When you’re tubing the YouTube, you may have have come across the “Four Chord Song” by the Australian comedy trio, the Axis of Awesome. In the song, they reveal that a great deal of the hit pop songs all rely on a simple progression of four chords – C-minor, F-minor, E-flat, B-Flat. They can play over 60 popular songs using these four chords (although, admittedly, because they’re an Aussie band, some of the songs would only be known to an Australian audience, but hey). The astonishing thing is how different all these songs seem to be – they come from a host of different musical genres, styles, eras. There’s everything, from ‘80s classics like “Don’t stop believing”, Richard Marx’s slow-and-soulful “Right here waiting”, the Black Eyed Peas “Where is the love?”, Bush’s grungy “Glycerine”, over and over these songs revolve around this exact same chord progression.
The “Four Chord Song” is pretty funny, and indicates that the Axis of Awesome guys are pretty clever. The only downside is the conclusion they draw from it. They suggest that “It’s really easy to write a pop hit – just mash these four chords together, and there it is.” I can’t help feeling that’s just a little too simplistic. What they seem to be doing here is cheapening the achievement of the original musicians, as if they weren’t really that talented, because they just jumped on the bandwagon of these four chords. That seems a little disrespectful of some often pretty astonishing musicians.
This all reveals a very common tendency in contemporary western culture: the tendency to celebrate difference over sameness. The “crime” of these songs, according to Axis of Awesome, is that even though they sound different because of style and genre, they’re really just the same, using the same four old chords. By their definition, a talented musician is somebody who does something totally different from everybody else. You see this coming out in lots of other places as well. Our society thinks newness, originality and individuality are three of the greatest virtues. Sometimes, that’s great, but not always. Just in terms of music, there is a cost to this endless search for originality. It means we have a tendency to get bored very easily, and constantly need to hear – and therefore buy – something new and original. Sometimes, it seems we’d rather hear a bad new song rather than a good old one. It also means we miss the beauty of sameness.
Seen from this perspective, the “Four Chords Song” is a celebration of how all these supposedly different songs are actually all connected. Something unifies them all, while allowing – even fostering – a diversity. Same and different become complimentary, not antagonistic, when we view the song from this perspective.
This preference for different obviously goes far deeper than music. We can come to disrespect or ignore the elderly among us, and forget our history. The boredom we feel in music also comes out in our workplaces, our friendships, even our marriages. Perhaps worst of all, we can begin to focus only on what makes us different from each other – this is where competitiveness and prejudice begin to fester.Celebrating difference is fine, but it only ultimately works when we realise that in the midst of our difference, there is something deeper that unites us, that makes us the same.
From the Christian perspective, what unites us is a “three chord” Community, a Trinity, that designed us to reflect Their image. All of us do that when we live in unity and diversity, just as They do. When we can celebrate what unites us – Them that are also Him – it is then that we can begin to make beautiful music together.
I don’t think it’s that sequence of chords. “Where is the Love” and “Right here waiting”, iirc, are both I,V, vi, IV (ie equivalent to G – D – Em – C), which is indeed a very common progression.
I remember someone noting around 2002 how many worship songs seemed similar to each other. One of them, with this chord progression in the chorus, contained the words “Now that you’re near, everything is different, everything’s so different, Lord” (to which we would add “except this song”).
Maybe I should listen…
You could make a case for the insistence on new worship songs being part of the same thing. Of course, that creates a fun bit of debate, which I am not getting into here! :)
Fun post and video! BTW, you have the chords wrong in the first paragraph. In the key of C (major!) it would be C G Aminor F. I don’t know all of these songs, but it is also quite possible that they have tweaked some of them to fit the progression. But it’s really a minimalist joke, isn’t it? Obviously, there is much more to a song than the chord progression. Melody, rhythm, attitude, speed, energy, orchestration. There are also common ways of playing that progression and less common ways of playing it. I supposed I agree about your innovation/sameness point, but isn’t it also fair to point to some samenesses that are lethal to creativity? This being a possible case? Maybe it’s bland sameness that leads people to emphasize difference? And another good question it whether the “difference” that is celebrated in our cultures is not in fact a very narrowly defined difference, of the same type illustrated in the the four chord progression?
Great to hear from you. I really appreciated your points there, and especially the last one – I think you’re right that sometimes “different” isn’t really that different at all, but all fits within standard norms and rules, anyway.
I guess my point is that uniformity AND indiscriminate separation and difference aren’t good. Unity and diversity blending together are what we really need – we need to celebrate our differences, while also recognising those things that keep us together. As always, that sounds great in theory, but we don’t think of how to do that in society. This highlighted one previously subliminal way.