Saturday, May 14

Four Chord Song Omnibus

I knew, of course, that you could play an absurd amount of popular songs by knowing just a few chords. That's what made it so easy for me to learn to play a little guitar 20 years ago: you learn the most common chords, let's say four, in the most common keys, maybe three or four of them. I only had to practice for about an hour a day for a week to be able to make the changes in rhythm (I already had a strong vocal music background and some instrumental work) and I was able to play along with many common songs.

My friend, Jeff, mentioned the 4 Chord Song, so I looked it up on YouTube:



Funny stuff.

Then I started to dig a little deeper:

The Axis of Awesome: Four Chords Song
"Four Chords" is one of The Axis of Awesome's best-known works. It is a medley of popular songs that all follow the pop-punk chord progression. The work is an attempt to outline the perceived formulaic nature of popular music. The "Four Chords", in Roman numeral analysis, are written I - V - vi - IV.[6] The band also uses a vi - IV - I - V, usually from the song "Save Tonight" to the song "Torn". The band plays the song in the key of E so the progression they use is E-B-C♯m-A. Many of the songs featured in the medley have been transposed from their original keys.

The medley of songs that composes the "Four Chords" song is continually varied, often incorporating new releases. The Axis' song "Birdplane" is always included (itself a parody of the Five for Fighting song "Superman"). The melody usually starts with Journeys Don't stop believing.
Pop-punk chord progression
In the form vi-IV-I-V this was named sensitive female chord progression by Boston Globe Columnist Marc Hirsh[2]. In C major this would be Am-F-C-G. Hirsh first noticed the chord progression in the song "One of Us" by Joan Osborne.[3] He claims he then began to notice the chord progression in many other songs. He named the progression because he claimed it was used by many members of the Lilith Fair in the late 1990s.[2]

Both are a variant of the doo-wop I-vi-IV-V "Heart and Soul" progression, familiar from songs such as "Earth Angel" and "Donna"[2].
50s progression

As you can see, you can play a ton of songs with just four chords in these three progressions.

I am very tempted to make a comprehensive list of the songs in these categories, or at least the ones I like. This would be one place to start: Axis of Awesome 4 chords song list?

This video takes the form of an expose, listing many of the songs with the pop-punk and sensitive female progressions:



Of course, there are different melodies and instrumentation. And I'm actually inclined to marvel at the flexibility of basic pop structure rather than belittle it.

And here's the funny Pachelbel Rant:



Hard to believe: a useful YouTube comment:
it's funny, but he's technically wrong towards the end. Pachelbel's Canon goes I, V, vi, iii, in keeping with baroque chord conventions.  Most of the songs he plays are I, V, vi, IV, which is a different phenomenon all together.
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