The Modern Pop Song: The Power of Minimalism

jack-hamilton-135654 Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

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.

This is the 4th and final installment of the series where we’ve been exploring the theory and history of the ever-present harmonic device used by nearly every pop song we currently hear, the 4-chord loop.

Briefly, this device is comprised of a series of 4 chords of equal length, be it 1 chord per bar, 2 chords per bar, 1 chord every two bars (the music theory term for this patterned frequency of chord changes is harmonic rhythm). Once the pattern is set, it is played in a continuous loop until the end of the section of the song, without a break, a pause or a harmonic cadence (a unique chordal device that creates a pause, a turnaround, or a passage forward to a new section).

Often in the modern pop song, one 4-chord loop is used for the song’s intro, verse, and any instrumental interludes and it will contrast with a different 4-chord loop that is used in the chorus. If the song has a bridge, it most likely will consist of yet another 4-chord loop. You get the idea. If you want to see a whole slew of examples, please refer back to the first article in the series, Melody, Harmony, and Tyranny and the second article, A Different Kind of Tension and Release.” The third article in the series, Tracing Patterns seeks out 4-chord loops through pop music history and contrasts their less strict implementation with the modern version, leaving us in the mid-80s where the pure, fully distilled form of the 4-chord loop we see today started to emerge.

You would think that with all of the deviation removed, all of this endless repetition of the same 4 chords would render today’s pop songs boring, lifeless, static, or devoid of musical purpose or individual stamp, but you’d be so wrong — because when the harmonic content of a song is suppressed or limited, all of its other characteristics now become more important. That is the power of minimalism.

When you think about it, harmony (the chords a song uses) is only one aspect of many that a song or the arrangement and presentation of that song contains. Melody. Lyrics. Rhythm. Dynamics. Counterpoint. Texture. Sound — and all of the variations, development, and narrative exploration of each of these elements come to the fore when you limit a song’s harmony.

Let’s consider an early example of what I’m calling The Modern Pop Song, U2’s With Or Without You (1987). Here’s a song that uses one 4-chord loop for the entire song, with no deviation:

With_Or_Without_You

So, the band and their savvy conceptualist producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois decide to present a song with the same 4-chord loop repeating through the entire song and is it boring or static in any way? On the contrary, With or Without You is one of U2’s most dynamic, interesting songs. By taking a minimalistic approach, by deconstructing one element, the harmonic aspect of the music, all of the other aspects coming rushing to the fore. First and most recognizable, the sound and texture of the record take on a profound role. Next, and so essential, the vocal melody undergoes a thrilling transformation through the length of the song. Also, I contend that the lyrics become an important focus of the song, as do the dynamics, countermelodies, and other details of the song arrangement.

Instead of being boring or even repetitive, With or Without You resonates with life, dynamism, and personality. Few would argue that this track is one of their best, and most emblematic masterworks — an unexpected outcome if the first decision made was “let’s only play a loop of four chords of equal length through the entire duration of the record.”

This is the power of minimalism.

Suppression or deconstruction of the more ornate aspects of one’s art begs for the more essential, more immediate qualities — passion, melody, groove, and hooks — to come forward.

The Cure’s Lovesong (1989) is one of my favorite recordings and it is constructed of one simple 4-chord loop that runs the entire length of the song:

Lovesong_Verses_etc,_chords

except for the chorus which is a different 4-chord loop. And both chord progressions are as plain as they come. The Cure has deconstructed the harmonic aspect of the song — rendered it about as simple and nondescript as possible so that other aspects can take prominence, in this case, a dazzling array of melodic “hooks” (memorable passages) that weave in and out of the song as countermelodies. Let’s count the hooks!

Lovesong-Verses_etc,_organ Lovesong-Verses_etc._bassline

So right off the bat, you’ve got a memorable, melodic organ part against a very hooky bassline and both of these parts essentially run the entire length of the song, except for the chorus 4-chord loop which serves as a momentary deviation.

Still in the intro of the song, after a few iterations of the organ hook, we get a 2nd figure layered on top of the organ, the guitar hook:

Lovesong-Intro,_Interludes,_guitar

So it’s a garden of hooks and he hasn’t even started singing. After two statements of a very memorable, “hooky” verse melody in the vocals, we get an interlude that features yet another strong instrumental hook, this one in the string section:

Lovesong-Interlude,_strings

Next up we get a second verse with a variation on the verse vocal melody (introducing another melodic hook, this one an ascending line on “whenever I’m alone…”) which finally leads to the chorus which resolves all of the building tension by introducing the song’s other 4-bar loop (note the countermelody hook in the bells):

Lovesong-Chorus,_bell

And that’s all the harmonic variation the song presents. No pre-chorus, no bridge, just two 4-chord loops. One repeats incessantly through the intro, the verses and interlude sections until the brief chorus loop which releases the building tension of all of that repetition. Under analysis, it’s hard not to think that this is all by design, that The Cure has intentionally deconstructed the harmonic personality of the song so that all of these hooks can take the spotlight.

MINIMALISM TO THE MAX

Moving forward to the current era of pop songs, we see a similar songwriting technique that reflects this deconstruction process. In place of a lot of harmonic complexity, we see a wide range of alternate devices: rhythmic complexity, melodic variation over the same chord progression, exploitation of dynamics and texture, and a plethora of instrumental and vocal hooks, both melodic and rhythmic.

Looking back at the Punk era, it’s easy to see the power and fury that can pour out when the artifice of musical ornamentation is removed. Deconstructing all of the musical elements, either fully or partially, puts the focus on what remains, pure energy.

And if we examine what’s going on in Hip Hop, there is a whole world of complexity and interest that comes to the fore when the more traditional aspects of a song, melody and harmony are deconstructed and minimized. Texture. Rhythm. Dynamics. Counterpoint. And of course, lyrical complexity that the world has never before seen.

We can look to classical music and all of the other arts to see the trend of minimalism and deconstruction at work all through the 20th Century up until today. I see it as a natural progression. Once the substance of art has been explored and developed to the nth degree, the only thing left is to start to simplify, deconstruct, and even to take away substance. Consider the deconstruction of melody in serial music in the early 20th Century (aka 12-tone music), or the deconstruction of perspective in Impressionism, leading to Cubism in painting, further leading to total abstraction and the “flattening” of the canvas as the century progressed. Later in the 20th Century a Classical Minimalism movement led by Philip Glass and Steve Reich greatly simplified traditional musical elements in favor of subtly shifting textures and orchestral colors.

All of these trends are aspects of deconstruction of the substance of Western music and visual art, which had undergone such intense and glorious match of development since the Middle Ages. In popular music, the peak of development of purely musical substance can be found, in my opinion, in the rich decade of the 70s and since then, the trend has been further and further deconstruction toward the “rich minimalism” we see today. I hope after all of this analysis that the expression is no longer an oxymoron.

Deconstructionalism and minimalism is a big subject in modern art. Further discussion is welcome in the comments section.

David Tobocman is a film and TV composer and songwriter living in Los Angeles

~