“If you want to write a famous pop song, just write a four chord song.”
“Pop music – it all sounds the same!”
Yes, it does! Most people can’t even tell unless they’ve had a lot of musical training, but the similarities are pretty easy to find. There are four common chord progressions, and their movements are represented in Roman Numerals.
The first common progression is called the General Purpose Progression, which has movements in the following order: I, IV, V, I. Sometimes artists will slightly alter the order of these three chords (notice that “I” is used twice), but the songs generally sound the same. Take the song “Carry On” by F.U.N. or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for example. They aren’t as different as they seem.
The second common progression is called the Pop Progression, the one most often heard in today’s music, and its movements are as follows: I, V, VI, IV. This progression has been used since around 1980 for modern songs. Most of these songs keep a simple 4/4 time signature, using one line of the song for each chord change. Sometimes, creators will double-time the tempo to change things up a bit. An example of a song that uses the normal and most simplistic form of this is “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. An example of a song that double-times the exact same chord progression is “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus.
The third common progression is used mostly for upbeat songs that have a fun swing to them. It’s called the 1950’s Progression and follows the chord structure of I, VI, IV, V. This chord progression offers a lot more freedom for song writers to work with in terms of musical arrangement, which will be later discussed. A classic example of this chord use is “Stand By Me” by Ben. E. King. A modern example of this chord use is “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor. I know, her song sounds so cool, right? Well, it’s the farthest thing from original!
The last common progression is one that offers the greatest variety of musical ability, but still can easily be picked out by the countless songs that use it. It’s called the Sensitive Female Progression. No, not because it’s a sexist name, but because the progression is generally used for more emotional songs. Women, in general, are more emotional than men (which is why they’re also much more considerate, compassionate, loving, and nurturing), so the name fits. Its chord structure is VI, IV, I, V. I personally have written one song that uses this progression for each verse, although the chorus is much different and more original. Two examples of songs that use this exact same progression in different ways are “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rhianna and “Say Something” by A Great Big World.
When truly well-learned musicians look at these songs, they almost always think the same thing: That didn’t take much talent at all. That happens to be true for most modern pop songs. For example, “Run the World” by Beyoncé uses only two chords, repeats three sets of lyrics, and somehow managed to require four producers and, surprisingly, six writers. The song isn’t even grammatically correct, much less musically challenging, yet it and its similar counterparts of pop culture have managed to remain on top. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the most complex songs in terms of musical arrangement and prosody. It has earned its legendary standing in the heart of musicians. Yet, it only took one writer and one producer to create the song. Now that’s talent.
“Are there any variations in these songs that sound the same?”
Sure, multiple aspects can contribute to the variety we hear in songs.
The arrangement and use of certain instruments can change the sound. Most pop songs today are digitally mastered by computers, and actually aren’t being played on real instruments. – No, that orchestra you heard in the background was not real.
Another difference can be found in chord extensions. An extension is the addition of the 2nd, 6th, 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th note of the scale that corresponds to the key the song was written in. These extensions are usually used to create dissonance, which, when used properly, can contribute to the beauty and emotional effectiveness of a work of music.
Rhythm changes can also add variety to a set of songs. Take the Sensitive Female examples. “Love the Way You Lie” is in 4/4 time signature, which makes it easy to bop to and pick the tempo from. “Say Something” is written in 6/8, which gives it a feel similar to that of a waltz. Rather than “bopping” to a song like this, people generally are inclined to rock and sway. That rhythm change also adds to the emotional appeal of that song, and it does so rather successfully.
Lyrics and melody are the last differences that can be easily noticed. Lyrics aren’t hard to create as long as they match the tempo, and melodies are just as easy to create as long as they fit the key signature and chord they’re passing through.
These variations are what make some songs with standard chords such popular hits. “With or Without You” by U2 uses the Pop Progression, but I think it’s safe to say that the song is an original. Adele’s newest hit “Hello” uses the Sensitive Female Progression in the chorus, but other progressions in the verses set it apart from the rest. Megan Trainor and John Legend’s newest “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” also uses the Pop Progression; still, it’s a great song. And that, my friends, is why these chords seem to be here to stay. As long as there is variety, most people can’t even tell the difference.
People like Luther Vandross, Adele, Celine Dion, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, and others who have managed to cling to originality deserve a lot of credit. Not to bash today’s artists, just about everyone can agree that there are countless songs that are fun to jam out to, dance to, and sing along with. It just seems that true talent is created by true musicians, not computers and Auto Tune.
More to Explore: Here is a website Ultimate Guitar, a website that contains a plethora of songs and their chords, and it teaches the fundamentals of chord progressions in music.