It's a testament to the versatility of songwriting, and indeed music, when you consider there is still plenty of original-ish stuff going on. Granted, just as much if not more derivative hogwash is around. And of course no man is without an influence. Notwithstanding, our guitar-slinging and drum-thumping heroes never seem to get tapped out creatively. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: "Life finds a way."
Indeed, it's rare that the lightning strikes twice in the songwriting world. Whenever there's fingerpointing regarding copycats, we usually hear about it (i.e. the recent Coldplay and Satriani stink.) But any musician or music fan knows there are only so many chords, and only so many ways to play them in order to maintain popular appeal.
WARNING: A brief lesson in music theory follows. If it confuses you, don't worry. Just bear with me.
Take any song on the radio, and you can be sure that it's made up of a bunch of chords. The simplest songs can be made up of only a few chords. Sometimes as few as three or, in rare cases, two. But the chords are sequenced in what we call "progressions". A Major to E major to D major is a progression.
It gets a little tricky when you get into numerical assignations: The root chord for a key is "I" and the 2nd is "ii" and the third is "iii". Each of those numbers is assigned with a chord type: I is major, ii is minor, iii is minor, IV is major, etc. etc. (edit: Minors are indicated by lowercase roman numerals.)
Have I lost you? For this column, it's not overly important that you know why those are the numerical values of the chords, only that they exist. So anyway, musicians will refer to chord progressions as numbers. I-IV-V-IV is absolutely ubiquitous (think "Louie Louie", "Wild Thing", or "Walking on Sunshine"). I-V-IV is a folk/rock standard (think "Helpless", "Knockin on Heaven's Door", or "Sway" by the Rolling Stones.) The I-vi-IV-V is widely known as the doo-wop progression, used largely in 50 pop (think "Earth Angel", "Unchained Melody" and "Shaboom Shaboom".)
You can see that no song is completely original at its core. Not hard to comprehend when you consider there are only 7 chords within each major key to create a song--granted, reaching for chords out of a key is not uncommon by any stretch. But if a song is in G, chances are your chords are going to be some combination of G, A minor, B minor, C, D, E minor, or F# diminished. And most pop and rock songwriters will utilize only five or six of those per song. But with variations on melody, rhythm, lyrics, timbre, and all the other factors that go into musicmaking, it's not hard to create something that's completely unique from another song with the same chord structure.
There is one progression that has been absolutely beaten to death over the past 20 years or so:
The I-V-vi-IV. (For ease of typing, I will henceforth refer to it as the 1564.)
You might know it better as Bush's "Glycerine":
or U2's "With Or Without You":
Now, who cares, right? Like I said earlier, all progressions are reused. So what if a few songs have the old 1564? Should it matter?
Well, no. It doesn't matter. But what I've come to realize is that this particular progression has seemingly limitless pop rehash value. I've managed to ascertain this information through empirical evidence I collected in certain pop-friendly locations: Subway, the bowling alley, the barber shop, the gym. Each plays top 40 type music ad nauseam, and its when visiting any one of these places that I realize the ubiquitous nature of the 1564.
It's really quite remarkable. While I don't have specific data to back this up, I wouldn't be surprised if every third song on today's Top 40 stations is based in some way around the progression. I've also noticed commercials for pharmaceuticals and online colleges tend to use stock 1564 instrumentals as background tracks. So why is this so effective?
The Jonas Brothers probably use a shitload of 1564, BAAAYBOOOAAY!!
The answer probably has something to do with two things: Attention spans and emotional appeal. Allow me to address both.
The 1564 has a leg up on many of the most popular progressions simply because it cycles through four different chords at a pace that doesn't lag. Each chord is held for a measure before it gives way to the next one. It's the perfect progression for this generation's pitiful attention spans. It's the same reason video producers won't allow a shot to idle for more than 3 seconds before cutting to something different. If our interest is allowed to wither, there's no reason to believe we won't change the channel or radio station. So the 1564 is dynamic, and it isn't overly repetitive. By the time the 1 rolls back around, we're ready for it.
But there are other progressions that have four different chords. The doo-wop one I mentioned earlier for instance (that was the 1645.) So why is the 1564 so much more prevalent? It's more relatable, is why. I'd argue that the major-major-minor-major structure is conducive to Hollywood archetypes to which, I'd wager, we subconsciously cling. Think about it this way:
I - Major: Your root chord, fresh, happy, suggests new beginnings and excitementDoesn't that kind of read like your typical Hollywood tearjerker/romantic comedy/unromantic comedy/horror flick. This may seem a bit contrived, but ask any songwriter and they'll agree in principle. There are actually emotional assignations for each major scale chord, and any good songwriter has a hold on what they are. As Leonard Cohen put it, "The minor fall and the major lift." Although that's a pretty rudimentary connection, it's what he's talking about.
V - Major: The strong, faithful fifth, powerful and proud, suggests bravery and derring-do.
vi - Minor: Remember, minor=sad. The thoughtful, emotional sixth, adding a bit of reality and concern to the mix.
IV - Major: Hooray! The fourth swoops in and provides closure, that major brilliance that retains almost all the same tones as the I; we're almost home kids!
I guess the biggest caveat to which I must call attention is that I am a musician. And I never really took notice of this phenomenon before I started learning music theory and writing my own songs. Chances are you may not take any more notice of the 1564 after reading this than you did before. And that's fine; my goal wasn't to overobjectify your listening experiences, or to condemn the 1564 to progression purgatory. Granted, I do feel it's overused but it can still be effective.
But really it's just marketing analysis. In the same way that companies spend millions on marketing research, it interests me to figure out why certain things (for lack of a better word) boast such a mass appeal. The 1564 is a prime example of that. Some might argue, "It just sounds good." And that's fine and acceptable. But hopefully I've helped to shed some light on why.