The Four-Chord Song

Axis of Awesome

One of my teenage students once introduced me to a YouTube video about the “four-chord song”.  This was performed by a comedy-pop group called the “Axis of Awesome”. The premise was that you only need four chords to write a hit song. In fact, it is a requisite of a hit song that it only have four chords.  The group proceeds to do a medley of songs that use the same chord progression.

Harmony in Contemporary Song

As strange as it seems, this premise has much truth to it. In fact it has a much deeper significance in the state of our contemporary song. In my many years of teaching I have focused on the particular musical interests of my young students. As a result, I have gotten to know contemporary pop musical culture quite well.  There seemed to be a period where almost every song that students requested had the same three or four chords. This represents quite a dearth of harmonic material, especially when you are trying to expose your students to a variety of chords and harmonic situations, .  In order to actually teach some harmony I would often turn to the rich catalog of Beatles’ songs.

Why this lack of harmonic ideas or imagination?  This is especially strange when one realizes that not so long ago Lennon and McCartney were writing brilliant songs with varying degrees of harmonic complexity.  Some were very simple like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”. Others were very complex, “Martha My Dear”, for example.

The Struggle of the Young Songwriter

I started to get insight into this through my teaching, specifically with two students. Both were singer/songwriters.  Both of these girls were talented singers with a love for writing lyrics and songs.  Their songs were good.  However, they both complained of the same problem. No matter how hard they tried, how different the lyrics and melodies of the songs were, they found themselves writing the same chord progressions.

The bottom line is that we are products of our environments. If you listen to music with one chord, chances are you will write one-chord music.  If you listen to more complex harmonies, those harmonies will become part of your musical make-up. As a result, your ear will eventually hear many chord alternatives for a given situation.

Young singers and musicians of today listen to songs which have, for the most part, the same or similar progressions. The variation comes mainly in the lyrics or the arrangement. So when my young songwriting students put pen to paper they were trapped by their ear and habits into similar progressions.  This represents a kind of harmonic ‘comfort zone’, and unless we look elsewhere and challenge ourselves, we will stay in our comfort zones.

Are We in the 50s Again?

This lack of harmonic variety reminds me of the music I heard growing up as a child in the 1950s.  Almost every popular song had the same progression: I, VI, IV, V.  That is, if the song were in the key of G the chords would be G Em C D.  Furthermore, the tonality of the chords were almost always Major or Major 7th, much like the songs of today.  It was only through the influence of rhythm and blues artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino, and eventually Elvis and the Beatles, that this gradually changed.  The blues became part of our pop music, and provided a richness that moved the harmony forward.  Hopefully, we’ll see that change again.  As they say, everything goes in cycles.