The Four Chords of Pop and their Prevalence in Hit Songs
While sitting in his recliner smoking a cigar, my grandfather used to turn on the radio to see what kids were listening to these days. He would grumble and groan at the whiny moans and auto-tuned voices that flood today’s top hits. With a huff under his breath, he muttered, “All pop songs sound the same” before changing the station to something more his style. I would often wonder how he could take ten, twenty, or thirty songs and fail to see the difference between them. Besides, each song had a different artist, different lyrics, a different theme, what was it that made them all so similar?
Listening closely, I had a revelation. Many of these songs are a combination of the same four chords, (I V VI IV). Which, in the key of C major, the most common key, these chords correspond to (C, G, Am, and F). No wonder many of these songs sound the same; they all include the same progression! With the help of Wikipedia and TV Tropes, I have concocted a list of songs that use I V VI IV, as played in the popcorn video here.
I V VI IV in the Past
But is this phenomena limited to recent music? The answer is no, not at all. The first instance of this progression is in Pachelbel’s Canon, which was written centuries ago and rediscovered in 1919. Previously Pachelbel had only been known to be a friend of the Bach family. He somewhat influenced J.S. Bach’s work; but the resurgence of Canon has made him somewhat of a “One-hit wonder” among classical musicians.
Musicians of the last century have taken note of the success of this chord progression. In the 1950’s these chords were considered the Doo Wop progression. If you’ve ever listened to children play the piano, you’ve probably heard the song “Heart and Soul” which was originally written in 1938, but became famous by playing in the background of commercials for Quaker Oats and iPad Mini. When learning the piano, it is often one of the first songs one learns to play, primarily because of its catchy tune and easy chords and rhythm.
Modernity of I V VI IV
Modern artists have noted how “catchy” these chords are when used properly, and they have used this to their advantage. Even though the I V VI IV progression is the most popular, these chords are arranged in all kinds of ways. One of the other popular progressions using the same exact chords is VI IV I V, which was quoted the “sensitive female chord progression” by Boston Globe columnist Marc Hirsh. It’s seriously the same progression, but it starts on the VI chord instead of the I chord. Songs such as “Love the Way You Lie” by Rihanna and Eminem and “Grenade” by Bruno Mars are technically written using this progression. But, it’s basically the same chords with a different start.
Writing a Hit Song: Musical Genius or Memorized Recipe?
So what does it take to write a hit song? According to the Australian comedic rock group the Axis of Awesome, all it takes is these four chords. In a live performance, they played roughly fifty songs such as “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” by the Offspring and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz using only these chords on a keyboard, guitar, and with their voices. The video has over 30 million views on YouTube as of today, and views are continuing to climb. Looking through the comments, it’s amazing to see how many people don’t realize that the I V VI IV progression dominates today’s popular music scene in all different genres like rock and country. It’s the progression that makes millions. But its familiarity is what is causing all these songs to sound the same, and it seems that this is not letting up any time soon.
Even though the same chords over and over again are repetitive, it does not necessarily mean that the quality of music is going down. Writing songs using this progression is similar to learning how to draw using a certain technique. This technique works, so an artist would use it, but it doesn’t mean that all their work is the same. There are colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and many other things that differentiate pieces from one another. It’s the same thing with songwriting. The instruments, beat, tempo, lyrics, and vocals are all different, even if the background chords are all the same.
That being said, many of these recent pop songs are short lived, and that may be due to their unoriginality. They tend to fade in and out like a popular teen romance novel. Once the song is the most popular song of the month; then it fades away to the group of forgotten songs on an iTunes playlist. Some may attribute this to the use of repetitive chord progressions, but if you know anything about music theory (or even if you don’t), you might realize that some chords just belong together. The chords C, Am, F, and G are meant to be, if in the key of C major.
What do you think?
What do you think is a result of repetitive chord progressions in popular music? From a songwriting standpoint, it gives songs a familiarity, almost a “sing along” vibe, which tends to bring people together. “I V VI IV” has been around for centuries, and it’s popularity is resurging in the recent decades. It might be the chord progression that defines our generation, or it might just be the most common recipe for a quick-fire pop song.