sydney Uni for a long time, I nearly choked on my lunch when I saw them on the blue. Two thumbs up for this post.
posted by cholly at 8:34 PM on April 19, 2010


In order to fudge this, equal temperament was invented - every ratio is a little bit wrong, some moreso than others, the fifth being the most egregiously out of tune.

At 1.96% of a whole tone accuracy, I'd say the fifth did a lot better than the minor seventh, off by 31%, or the major sixth, off 15% (both of a whole note.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:34 PM on April 19, 2010


Oh, OK, I will try a glib excuse this time!

Clearly, since it is the fifth interval of the scale, it's being out of tune is the most egregious, regardless of the percentage.
posted by idiopath at 8:37 PM on April 19, 2010


Or what erico said. I remember being shown a piano concerto or some such by Beethoven, where the theme rocketed all the way up the keyboard -- only it landed on the equivalent of a c# instead of the c it had started on, because in context that sounded more like the same note.

Anyone know what piece that is, I'd appreciate the reference.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:41 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Clearly, since it is the fifth interval of the scale, it's being out of tune is the most egregious

Yeah, that is a big part of it. The augmented forth, known as "the devil's interval," took a hit of 15.5% without anyone daring to come to its defense.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:45 PM on April 19, 2010


C Major (C , E, G) = (261.626 Hz, 329.628 Hz, 391.995 Hz)
Ab Major (Ab ,C, Eb) = (415.305 Hz, 523.25 Hz, 622.254 Hz)

Sure enough if you check the ratios of the notes with both chorda, they match to four decimal places, yet pretty much everyone agrees that the C chord is more transparent and cheerful, and the Ab chord is a bit dark and moody. The same being true for songs transposed into those keys. Someone remind why this is the case, please.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:07 PM on April 19, 2010


The antidote to this stuff is Steely Dan. Try to wrap your head around the chords in 'Babylon Sisters'.
posted by 4midori at 9:13 PM on April 19, 2010


Someone remind why this is the case, please.

Intelligent design?
posted by joe lisboa at 9:19 PM on April 19, 2010


C Major (C , E, G) = (261.626 Hz, 329.628 Hz, 391.995 Hz)
Ab Major (Ab ,C, Eb) = (415.305 Hz, 523.25 Hz, 622.254 Hz)

"pretty much everyone agrees that the C chord is more transparent and cheerful, and the Ab chord is a bit dark and moody. ... Someone remind why this is the case, please."

C->E 4 semitones | Ab -> C 2 semitones
E->G 3 semitones | C -> Eb 3 semitones
C->G 7 semitones | Ab -> Eb 5 semitones

you are not comparing the same intervals
posted by idiopath at 9:23 PM on April 19, 2010


The antidote to this stuff is Steely Dan.

Or this.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:42 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


the C chord is more transparent and cheerful, and the Ab chord is a bit dark and moody.

But, hey... D. You know? D minor. The saddest of all keys.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:44 PM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


C->E 4 semitones | Ab -> C 2 semitones
E->G 3 semitones | C -> Eb 3 semitones
C->G 7 semitones | Ab -> Eb 5 semitones


OK that is totally wrong, never mind, the intervals are the same, clearly time to hang up my keyboard for the night.
posted by idiopath at 9:45 PM on April 19, 2010


play him off piano man!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:49 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


*falls off bench muttering*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:50 PM on April 19, 2010


dunkadunc: A lot of punk bands in the area seem to pull chords out of a hat.

However, I'm pretty sure they're all too drunk to do better.


Reminded me of this Nothing Nice To Say comic.
posted by rebel_rebel at 11:41 PM on April 19, 2010


It's a self link, but I guess it's relevant. twine42, talitha kumi and I started writing a list of songs based on the 8 chords of Pachelbel's Cannon a while back. I'll have to go through this later and see how many of these 4 chord tracks match all 8 of the canon...
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 2:17 AM on April 20, 2010


Even if songs do sound different when you transpose them, they're going to sound different anyway if it's you playing them rather than the original artist - think of it as a nice source of variability in your cover version.

Incidentally, my use of Ultimate Guitar and Chordie increased dramatically when they introduced their automatic transposing function. If I'm trying to make a song work on the uke I'll frequently set it to "Down 1 semitone" and keep clicking the button until I can play at least 80% of the chords. (For the rest, you can just keep on the previous chord, or throw in a completely different one - the audience never spots a thing...)
posted by ZsigE at 5:21 AM on April 20, 2010


[...]pretty much everyone agrees that the C chord is more transparent and cheerful, and the Ab chord is a bit dark and moody.

I would not say that this is the case. Certainly on a piano they will sound pretty much identical except for the C chord being higher pitched and thus I suppose "brighter" in some way. On, say, a violin, you will get to use more open strings, and they will vibrate a bit more sympathetically, if you play in C rather than Ab. This is the main reason that key choice matters a bit in tonal classical music.

Also, if you play those two chords right next to each other, the Ab will sound dark and moody in context because it is using three important notes of the C minor scale, while the C chord is not using any important notes of the Ab minor scale. So we're back to it being a question of intervals and not absolutes. If you play a C major chord and an E major chord, now the C chord will be the one that sounds a bit dark and moody.
posted by dfan at 5:38 AM on April 20, 2010


"All the best selling books and movies use the same formulaic narrative arc"

I know, right?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:31 AM on April 20, 2010


Sure enough if you check the ratios of the notes with both chorda, they match to four decimal places, yet pretty much everyone agrees that the C chord is more transparent and cheerful, and the Ab chord is a bit dark and moody.

I have never understood this argument. I don't mean that in an "it's wrong!" way—there are other things about music theory and practice that I didn't understand until I finally did—I mean that I've never had this idea explained to me in a way that made it clear that there's substance rather than subjectivity to it. I certainly don't identify different major scales out of context as having specific moods or whatever. In abstract, with equal temperament, a major scale is a major scale to me.

The closest I can recall to getting a bit of an idea of where this argument comes from was looking at music back when just intonation was the thing and equal temperament was not yet in popular use—such that the actual harmonic differences between given intervals of a scale in different keys were tonally/mathematically significant. And I suppose that's something that may still be observable in modern performances/recordings by e.g. orchestral bodies that use just intonation with some kind of intent, but it doesn't really make sense in the context of pop music where I think people generally try (sometimes not hard enough) to tune their instruments up and leave it at that.

On the other hand, as a musician I do associate specific keys with different sounds to some extent on an instrument-by-instrument basis—playing something on the guitar in G feels different than C which feels different from D, because the actual open chord forms that different degrees of a scale will be voiced with vary from key to key. An open G is a full, sweet, deep chord; an open D has less bassy thrum to it because the root is the better part of an octave higher and voiced on the third string, and if you bring in the bottom two strings in it gets fuller again but as an inversion that doesn't have the same bass-note-thumping solidarity; and so on.

Again, this isn't something I'm calling bullshit on (though I will say that the "pretty much everyone agrees that..." bit seems like an over-representation), I just haven't ever gotten the right line of explication to make it clear to me why the claim is meaningful.
posted by cortex at 8:58 AM on April 20, 2010


If you play a C major chord and an E major chord, now the C chord will be the one that sounds a bit dark and moody.

Or more specifically, if you establish E as the key and then make a move to a C, that C will sound moody because of its harmonic relationship to the tonic. But if you establish C as the key and then move to an E, that E will sound kind of tense and triumphant.

In both cases, you'd be expecting another chord to come along as well, but the interesting thing is that, in E, an E -> C -> E move would feel pretty okay to me whereas, in C, a C -> E -> C move would feel kind of weird. I'd expect that C -> E -> ??? move to yield some new chord as the third step, maybe an F or an Am as the two likeliest culprits.

So you have the same two chords, with the exact same physical relationship to each other in terms of their harmonic properties, but the order in which you present them changes the feel of the move from one to the other considerably. That's a very neat thing. And it works precisely the same way if it's Ab and C instead of C and E, in either direction.
posted by cortex at 9:08 AM on April 20, 2010


In both cases, you'd be expecting another chord to come along as well, but the interesting thing is that, in E, an E -> C -> E move would feel pretty okay to me whereas, in C, a C -> E -> C move would feel kind of weird. I'd expect that C -> E -> ??? move to yield some new chord as the third step, maybe an F or an Am as the two likeliest culprits.

Yeah - in the key of E minor, a C major chord is a perfectly normal vi. So E -> C is kind of a combination of two pretty standard moves: shifting into a minor mode and then moving down to vi. Also, E -> C/E -> E (that's C with its E in the bass in the middle there) works pretty well chromatically (the E in the bass stays put, the G# goes to G natural and back, the B goes to C and back). You'll see it used by composers like Wagner.

On the other hand, E major really has no function in the key of C major except as an applied dominant to vi (A minor), as you note. C -> E -> F doesn't really happen in classical music because there's no good way to go from E to F without ending up with parallel fifths, but it does happen plenty in pop music (and I'd argue that in some sense the F is substituting for Am in that case).

So you have the same two chords, with the exact same physical relationship to each other in terms of their harmonic properties, but the order in which you present them changes the feel of the move from one to the other considerably. That's a very neat thing. And it works precisely the same way if it's Ab and C instead of C and E, in either direction.

Yeah, I probably shouldn't have glossed over that, but that was my point - the darkness or lightness of the C major chord depends on which side of that interval it's on, not on its own absolute frequencies.
posted by dfan at 9:46 AM on April 20, 2010


Adding more notes to the octave gets you more options, but quickly gets out of hand; imagine a piano with 36 or 72 (or more!) notes per octave.

This is just due to our chromatic scale and its intervals. Other scales and intervals exist - check out microtonal music.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:05 AM on April 20, 2010


So - I'm listening to Acroyear2 by autechre -- what's the chord progression on that?
posted by symbioid at 10:40 AM on April 20, 2010


So - I'm listening to Acroyear2 by autechre -- what's the chord progression on that?

Z -> Zzz -> Zzzzzzzzzz

I keed, though.
posted by BoatMeme at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2010


I wonder if part of the answer to the Ab / C comparison is that piano tuners bias their tunings to C Major.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:52 PM on April 21, 2010


Shit like this is why I'm a drummer.

Completely unrelated to the fact that Rush is my favorite band.

What?
posted by Eideteker at 1:58 PM on April 21, 2010


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