The Modern Pop Song: Tracing Patterns

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.

We have been exploring the 4-chord loop and its total dominance as the defining harmonic technique of current pop songwriting. In the first article in the series, “Melody, Harmony, and Tyranny,” the phenomenon is fully explained and supported by 9 examples of pop songs created since the early 90s and contrasted them with chordal techniques used in two fairly simple songs by The Beatles.

The next article in the series, “A Different Kind of Tension and Release” explored how modern pop songs retain interest and drama while still maintaining the static repetition of the 4-chord loop within sections of the song, sometimes through the use of a pre-chorus with a cadence, but usually just by artfully juxtaposing two contrasting 4-bar loops. A few helpful terms were defined here too, melody, harmony, harmonic rhythm, and harmonic cadence.

As I stated in the previous article, the 4-chord loop is so prevalent in the pop songs we hear today that it’s much, much faster to identify songs that don’t use it than songs that do. You’d think that all of that chordal repetition would make these songs uninteresting but that is not the case and I’ll try to explain why that is in the next article in the series. For now, I’d like to trace the history of the 4-chord loop, it’s origins and its distillation into the pure form we see today, absolutely everywhere.

Let’s go back to 1938. We can probably find earlier examples of the 4-chord loop but none better and more basic to pop music than Heart and Soul. You know it as the classic beginner’s piano duet:

But it’s actually a popular song written by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Frank Loesser. Yes, as originally written, the A section of the tune is comprised of a 4-chord loop:

Heart_and_Soul-A_section

Simple enough. That pattern loops 8 times as a repeated 8-bar A section. But that’s a little too much simplicity for Hoagy Carmichael. All of that looping harmony builds up tension and this is how he releases it in the B section of the original Heart and Soul:

Heart_and_Soul-B_section

So, unlike songs of today which usually create tension and release by merely moving from one repeated 4-chord loop in the verse to a contrasting 4-chord loop in the chorus, in 1938, this building tension needed to be released in a torrent of angular dominant 7th chords. Lots of them. Wow, right?

It’s not so easy to find more pop songs with a 4-chord loop in the harmonically sophisticated era of the Great American Songbook, so let’s skip ahead to the early rock era.

Fat’s Domino’s big hit, Blueberry Hill (1956) is a seemingly simple 4-chord looping song, but the end of 2nd iteration of the loop is actually different, and it’s a significant difference because it’s a release of the tension that has been building through the A section. Check it out:

Blueberry_Hill-A_section

And the the B section that follows is not another 4-chord loop, but a more harmonically “narrative” section with a wider array of chords:

Blueberry_Hill-B_section

Surprising to find out how complex even a simple early rock song like Blueberry Hill is under analysis.

Another early rock example can be found in the 1958 Buddy Holly song, Everyday, another seemingly simple tune, this one based on the Heart and Soul 4-chord loop:

But, as you can see below, the 4-chord “Heart and Soul” loop deviates on the 4th iteration within the A section. It employs a turnaround, a harmonic device that leads as a passage back to the top of a section or forward to another section:

Everyday-A_section

I really did think that Everyday was going to be a good example of an early 4-chord loop but I forgot about the turnaround. Moving forward to the harmonically richer B section, there is a 2nd turnaround employed, one that leads to the new key of Ab. Note the sparser harmonic rhythm here (1 chord every two bars) where there is an expansive harmonic narrative that even changes key again within the new section:

Everyday-B_section

We could say that Buddy Holly is a poor choice to show harmonic simplicity (his songwriting was a direct influence on The Beatles), but Fats Domino was not much simpler. Seems that almost everywhere we look for 4-chord loops before the early 90s, we find that the harmonic tension that builds in the looped section is vented by some sort of harmonic release, either with a cadence, a turnaround, or a move into a new section that is more varied and harmonically complex.

But there are indeed an enormous amount of songs from the 50s onward built on the 4-chord “50s progression” loop. Wikipedia has an entry listing nearly 100 pop songs built on variations of the Heart and Soul chord progression. I would offer the caveat, however, that very few of these songs use the loop exclusively without employing some device to vent the harmonic tension of endlessly looping the same 4 chords. For your further exploration, check this out.

Moving forward, Louie Louie by The Kingsmen (1963) is indeed an example of an early song that uses one 4-chord loop through the whole form (A-D-Em-D) with a constant half-note harmonic rhythm and I consider this an early, maybe the earliest proto-punk song. It has an influence moving forward in the movement to deconstruct the pop song that sees its full flower in the punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s, and beyond.

But setting aside proto-punk songs that are intentionally primitivistic, the 4-chord loop songs of the late 60s and the 70s are still subject to the tendency to want to break the pattern to relieve tension.

San Francisco by Scott McKenzie (1967) starts off with 2 iterations of a 4-chord loop (Em C G D) but it breaks the pattern immediately for the 2nd half of the A section and the B section is a harmonic and rhythmic deviation, almost a new song.

There are a few more examples from this adventurous era, but it’s not really until the more conservative 80s that the 4-chord loop begins to regain dominance as a harmonic device. Let’s consider Hold Me Now by The Thompson Twins (1984), a prototype 80s pop song built on a 4-chord loop (D Bm C Am7) with a constant 2-bar harmonic rhythm through the entire song:

There is an interesting deviation, however. After the 2nd chorus and many repetitions of the loop (same chords over the verse and the chorus), there is a bridge (Bb C Bb C Bb C Bb C) where the harmonic rhythm is halved to 1 chord per bar, which serves as a release of the tension of all of that repetition before and also builds a new tension that will be released with a return to the original 4-chord loop (D Bm C Am7) for verse 3 and the repeating choruses at the end of the song.

We are not yet at the point of rigid adherence to the 4-chord loop but we are close. One last example from the 80s, possibly my favorite song of the whole decade, The Cure’s Lovesong (1989).

Now, here we have a song that is comprised completely of contrasting 4-chord loops and it’s a great example of the positive aspects of harmonic deconstruction in pop songwriting, which is the topic of the next and final article on the modern pop song and the 4-chord 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.

Editor’s Note: Please read the fourth and final installment in the series, The Modern Pop Song:  The Power of Minimalism.

David Tobocman is a pianist and songwriter living in Los Angeles