Pop Culture, Writing

Analyzing the most popular chords in 1300 popular songs…

This guy wasted a lot of time analyzing the chords of popular songs, coming up with something that any songwriter or guitar player could tell him. Still, it’s interesting:

To make quantitative statements about music you need to have data; lots of it. Guitar tab websites have tons of information about the chord progressions that songs use, but the quality is not very high. Just as important, the information is not in a format suitable for gathering statistics. So, over the past 2 years we’ve been slowly and painstakingly building up a database of songs taken mainly from the billboard 100 and analyzing them 1 at a time. At the moment the database of songs has over 1300 entries indexed.

I could have told him what he’d find: chords diatonic to the keys of C, G, and F. Because those are the keys that dominate pop music. So you’d get the major chords C, D, F, G, B-flat, and the minor varieties of E, A, and D (but not B-minor, and I’ll tell you why in a moment). In pop rock, you’ll see Dorian and Mixolydian variations of C and G rather often compared to keys such as, say, A-major and E-major.

The answer to why is similarly easy: pop music songwriting is dominated by the guitar, and the keys of C, G, and F all have a full slate of chords that are easily played in first position. No barre chords (such as the B-minor exempted above), no moveable shapes. You might occasionally see the key of E, but its F#-minor, G#-minor, and C#-minor aren’t easily available in first position, and require moves up the neck of the guitar. Much is the same with A major. And let’s not get started on playing in keys like E-flat on the guitar. Easier just to tune down a half-step.

More interesting is which chords follow each other. But even here there are reasons within music theory as to why you go where you go. There are limited combinations (again, combinations that follow the standard movement from dissonance to consonance). Pop music is populist–not just that it appeals to “the people” but that it is accessible to them as well. I don’t think a pop song is really a pop song unless someone who’s played the guitar for just a few days can hack it out with just the few chords he knows.

All this got me to thinking about how similar song-writing can be to novel-writing. It’s not about individual notes or individual words–at least, not at first. You’re working within a larger structure. You’ve got limited options, but the framework is basically the same. First act, second act, third act. Verse, chorus, bridge. Variations in pacing and dynamics. Resolution. Most songs out there (like most books) stick to the four-chord structure, using one of a handful of tried-and-true chord progressions (I-IV-V, for instance). What you vary are the notes you play over it, or the rhythm. There are people who write more complicated pieces with inscrutable structure and crazy improvisations–and they’re brilliant. But not as many people appreciate them. And then there’s indie music, where they choose to do things strangely just because they can. They’re weird.

All this is not a unique observation, I know. But it can help to sort out your thoughts going into writing your novel. The pre-writing stage. What am I writing? What chords am I going to use? What sounds good together? When have I followed the traditional structure long enough to have earned an opportunity to break out of it? Just because we might be following formulas used a thousand times in the past does not mean we can be lazy (as so many pop songs–even popular ones–are). As writers we’re familiar with structure. We can tell you exactly what chords an Urban Fantasy book is going to use. We could lay out the plot beats of a prototypical Military SF novel in our heads in a moment. It’s what we do, over and over again. Like with pop songs, most of it happens in the background. What people are looking for is the distinctive melody, the captivating syncopation, the interesting lyric. You take those tropes (that I was just complaining about yesterday) and play new notes over them, resolve them to something new, and keep your listeners/readers interested.

Not as easy as it sounds, I know. Oh, yes, I know.


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