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?