Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Four chord songs

Several people have mentioned a youtube clip to me recently involving a comedy act who run through scores of songs which allegedly use the same four chords. As the author of How To Write Songs On Guitar I had to look this up.

The comedy act is the Axis of Awesome. The chords in question are the progression I-V-VI-IV, which in the clip they play in the key of E major: E B C#m A. The joke is the audience’s recognition of the songs being similar, as though they are laughing at discovering the resemblance and the evidence of the proposition at the outset that these are the four chords you need to have a hit. The performance does have a slight cheat element to it, firstly because it puts all the songs in the same key, whereas they would be in a number of different keys; secondly, because it doesn’t distinguish between songs that use those four chords without repeat in a progression, with repeats in a chorus (what I call a turnaround), or possibly for the entire song.

What does this performance demonstrate? Certainly, that this is a very commercial progression and many hits songs have used it (and no doubt more will). It also says something about the formulaic nature of harmony in popular music and its limited grammar (i.e. how the chords are used, not which chords). And underneath this is an interesting unfaced question for popular music’s audience: how many songs do you need or want that have the same harmony? Wouldn’t you rather hear something different? Why did you buy all these songs if you’re laughing at the fact that they sound the same?


2 responses

  1. bill

    Good point. I still read through your books weekly while trying to become a songwriter. Ive gotten much better thats for sure but still the hardest part is singing a melody that doesnt sound bland. It seems like my ear wants to follow the root and 3rds of the progression. Im not sure why. Is that normal?

    September 23, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    • Thanks for your comment, Bill. I would say that using roots and thirds in a melody is normal insofar as these notes sit strongly in the harmony at any given point, but it may indicate a certain insecurity about writing / singing melodies where a person is afraid of hitting a wrong note. If the melodies sound bland it will probably be because they lack tension – a melody needs a certain amount of tension and resolution. Singing a note against the chord and then resolving to 1 3 or 5 can help – also passing notes – plus vertical shape, interval jumps and rhythmic life – have a think about the rhythm of your melodies rather than just the pitch. Hope this helps.

      September 24, 2011 at 6:34 am

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