Four Chords Is All You Need: The Limited Nature of Pop Music

Coming tomorrow: the infamous two-envelope problem, solved! More mathematical constructivism. But today, as it’s Sunday, something light and airy…and non taxing.

A “comedy rock” group which bills itself as the Axis of Awesome has independently discovered the Musical Badness measure. Recall, the Musical Badness measure says repetitiveness makes for poor music. This may be repetitiveness within a song, or even across a genre.

The Axis of Awesome have researched assiduously and found that the most popular pop music has only ever employed four chords, and no others. Just four, and the same four in each song; perhaps, but not likely, occurring in a different order.

About two dozens of these “hits” are sung in the following video (which, I must warn you, uses bad language twice). Beatles fans will want to pay attention at the 2:43′ mark.



“That’s all it takes to be a star” indeed!

One thing that makes pop music difficult to appreciate—a.k.a. bad—is that so much of it sounds the same. “Not true, Briggs, you fool!” you retort. “I don’t know about your tin ear, but I can clearly tell the difference between one song and the next.”

Well, as a matter of fact, so can I. But what is it that makes one song distinct from another? Given the research of the Axis of Awesome, it can only be two things: the lyrics and the voice of the singer. That is, the distinctiveness of that voice.

It may well be that the ear, when hearing yet one more four-chord-progression song, is so hungry for something new that it, in concert with the brain, inflates the significance of the singer’s voice. The song becomes that singer’s voice, as long as the lyrics are catchy.

This might be why pop songs always sound off except when sung by the original voice. The songs even sound false when they are heard by the same singer, but when sung live if you first heard the song from a studio recording; or the opposite if you first heard it live.

Note that this is “heard” live and not “witnessed” live: being there in person obviously affects the experience.

This curiosity does not affect music from Mozart, say, or Bach. In “classical” music, we are awarded with complexity and richness and so our minds are directed towards the music itself, and not to anything extraneous.

Like a video, or gossip about the band, or memories of what you were doing at the time you heard the song. This can explain why the pop music of our teen years sounds good, but as we age newer songs sound progressively bad.

We are told constantly that the mark of good science is replication. A discovery that cannot be duplicated is suspect. We are right, therefore, to ask whether the Axis of Awesome’s research has been verified. It has.

Several years ago, the ground was laid on this subject by Rob Paravonian, another comedian, who noticed that much of pop music merely duplicated Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. His seminal paper was entitled, “Pachelbel Rant,” which can be viewed here. Anxious readers can skip to the 2:18′ mark, which is where the meat begins.

Another founder, Space City Marc, building on the Axis of Awesome, has given us a classification of the four-chord song, which he calls the “Six Four One Five: Sensitive Female Chord Progression (SFCP).”

It’s any chord progression that starts with the minor six (vi) and then moves to the major four (IV), the major one (I) and the major five (V). Ideally, it would then repeat. As an example, a SFCP in A minor would be Am-F-C-G.

Audio examples of the SFCP can be found in the fundamental paper “Striking a chord.” Space City Marc is clearly anxious to be “non-judgmental”, however, and takes pains to tell us that repetitiveness isn’t bad because, well, it’s used so often.

More seriously, we have philosopher Roger Scruton, who said,

Countless pop songs give us permutations of the same stock phrases, diatonic or pentatonic, but kept together not by any intrinsic power of adhesion but only by a plodding rhythmical backing and banal sequence of chords. This example from Ozzy Osbourne illustrates what I have in mind: no point in copyrighting this tune, though no point in suing for breach of copyright either.

The Osbourne tune may be found linked in Scruton’s “Soul Music

Scruton has lots to say, and who warns us that

here is growing, within popular music, another kind of practice altogether, one in which the movement is no longer contained in the musical line but exported to a place outside it, to a center of pulsation which demands not that you listen but that you submit.

Hat tip to Dvorak Uncensored.

19 Comments

  1. I – V – vi – IV was the progression used if my ear still works. I – IV – V contains probably the easiest tone changes for the human voice. If four chords is all you need to make bad music would ragtime and even a good bit of classical also be bad as they primarily use I – V?

    What about too many chord changes (be-bop)? Would that be better?

    What’s truly amazing is the variety of tunes possible given the restriction. Obviously there’s far more to it than just the chord progression.

  2. I dunno, here. The truth is there is a very small number of chord progressions — crudely only 5040, and of those damn few are emotionally satisfying — maybe a dozen. Even when Schoenberg tried to escape from chord progressions entirely, the music that “works” tends to have a traditional chord progression hiding in it. Then as DAV mentions, there’s the problem with this theory that a very broad range of classical and baroque music uses this same progression, or one of the other ones.

    If there’s anything to this notion at all, it might be that the constraints of a single melody line with a verse-and-bridge structure is too limiting.

  3. Briggs, you genius. You have found the explanation of why I hate pop music, but could never put a finger on. You have even done a “literature” search! I haven’t laughed so hard in the past six months as I did at the Axis of Awesome here — talented fellows. I could never have identified the transition from one song to the next without the labeling. And then to think of the Cannon in D — well, epiphany all over again. My wife, who is twenty-something younger than I knew most of these songs and identified them as the tear-jerkers, or as she said, “the junior-high slow dances.” There was but one I could identify.

    “This might be why pop songs always sound off except when sung by the original voice.”

    Maybe the novelty, or what little novelty there is, has worn off by this time too– in the same way that movie sequels are often losers.

  4. At the risk of being — uh, well — repetitive — think upon this fact: all pop (er, bad) music has been written using the same 12 notes. And to think that all great writing (and even more poor writing) has been accomplished using variations of the same 24 character alphabet starting with the Greeks (Phoenicians don’t count). The Gettysburg Address contains the same boring syllables used in everyday speech. Rhythm requires repetition. Our lives a rife with rhythm, Music reflects our lives.

    So what if a lot of pop is based on Pachelbel? Too much Pachelbel may not be possible. For instance: Pachebel’s Canon in Deed

  5. Okay, so pop music is repetitive. Well so is sex. I don’t see either going out of fashion soon.

  6. Now then, you chaps know more about music than I do. Tell me, is the claim that Bix Beiderbecke could identify all ten notes of any ten-note chord played on a piano (i) impossible to believe, (ii) well within the scope of any high calibre professional musician (iii) only just credible – a very rare talent?? I’d love to know.

  7. Just to be a troublemaker…

    Are there meaningful relationships among between complexity of the music, its quality, and its enjoyablity and enrichment to its listeners? Don’t know about other people, I like classical music not because it’s seemingly more complicated or sophisticated, but in the meantime, which is probably why it can deliver whatever its audience seeks. As much as I love classical music, but it can’t beat the fun of being able to sing and play popular songs, say, Beatles’, on piano with families and friends. Don’t think we we can play Wii Rock Band with classical music.

    “I’ll tell you what classical music is, for those of you who don’t know. Classical music is this music that was written by a bunch of dead people a long time ago. And it’s formula music, the same as top forty music is formula music. In order to have a piece be classical, it has to conform to academic standards that were the current norms of that day and age … I think that people are entitled to be amused, and entertained. If they see deviations from this classical norm, it’s probably good for their mental health.”
    ~ Frank Zappa

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