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.