The Four-Chord Song

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”, and it’s premise was the fact 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.  This witty performance proceeds to give us a multitude of examples of songs that use the same chord progression.

As funny as it seems, this premise has much truth to it, and, in fact, has a much deeper significance in the state of our contemporary song. For many years, having focused my teaching around the particular musical interests of my young students, I have had the opportunity to get know contemporary pop musical culture quite well.  There seemed to be a period where almost every song that students were asking me to teach them had the same three or four chord progression through the whole piece.  When you are trying to expose your students to many chords and harmonic situations, this represents quite a dearth of harmonic material to give them.  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 it wasn’t so long ago that Lennon and McCartney were writing brilliant songs with varying degrees of harmonic complexity, some very simple like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” to the very complex harmonies of “Martha My Dear”.  I started to get insight into this through my teaching, specifically with two students.

Both were singer/songwriting girls.  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, and your ear will eventually hear many alternatives for a given situation.  But if almost all the songs you are listening to have the same or similar progressions and vary only in lyrics or arrangement, when you put pen to paper chances are you will be trapped by your 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.

I mentioned before the significance that this phenomenon has for the state of pop music.  We live in an era where good musicianship is not a necessity in the world of popular music.  If a singer has a nice voice and stage presence and looks great he or she can have a decent career as a pop singer, provided the right song comes along. Conformity is a predominant aspect of this music and its creators, much as it was in the music of the ’50s. As it was in the music of the ’50s, the harmonic language is extremely limited.

The fact is, there is not a large value put on musical innovation at the present moment.  The tastes of the public are often confined to what they hear on the radio or television.  The decision about what makes it to the radio or television are made by musical corporate men or women whose decisions are driven by what has worked before.  Instead of looking forward for artists who might be visionary, the music business looks back to those artists who have been financially successful and tries to recreate that financial success through imitation. The result is a popular form of music that seems stuck in its old habits.

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