The Modern Pop Song: A Different Kind of Tension & Release

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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.

Hi and welcome back to our continuing discussion of pop song music theory. 

I’ve been able to keep the analysis easy to understand because we are looking at the modern pop song, a form of music which has been greatly simplified, at least when you look at the chord structures used. This time around, I’m going to get a little more into the weeds in order to explain what it is that I like about these songs.

To recap, as I showed in the 9 examples in the first article of the series, Melody, Harmony and Tyranny,” the songwriters of the current pop style are bound by a strictly enforced unwritten rule that states that sections of songs must conform to a repeating pattern of 4 chords of equal length. The 4-chord loop. It’s in so many songs that it’s much easier to name the current pop songs that lack this structure than those that do.

Let’s quickly define our terms. Melody, you know as the tune of a song, what the lead singer is singing. Harmony, for our purposes, is the term for the chords of a song.

There are a few hallmarks of this style of songwriting, the modern pop song. First is that the 4 chords that have been chosen to be looped must be of equal length. They can change every bar, every two bars, two beats, the length doesn’t matter as long as all 4 chords have an equal time value and they repeat for the entire section of the song, if not the entire song. This rate at which the chords of a song change (1 per bar, 2 per bar, 1 every 2 bars) is termed harmonic rhythm in music theory, and it’s a vital element of the character of the song. The hallmark aspect of the modern pop song is that the harmonic rhythm is constant and does not deviate within sections of the song.

Another aspect of the style we are looking at is a lack of harmonic cadences, unique events at the end of chord progressions that mark a stop, a pause, or even just a passageway back or forward to the next section. I have found exceptions to this rule of “no cadences” which I will show you, but these occurrences are rare and I think seeing a couple of them in action will let you listen for the many more examples where they are missing.

Finally, the primary aspect of the chordal (harmonic) element of the modern pop song is a notorious lack of tension and release within the chord structure, which is what inevitably happens when you adhere to a strict 4-chord loop pattern. There is a certain tension that builds if a chord sequence is repeated without a break and without cadences, turnarounds, or any deviation in the chord structuring, there is a palpable lack of harmonic resolution within the various sections (verses, choruses) in the pop songs of today. They seem to build endlessly within sections and, if the chorus employs a different 4-chord loop, there is where the tension is resolved. Because the same small number of chords are played repeatedly, there is no tension and release within sections of songs, no “narrative” being told by the choice of chords. That is not to say that tension and release is absent from the modern pop song. It’s just achieved in a different way.

Let’s look at some examples.

Hello: Adele

Hello: Verse

This song has a 2-bar intro section that repeats and forms the basis of the entire verse section of the song (I am removing the syncopation from the examples to simplify the music theory). It’s a 4-chord loop with a harmonic rhythm of half notes. Like most well-written pop songs of this style, Hello has a very effective, sophisticated vocal melody and an engaging lyric, but the chords have been greatly simplified, distilled down to a 4-chord repeating loop.

The section after the verse of Hello is a bit of a rarity in current songwriting, a short pre-chorus with a harmonic cadence at the end of it:

Hello: Pre-chorus

That final Db chord – is held dramatically until the chorus – a soaring melody this is built on a different but similar 4-chord loop as the verse:

Hello: Chorus

The pre-chorus in Hello (“There’s a such a difference / between us / and a million miles….”) helps so much to provide some tension and release, and wow, what a release that chorus provides!

All Of Me: John Legend

All of Me: Verse

Another song that uses the 4-chord verse loop as the intro to the song, Legend does a good job of varying the dynamic melodic material over the static harmony, which is another hallmark aspect of the style.

The next section is another rare pre-chorus section with a cadence and it works very well to bring some much needed tension and release to the song:

All of Me: Pre-chorus

But, there’s a catch. This pre-chorus is essentially a new 4-chord loop; it just pauses and holds on the Eb chord (the V chord) before it completes the 2nd iteration of the pattern. Tricky.

Up until this point, the song is using a strict 1 chord per-bar harmonic rhythm. When we get to the chorus, Legend employs yet another, different 4-bar loop but he stretches out the harmonic rhythm to be 1 chord every 2 bars:

All of Me: Chorus

The melody floats around the extra room provided by the more spacious harmonic rhythm. Good songwriting technique here. The final section of the song is a “hook section” written over a return to the original intro/verse 4-chord loop.

So there’s two modern pop songs that use a pre-chorus with a cadence to build tension into the release of the chorus, but the vast majority skip the pre-chorus entirely and just alternate between 2 different 4-chord loops, one used for the intro/verse/hook and the other being used for the chorus.

And yet, there is tension and release. It just happens at a more macro level. The verse loop builds tension, the chorus loop provides release. Listen for it the next time you hear a current pop song.

Of the examples given in Melody, Harmony, and Tyranny, you can hear this technique of merely juxtaposing 4-chord loops in U2’s One, Fix You by Coldplay and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, while Beyoncé’s Halo and Coldplay’s Clocks essentially are built one a single 4-chord loop for the whole song (although Clocks has a bridge that breaks the pattern, but not until the end of the song).

Examples from the first article in the series that contain a pre-chorus with a cadence include Wonderwall by Oasis and Sia’s Chandelier. One Headlight has a 2-chord instrumental passage that acts as a sort of pre-chorus between the verse 4-chord loop and a different 4-chord chorus loop.

As ever, I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments section so please join in with your thoughts on the music we all know and love.

David Tobocman is a pianist and songwriter residing in Los Angeles