The Modern Pop Song: Melody, Harmony and Tyranny

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When you make a living as a background pianist in a restaurant playing instrumental versions of pop songs and you have an analytical mind, plus a background in music theory, you get to be somewhat of an ace at understanding how the construction of pop songs has changed over the years.

I spent a little time one day last week transcribing the song “Fix You” by Coldplay to play that night and I was thinking, “yep, here’s another song with 4 chords of equal length repeating in a loop.” It’s a trend that has been strengthening since the 80s and now it’s pretty much an unbreakable rule. I know you’re skeptical.

Let me show you:



One – U2 (1991):
[Am – Dsus2 – Fmaj7 – G6] loop that…



Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991):
[E – A – G – C] loop that…

Wonderwall – Oasis (1995):
[Em – G – D – A] loop that…

One Headlight – The Wallflowers (1996):
[G – D – F#m – Bm] loop that…

Clocks – Coldplay (2002):
[D – Am – C6 – G] loop that…

Halo – Beyoncé (2008):
[A – Bm – F#m – D] loop that…

Chandelier – Sia (2014):
[Bbm Ebm Ab Fm] loop that…

Hello – Adele (2015):
[Fm – Ab/Eb – Eb – Db] loop that…

 

You get the picture. Sometimes it’s one 4-chord loop through the whole song, sometimes there’s a verse loop, then the chorus works over a different 4-chord loop. But it’s always 4 chords of equal value. Without a break, without deviation.

You’d think it’s always been that way, but no. Let’s go back to The Beatles and have a look at a few of what we think of as their simpler songs.

First, Hey Jude.

Hey Jude is deceptive because it sounds uncomplicated. But that simplicity is achieved through some pretty sophisticated chord structuring, at least it’s sophisticated in comparison to 4 chords in a repeated loop.

C G G7 C F C G C… and that’s just the first part of the song. The next section (“And any time you feel the pain…”) is quite asymmetrical and involves key changes and turnarounds.

Hey Jude is typical of The Beatles, whose songs are so easygoing and organic – but the song structuring is very creative and the chord progressions are shaped by the needs of the melody without any concern for sticking to a pattern. And yet it sounds so simple.

OK, now let’s look at a Beatles song that does employ a repeated loop of chords.

Dear Prudence: [D – D/C – D/B – D/Bb] loop that 5 times, then play [D C-G D]

Yes, this song does in a sense use a 4-chord loop, but it’s really built on one chord with a moving bassline.

However, this Beatles song differs from current 4-chord songs in an important way. The tension that builds in repeating the Dear Prudence loop over and over again is released and resolved at the end of the progression with a harmonic cadence on “won’t you come out to play.” That makes a big difference because the chord structure of Dear Prudence employs tension and release, a key compositional component to music.

The Beatles seek to express a narrative in their chord progressions, whereas that practice is almost non-existent in the 4-chord pop songs of today. Not that the Beatles way is better. Well, OK, it is.

It’s hard to find other examples of 4-chord loops in Beatles songs. There is a freedom in their writing, a lot of tension and release, and even in their most stoic moods, they still use lots of chords, freely, almost at will. In fact, they do change chords at will because, “why not?”

So what has changed in pop music since those carefree days when recording artists built chord structures into their songs in any way they wanted? When they felt free to momentarily change keys or use cadences or asymmetry in their chord progressions? A lot.

Disco for starters, which while still rooted in tension and release and a lot of traditional harmony, was starting to employ 2-chord loops (“Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “Good Times” by Chic are prime examples) although “Miss You” does have a release section (“Ooo, baby why you waiting so long?…”).

But there still was a lot of room in disco for songs with longer, evolving chord progressions (“I Will Survive,” for example) that employ a lot of tension and release, key changes, and even some asymmetry (“Golden Years” by Bowie is firmly in the disco genre but is very free with its harmonic structure).

Another intervening event between then and now is the emergence of Punk Rock – and even more importantly, the Punk Ethos – which eschews harmonic complexity and other trappings of the then status quo as a matter of principle.

And then of course there’s Hip Hop but let’s put that huge influence aside for now.

The period after Punk and Disco, but before the Common Era, the 80s, is an interesting era for harmonic analysis. There is a strong re-emergence of melody in 80s pop music and still remnants of the harmonic complexity of the preceding eras, but there is a distilling process underway, which is a good subject for another article – chord progressions of the 80s.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please, let’s continue the conversation in the comments section.

Editor’s note: Read part two of this series The Modern Pop Song: A Different Kind of Tension & Release.

David Tobocman is a pianist and songwriter residing in Los Angeles