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A “four chord” song

I came across this video quite a while back via Twitter, and enjoyed giving it a listen. I have since seen a few versions of this “cover” floating around online, but when I came across it again on Deems’ blog it got me thinking.

Ryan wrote a song a while back called Where To From Here which looks at one of the issues in  songwriting – what can we sing about that hasn’t been sung before? In the words of the song (taken from the 2nd verse):

What is new to me, someone else forgot long ago
And I have my doubts that the human brain can handle all there is to know
So what can I do, what can I bring, what can I sing?
What is new? I’ll just be building on from something

The closing idea of the song, captured in the lyrics of the bridge (below), offers a solution to this dilemma by highlighting the importance of uniqueness in people. You and your story are unique – share this with others.

Everybody has a story to tell
Some do it plain and some do it well
So tell me your story my friend
We’ll carry on learning right to the end

It seems crazy how often songs will sound familiar or remind you of a certain melodic characteristic in another song. Often you can’t put your finger on it, but other times it’s clear which song or part of a song something reminds you of. Obviously this depends on a number of things, including (amongst others) how good your memory is, how many times you have heard the “similar” song and how recently you have heard it. Nevertheless, regardless of the circumstances, I’m convinced it happens to everyone.

But when you stop and think about it, it’s not really that surprising. There are a finite number of chords and notes from which chord progressions and melodies can be made. And the structuring of these chords and notes in specific keys puts constraints on what can be “musically juxtaposed”. Of course, almost all music is layered by nature, with many different instruments and sounds used to create different moods and effects – and there is thus potential for a huge range of very different sounding songs. But the “raw” or “core elements” of a song, and in particular the repeated elements, which are the most memorable – should in theory be limited to some finite representation provided that they are of finite length.

Yamaha CP33 KeyboardIn the case of this video it is only this particular four chord progression that is common to the songs . As a result there are certain inherent similarities between the songs but on the whole they all sound very different – mainly due to differences in the melodies and the rhythm of the melodies.

But even when looking at melodies in general (as opposed to simple chord progressions), there are a finite number of notes from which these can be created, and it’s natural that musicians will be forced to “re-use” parts of these eventually. This could happen purely coincidentally, but it’s probably more likely that songwriters are influenced by patterns in music that they hear or listen to. The same way that in terms of speech you can start to sound like the people who you spend a lot of time around. This becomes apparent due to particular phrases or slang you use, or even just as an influence on your accent. In a similar way, I believe, as a muso it is possible to use specific “chunks” or ideas from another muso’s riff or melody, or simply to have  your sound influenced by another artist or band.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but there are definite similarities. Possibly the main difference though, is that with music it often doesn’t take long for you to be influenced by what you listen to.

If you start to talk or sound like someone, you have generally spent enough time around that person to be aware that is how they speak or sound. But this isn’t the case with music. It’s perfectly possible to remember a tune or riff without remembering where it came from. How many times have you found yourself humming a tune which you don’t know any of the words to? Sometimes all it takes is one listen to a song on the radio (even if it’s for the first time) – and you have a tune stuck in your head for the rest of the day, without having a clue who the song is by. Not all music is catchy, but much of it is, and probably deliberately so – musicians want their music to be memorable.

My point in all this, is that if it’s this easy for riffs and melodies to occupy our memories, surely it is conceivable that songwriters and musicians will make music which bears resemblance to these “melodic memories” from time to time?

The same argument could apply with regards to lyrics as well. There are in theory a finite number of words in existence for any given language (though this number does grow slowly over time with the addition of new words). This has led some people to wonder whether all thoughts and ideas which are expressed through language – for example in a song – are thus also finite. The implication then is that thoughts and ideas being expressed currently may have already been expressed by others in the past, and thus could be redundant. This idea seems particularly pertinent when one considers the common lyrical content of much popular music.

However, as considered in the bridge section of the RCB song Where To From Here, we find that ultimately everyone makes their own music and will play it differently, even if many of the notes are the same. I’m reminded how our bassist Roberto loves to stress the fact that you recognize a really good musician by the way that they play the notes, and not by what notes they play.

There is more to music than structure, skill and technique. It’s not just a case of fitting a melody to a chord progression, and sticking to a time signature. We as as a band are particularly aware of this, having recorded a new album within the past 6 months. We have been reminded how the core elements of a song are taken to a new level when the band gets on board. Each musician is able to add to the song in a unique way, and much of this is inspired by the story behind the song.

Similarities in different songs and music, while very interesting, are not really the be-all end-all. Far more important is the story, truth or message that is contained in the lyrics of a song – music is a tool used to shape, express and convey that message.

And just in case any of you were wondering, we as a band do have a few “four chord” songs, but no major hits that we’re aware of. 🙂


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10 thoughts on “A “four chord” song

  1. […] Update – 18 May 2010: Jon from the RCB has put together a much better break down and analysis of why the four chords work so well in his blog post here. […]

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog. Too true that you often hear a song that kinda reminds you of another. I write lyrics myself but have never done anything with them. Perhaps I should. I also downloaded the free trac – gonna give it a listen. Thanks

    1. Hey David. Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.

      It’s awesome to see the work you’re involved in with AfroBeat Drumming – very cool. I’m sure it is rewarding in and of itself, but well done for the big effort you’re putting into it. Fantastic stuff.

  3. Jon,

    I too enjoy all you and the rest of the band have come up with and I find this website a part of my daily ‘surfing’

    Whilst reading your ‘blog’, (Sounds like ‘my dose is blogged) I was reminded of the times you write these posts. Two in the morning ring any bells? If not don’t fret because what I find in the wee hours (Have to get up far more than in my younger years – especially if I have that late cupper) is that there is a silence. A peaceful silence that evokes all sorts of sounds not otherwise heard during happy hour or the like. Saw a commentary on sound proof rooms once, where a volunteer ventured to be closed in a sound proof room indefinitely and after quite a time had passed, he started hearing sounds. Not only stomach functioning music, but heart beating that became audible to him and increased in volume to sound like a drum beating, doef doef, doef doef, etc. Breathing is turned into howling gales of wind and so forth and the stomach could produce sounds that could easily outdo the tuba. (The largest and lowest pitched brass instrument) This orchestration would make a million if captured as a unique 500 chord tornado.

    Sorry, back to the peaceful quiet of the very early times you spend writing. I am so glad you take the time…good on you!

    1. Hi Uncle Dave!

      Thanks for your comment. Your words remind me of my prevailing theory on music – it’s all about space. The short space of silence between notes is what gives music and melodies structure – without that space the onslaught of notes and sounds just becomes noise!

      PS You are right about the “very early times” spent writing – except I tend to think of them as late times since they come at the end of my day and not at the beginning 🙂

  4. Yeah, right on Jon, thanks for the speedy reply.
    The other day I took Marianne to the Mug & Bean and a mother pushed her new born into the dining area and this tiny little baby was crying and that sound was music to my ears. I suppose it is likened to beauty in the eyes of the beholder, except in my earlier days I had a completely different outlook on crying babies, especially when two of my sons vented their frustration in yelling their lungs out? (They are thirteen months apart). Modern art has a similar twist to it where you cast your eyes on a smooth lake of water and see a perfect reflection of the scenery from the horizon and surrounding mountains and trees. The same image seen once the wind gets hold of the surface of the lake distorts all the colours and reflected images and turns it all into a blurry reflected scene. Both have structure yet look completely different and strangely both images are accepted by the brain, (Despite folk turning their nose up at a modern art creation which is in essence the same). I lean more towards structure and harmony, especially the impressionists and more so in music, but I appreciate noise to create an effect and loved Ryan’s earth shattering down on the animation caricature, put together with the sounds of the electronic guitar. When it speaks to anyone, it works!
    I think you are on to something Jon because if your ears are picking up the detail you describe, we are all going to be in for a treat when you transform it all into a brand new melodic structured sound.
    Take care Jon and while during your ‘very early times’ writing and waiting for the sun to rise each day, you will nedd to beware, for one day it will dawn on you!!!

  5. This is great for aspiring musicians! Only need to learn four guitar chords and I can play almost anything! 🙂

    1. Indeed Galen – almost anything. One of my mates is learning to play the guitar and I keep telling him once he gets comfortable with the "fourth chord" (he is currently ok with 3), he will be surprised how many songs he can learn to play.

    2. It’s really like that! I even know a song composed of two chords 🙂

  6. Awesome Post, thanks for this great Post. I will come back later .. Great information about learning guitar playing: learn and master guitar

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