Every so often I see something online that really irks me in how misinformed it is along with how it contains absolutely no historical context at all. It’s one of those things where the poster or the author or whatever has totally failed to recognize that the thing they wrote about does not, actually, exist in a vacuum. Perhaps they just didn’t take history into account. Maybe they’re ignorant about the depth of their topic.
Maybe they’re just stupid. I don’t know. This is the Internet we’re talking about here.
This time along, it happens to be music. Worse yet, it’s a same, tired old thing that pops up every so often with slightly different twists. In this case, it was a small rant about how all pop music sounds the same. Along with that, they provided a mix to go with it and prove their point. Once again, the point was that all of today’s pop music sounds the same and is totally replaceable.
It’s not so much that they made the statement and backed it up with their own mix, it’s also how they say “Pop songs are so replaceable these days…” Fine, as opposed to any other days?
Look, at one point in my life I was a professional musician. I still play various instruments and make the occasional odd recording. I’ve been a musician since I was five years old and I played my first paid performance at six. That’s not to brag or show off my musical chops because, believe me, there are far better keyboardists out there than I. Those last few sentences are merely designed to lay out a set of credentials that prove that I have some idea what I’m talking about, okay?
So in the realm of music, there’s this thing called “musical theory.” It may surprise you, but with any discipline there are two sides — practical and theory. The practical side of something is the doing. The theory (or theoretical, if you like) side of the discipline is the how and why it works. Chances are, when you go to the doctor, you’re going to see a general practitioner. “Practical” is the basis of “practitioner.” Your doctor is a doer. Meanwhile, in their downtime, your doctor is reading articles in medical journals by theoreticians and researchers. Medical researchers are doctors too, but they’re into the theory of medicine, trying to figure out new things and how things work.
Now then, in music it’s not so scientific. A theoretician can be a totally practical musician and, quite often, they are. If someone is writing songs, then they are utilizing musical theory because there is a set of rules that they need to follow to make a song sound a certain way. Those rules dictate why music sounds the way it does, why certain chords sound good together, and why jazz sounds like jazz and not like Russian folk. (It also dictates methods to make jazz that does sound like Russian folk.) A small part of musical theory is chord theory, which is simply defined as the rules dictating which chords sound good with other chords.
Chord theory is the entire basis for pop music’s existence.
With any pop song you have a form, and that form is a very basic form that works very well for pop music and, at the very least, explains why most pop music doesn’t sound like Miles Davis, say, or Prokofiev. Within that form you find four things.
I – V – vi – IV.
All right, I’m not going to bore you with abstract musical stuff, so I’ll try to be quick about this. Say you’re in the key of C, right? Then a C chord is the first chord in that scale. Since music digs on Italian to describe what you should do in a song (Anyone for some allegro con brio?) then it should come as no surprise that they use Roman numerals to indicate chord progression. So a C is the first chord or, in Roman numerals, I.
Other chords come after that and they have numbers too. There is one little caveat, however. If the chord is a minor chord, then you write the number in small Roman numerals like our friend “vi” up there. Now then, to make a C chord on a piano, you take your thumb and hit C, then use your middle finger to hit E, and finally use your pinky to hit G. Now drop your hand on the keys like that at the same time and you have a C chord, or I in the C chord progression. Right, now keep you hand in that same position and move it up one white key, striking the D, F, and A, which is a D minor chord.
Ok, that’s minor. So that’s ii. Would you like to have a II instead of a ii? Then hit F sharp and you’ll make a major chord and now you have II. Now keep going up like so from C until you go five (V) spaces and you’ll land on G major. G major is the fifth chord in the C chord progression.
So when I say I – V – vi – IV, all I’m really saying is “take a major chord, then go five chords higher and play that major chord, then go up one chord higher and play that minor chord, then come back down to the fourth major chord and play that. For C this would be C – G – A minor – F.
Right. Now write a pop song.
Seriously, once you understand that, you’re far more than halfway there. It’s like I just gave you a map that doesn’t show the roads, but has all the familiar landmarks you’d need to get where you’re going. How you get there is your own business, just like what notes and chords and lyrics you use to write your top forty pop tune are really just something you throw on top of I – V -vi -IV.
Now, truthfully, some pop tunes use a slightly different chord progression of i – VI – III – VII. If we stick with our C chord friend this would be C minor, A, E, B. That sounds a little wonky on a piano, but you’ll find that A minor, F, C, G sounds pretty good. (Using that with C results in a lot of changes on the black keys. It still works, but the A minor base sounds cleaner.)
So, if you can finesse a song out of I – V – vi – IV or i – VI – III – VII, then you could be a big time pop song writer too. And yes, when lined up together with other songs using those chord progressions, they will mix and blend together quite nicely because all songs using the same chord progressions do that. You find another song using the same chord progressions as, well, let’s say Coltrane’s Giant Steps (good luck), then those two songs will blend really well and you can jump back and forth between them without jarring your ears.
Now, the historical aspect, which is what really got me up in arms. Pop music comes and goes and changes over time. That’s actually a well known facet of pop music in general — that the songs are popular for a while and then a few months later you barely hear them anymore. When was the last time you heard, say, Madonna’s very first smash hit single on the radio? Can you even tell me what her first hit single was? (To hell with the suspense, it was Holiday.) Yeah you’ll hear it on the mix stations and stuff, but not on the top of the pops stations because it’s no longer top of the pops. Don’t worry, that thing that’s currently burning air time on top forty will be on the big mix station next year sometime when the artist, and the world, has moved on.
The use of chord progressions to make a type of song or a genre of music isn’t anything new. Indeed, at the very end of this essay, I’m going to link you to my own mix. I mixed this music in my very own living room and the songs I used are quite gone from the pop stations and, in most cases, even the big mix stations because they’re kind of dated. By “dated”, I mean they’re 50+ years old but, at their peak, there were all over the radio and I’m certain there were people complaining that these songs all sounded the same.
And they did, that’s what makes a genre a genre.
Before you click the link, let me be honest with you. This is a mix I recorded using an external microphone connected to an iPhone and pointed at my mixer. My mixer, in this case, is my baby grand piano. I’ll be playing a style of music not heard on the mainstream airwaves for some time: Doo-wop. At its peak, doo-wop burned the charts with tunes like Stand By Me, Earth Angel, and Silhouettes on the Shade. I’m going to manually mix (which means I’m going to press a series of piano keys in the proper order and at the correct time) seven songs.
- Earth Angel – The Penguins (1954)
- Silhouettes on the Shade – The Rays (1957)
- Runaway – Del Shannon (1961)
- Stand By Me – Ben E. King (1961)
- Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers (1965)
- In the Still of the Night – Fred Paris and the Five Satins (1956)
- Runaround Sue – Dion and the Belmonts (1961)
In the end, I hope to show at least a few people on the Internet that complaining about how so many pop songs sound the same is just about as stupid as complaining that so many bluegrass songs feature a fiddle solo.
Click to listen…[audio http://bibliosophs.com/messerd/audio/DooWopMix.mp3]