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How much truth is there to the whole "all songs have the same 4 chords" claim?


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I imagine most of us have either heard the claim all songs go I V vi IV or some variation of it so im curious, do you believe that? Why is that? How much truth is there in that?

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I'm gonna go full frontal honesty with this one cause I'm kinda passionate about this.  I think there used to be a real craft to writing a melody and people were more free and happy so it was easier to tap into that creativity, after all the years went by and we got burnt out and the craft was lost because we became a TV watching society and a social media society etc, that we forgot how the craft works, we found more simple and stupid formulas.  I think this whole "3 chord pop song" is what people found that consistently works when we don't have the capacity to tap into the divine anymore.  We've reduce music to a formula so I'd have to say "NO, there is NO truth to it, it's what people try to teach each other cause you might get a hit if you over simplify, but we do this cause we've forgotten how to write real songs" thats... my unadulterated opinion.  Chords in songs can be limitless when you are tapping into true creativity, but if you wanna take the easy way out stick to 3 chords.  

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Hey Tom, really sorry I wasn't able to answer your question before you answered and honestly I didn't really think of that but IMHO as music is about sound and different voicing do sound different I personally do count them as different  (hence why I personally do have reservations about this theory that I didn't want to throw out for fear of being biased).

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Is it possible that like.... I dunno if you look at all the top 100 songs out on the charts and do a scientific analysis you find that the majority had no more than 4 chords, so someone went "AHA!  THATS THE KEY!!"  When in reality it's just kind of like... hits are short by nature, usually it's the most memorable and catchy things that stick, and thus many of those songs don't go passed 4 chords.  Wouldn't it be kind of stupid to then infer "and THATS what makes them hits!"  No it's just a common element they have because short songs often have less chords.  

 

lmao, once again I THINK I'm talking about the right thing but I'm not even sure but I just think if you go into a song with the mindset of "Ok I gotta pick my 4 chords and not deviate or I'll go too "out there" that's just.... that's madness people.  That is pure madness.  Why don't we just tell Da Vinci how many colors he should use....

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On 07/14/2017 at 6:38 AM, symphonious7 said:

Is it possible that like.... I dunno if you look at all the top 100 songs out on the charts and do a scientific analysis you find that the majority had no more than 4 chords, so someone went "AHA!  THATS THE KEY!!"  When in reality it's just kind of like... hits are short by nature, usually it's the most memorable and catchy things that stick, and thus many of those songs don't go passed 4 chords.  Wouldn't it be kind of stupid to then infer "and THATS what makes them hits!"  No it's just a common element they have because short songs often have less chords.  

 

lmao, once again I THINK I'm talking about the right thing but I'm not even sure but I just think if you go into a song with the mindset of "Ok I gotta pick my 4 chords and not deviate or I'll go too "out there" that's just.... that's madness people.  That is pure madness.  Why don't we just tell Da Vinci how many colors he should use....

If there was a way to do top comments I think this would get it!

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I think the original claim is false. Not all songs have the same 4 chords, or somehow follow the same progression or some variation there of. Some have fewer, some have more. 

 

I do believe that there are certain chord progression patterns that are used in the vast majority of songs. Things like a dominant V almost always resolving to a I, or to a lesser extent, a IV to a I. Or the prevalence of ii-V-I in jazz and its derivatives (some modern pop tunes make clever use of this progression; just listen to Bruno Mars's new album, for instance). But that's just the way Western music works. 

 

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"Ok I gotta pick my 4 chords and not deviate or I'll go too "out there" that's just.... that's madness people.  That is pure madness.  Why don't we just tell Da Vinci how many colors he should use....

 

No one can tell an artist or musician how many colours or chords they should use. But, there is a threshold beyond which a song will sound too complicated/too hard to follow for the average (read: 95% of) listeners. And as a result they will tune out, press skip, or change channels.

 

This is exactly why the pop 'formula' works. There are certain rules of thumb (an easily memorable and simple melody, common chord progressions, 4/4 time signature, etc) that musicians/producers stick to when creating songs that appeal to the masses. That's just the way things work. Then there's certain sounds and production techniques that are the flavour of the month/year that people will be drawn to, because it sounds familiar. 

 

The trick is to deviate slightly from all of this, but not too much so as to alienate your audience (too 'out there'), or bore your audience ('sounds like everything else on the radio!'). That's when you become 'original', a 'trend setter', 'oh he's so fresh and got his own sound!'. 

 

It's like anything artistic. Even stand-up comedy. Humour happens at the intersection of what is expected and the unexpected. Too much to the left, and it's boring, old hat. Too much to the right and no one gets it.

 

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I actually can see what you mean Will, I still just feel like... for me personally?  I can't have ANY rigidness in my thinking when I write or it just... I don't know.  I don't like rules lol

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On the other hand, Stairway to Heaven contained a chord progression so memorable that there was a copyright-infringement suit that basically concerned it.  (The suit failed, because the chord progression is among the things that are studied at University.)  Nevertheless, it defines the song.

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I can't have ANY rigidness in my thinking when I write or it just... I don't know.  I don't like rules lol

 

And that's fine. I don't like rules either. I don't think you have to see it as a set of 'rules' per se, though.

 

I believe there's two stages to the creative process. The first one is: get it all out, no rules, no overthinking, just let it flow. The second stage is: edit what you've got. The second stage works best with a fresh pair of ears (i.e. give it some time, a day, a week, whatever). Then what and how you edit ultimately depends on what you want to achieve. Mass appeal? Think of the 'rules'. Purely one's personal gratification? Think of yourself. Then there's a middle road. The middle road is key. It allows as wide an appeal as possible while maintaining the song's integrity, and that of yourself as an artist.

 

So, you can create without rules. And then afterwards redact with some rules, depending on your goal. That's what I think at least.

 

Sorry, extremely off-topic, so I'll stop.

 

PS: Having said that, I really enjoy your music on Soundcloud. There's an energy to it. A similar energy I get from listening to really early Soundgarden (UltraMegaOK, in particular). I think if you spent some time promoting it, you'll find wider appeal than you may think. But that's just my opinion of course.

 

 

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Thanks for that @Will Sketches!  I sort of have a "plan" it's like... I mean I've had pretty decent followings in the past and when I was in highschool my friends went gaga for my music so I know it's in there and I know people will dig it.  The problem has been ME.  I'M never satisfied, I'M never ok with my songs, there's always something that makes me go "I didn't sing that right, I couldn't get the bass right," or whatever, and then I just... don't do anything with it.  But I really seem to be coming out of that, I'd like to talk to you more about how one "promotes" if you have any suggestions.  I guess if you want to respond in any length to this just pm me so we don't start having a separate conversation in the thread.  

 

And yeah I really get what you mean about the "middle ground" and when you described the editing process I was like "Wait, I do that too"  I just had it in my head we were saying "Pick four chords and don't go outside of those four or you'll get too complex!"  And I was just like "How can anyone write that way???"  When you make it more like, cleaning up the original idea, that makes sense to me.  

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