Was this song really necessary?

I had a discussion with my family over the weekend about lazy songwriters that developed into a discussion about what makes music “good.”  In that discussion, I arrogantly monopolized the conversation in the interest of trying to be funny, which I’m prone to doing, except I think I did it at the expense of my actual ideas, looking like a jerk in the process.  To rectify this, I wanted to write down a few of my thoughts about songwriting here.  If people are going to think I’m a pretentious jerk, I want them to do it for the right reasons. Also, feel free to disagree if you wish (have at it in the comments section).

I showed my uncles a live video of a band called Axis of Awesome who perform a song called “4 Chords” on YouTube, which contains a little profanity, so I won’t link it here (you can search for it yourself if you wish).  Suffice it to say that they write a medley containing about 30 hit pop songs that use the same chord progression (I – V – vi – IV).  Non-musicians may not be able to fully appreciate how this progression is like sandpaper against our ears, but I think the Axis of Awesome at least introduced a lot of people to the problem.  It’s the songwriting equivalent to painting bowls of fruit or watercolor sailboats, and people actually intentionally buy that stuff.

For me, good songwriting can be broken down into two halves: content and delivery.

1) Delivery

I had a different conversation with my brother once about sales tactics.  He and I pretty much agree on the issue.  We hate salespeople.  Either I need to purchase an item, or I don’t.  With the Internet available, I can now compare products online, find reviews, and be generally informed, so usually there’s not too much a salesman can tell me to convince me I need a product.  Furthermore, once you know a few shady sales tactics, it’s extremely abrasive when people try to use those tactics on you.  You know what they’re doing.

For instance, low-balling.  Have you ever had a salesperson promise you a certain bonus item or service you’ll receive for purchasing a product?  Then at the last minute, after you had already committed to buying it, did the salesperson withdraw the bonus due to a “math error” or some other reason?  Did you go ahead and purchase the item anyway, because you had committed yourself to doing so and didn’t want to go back on what you had agreed to?  Low-balling is a dirty trick, but it happens all the time because it works. When we’re mentally committed to making a purchase, backing out creates uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Our brains would rather stay consistent. Salespeople know how human brains work in social situations and use the brain’s tendencies to their advantage.

All you have to do is read a book on sales techniques and you’ll realize what percent of sales is actual honest information and what percent is deception and manipulation, and suddenly any interactions with salespeople will either become mind-chess or too condescending to handle (but you might save yourself some money in the long run).

I – V – vi – IV works.  It gives us a tonal base, it builds momentum, it introduces a little minor tension, and then resolves magically. Human brains seem to naturally like I – V – vi – IV. The brain actually can handle lots of complex chord changes, and can learn to love a great deal of music that doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold, including polyrhythms and semitones. In fact, some psychological studies have found correlations between listening to complex music, such as Mozart, and temporarily increased spatial-temporal performance (though the old cliche “Mozart makes you smarter” is not really supported by any studies). Another study done at the University of Washington discovered that rats exposed to Mozart sonatas in utero perform better in maze tasks when compared with rats who listened to minimalist music or white noise. However, I – V – vi – IV is a whole lot easier to write. It’s a simple trick that songwriters can use to immediately tickle the pleasure centers of a person’s brain.  Now, with that nice little bit of information, they can sucker people into buying their song or album without all the work of writing a more complicated pattern.

Now I realize that some of you are rolling your eyes at the idea that some chord progressions are like dirty sales tricks.  This progression isn’t necessarily dishonest, just cheap and lazy. Yes, either way they’re suckering people out of their money, but a song is different, because songs can be used to elevate, to inspire, or to convey emotions or big ideas, right?  Well, sometimes they can.  This brings me to point number 2. A lazy chord progression in itself isn’t so bad if the content is worth it.

2) Content

I actually don’t mind hearing an I – V – vi – IV song every now and then. I’ve probably even written a couple. I’m not going to lie and say they’re all horrible.  I also like McDonald’s hamburgers.

McDonald’s hamburgers were invented by scientists.  Sure, they took a product that already existed – the hamburger – that people already liked, but they tweaked the ingredients of their hamburgers and made a mathematical formula that weighed a few variables (cost and taste mostly) and the output was the McDonald’s hamburger.  Did I mention they conveniently forgot to factor in nutrition to that formula? When you eat a McDonald’s hamburger, you’re eating something that they knew you’d like, crave, and pay for, but was not designed to deliver any sort of nutritional value to you at all (unless you pray for it to “nourish and strengthen” you of course).  In the United States right now, we are a nation of people addicted to fast food, slowly growing and growing and clogging up our health care system because there’s something “magical” about fast food that we can’t help loving. Well, it’s not “magic.”  It’s really just science.  Our mouths and brains like grease, fat, and salt, and people like food fast and cheap.

So when I hear a song that uses a cheap sales trick like I – V – vi – IV, it’s doubly insulting when it doesn’t actually deliver any sort of usable content whatsoever.  What is usable content?  Of course this is debatable, I realize that, but I might mention a few things that really stand out to me in a song:  great symbolism, highlighting issues in the world, a unique perspective on good or bad human relationships, vivid imagery, great guitar tones or solos, unusual instruments/percussion/rhythm, compelling stories, etc.

Despite the title of this piece, I don’t have an objective standard to measure music with. I’m trying to avoid talking specifics, but for me it comes down to the following question: Does this song make me think less or more?  Now I’m not calling for the elimination of all lame chord progressions, or dumb songs with heavy beats for dancing, or party songs, or pop songs, nor do I think McDonald’s should go out of business. McDonald’s fulfills a role in our society. I would, however, caution people not to eat McDonald’s at every meal. Or every day.

One last word to songwriters. When I sit down to write a song, I ask myself a different set of questions: what am I about to say that hasn’t already been said? Am I just repeating something that has been said before? What new thing am I bringing to the world? I really do ask myself these questions, believe it or not, and sometimes, the answer is “this song serves no purpose.” This is when I know that I’m writing a song to satisfy my pride and not to improve the world. This happens quite a bit. I’m not a stellar songwriter, and most of my songs are fairly derivative. But when I ask myself those questions and discover that I really am saying something I feel is new and important, it feels that much better. Now I’m not a professional musician, and I don’t make money off my music, so I do have the luxury of only writing and releasing songs when it feels right and to a small group of friends and family. But sometimes I hear a new song on the radio and really wish that those musicians had asked themselves the question: “Was this song really necessary?”

The point is, enjoy this song:

Footnote:

Now you may be able to see why I’ve been so merciless to what is usually called “LDS music.” The delivery is bland, overused, over-processed, derivative, and unambitious. The content is worse; it breaks no new spiritual ground and explores only the sunniest 1% of the average person’s spiritual journey. The Mormon community has become addicted to the fast food of spiritual music.  Some have gotten sick from it and never want to see it again.  The solution is not to create more workshops on crafting the perfect song, or to listen to Christian contemporary music and steal their tricks, and it’s certainly not to add more reverb, auto-tune, chorus, and compression (to EVERYTHING). The solution is to be bold and force your audience’s brains to expand just a little.  Just a thought.

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Was this song really necessary?

16 thoughts on “Was this song really necessary?

  1. As a musicologist and professor, these are the exact sorts of questions I spend my days, nights, weekends, and holidays trying to decipher. Personally, I’d rather hear a well-crafted melody, performed convincingly and effectively over a I-V-vi-IV progression, than some far-flung, whacky set of chords over an overly-complex rhythmic structure. Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves (I think it might be Wagner’s fault) that complex=good and simple=bad. Of course, the same old chord progression gets old pretty fast, and I’d rather not have to hear dozens more songs using that formula, but more prog-rock is definitely not the answer. For me, that’s worse.

    Brian Eno is a pretty fascinating study along these lines. His Music for Airports was specifically designed to accommodate multiple layers of listening; the listen can find fulfillment at whatever depth he/she choose to invest in the piece.

    I went to school with dozens, maybe hundreds of hard-core classical music snobs…that’s what getting a degree in music is all about. Their most common complaint about pop music was that “they all have the same chords.” I agree, and I’ll be the first to criticize crappy music. But Mozart and Bach also beat those same old tired chord progressions into our heads…it’s what they do with that same-old same-old that makes the music interesting.

    Reading through I realize that this could come across as somewhat hostile toward your statements. I don’t mean it that way at all…I am agreeing with you. I hate the typical I-V-vi-I just as much as you do, I just find myself disappointed with most people’s efforts to do something “different” for the sake of doing something “different.”

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  2. Taylor, I’m a huge fan of prog, so I can’t agree with you on that front. But don’t worry about sounding “hostile” towards this piece. It’s a pretentious work for sure.

    I guess I’m not saying be different for the sake of being different necessarily. But on the other hand, if what I’m writing is the “same”, then I don’t see why I need to write it. If there are 400 songs out there with the same tempo, arrangement, chord structure, etc. then why don’t my listeners just go listen to one of those instead? That’s what I mean.

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  3. Great article. When I read about the 4 chord progression, I immediately knew which one it was. True story, when I lived in Provo, my girlfriend told me about some guys in her ward that were in a really good punk band. We decided to go to one of their shows. They were a talented, and high energy, but 3 out of the first 4 songs they played were nothing more than than the “with or without you” riff. I told my girlfriend that it was lazy songwriting, just to capitalize on something so uber-catchy that nobody in the audience would notice, but I left.

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  4. I remember a band in my college days that did a medley of eighties two-chord songs: “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” “Patience” . . . rats, I can’t remember the others but I’m sure readers could come up with some. I also forgot the name of the band, phoo.

    One of Pilot’s songs was “our token three-chord song” but we put all sorts of embellishments on it: changes in dynamics, a pause in the middle, doubling the tempo three times at the end to finish with what was supposed to sound like a thrash beat . . . we knew it had to have variety to make it interesting, but the three chords gave it a punch too. It was a crowd favorite.

    Bill Bruford has often written about how he finds music most interesting or worthwhile if it has complexity and simplicity going on at the same time: he specifically mentioned content and delivery too, as I recall.

    Taylor: yay for _Music for Airports_ and nice 1/1 cover on your site! Kind of a melding of 1/1 and 2/2 to my ears. And I love John Dowland! Are you familiar with _In Darkness Let Me Dwell_, the ECM recording by John Potter and various colleagues?

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  5. Matthew says:

    Are you talking about “Willie From Venus” Arthur? I’m doing my best.

    Great article. I’m glad that you included talking about the party/dance/pop music because some of that stuff can be good within its own context (and I do mean SOME).It’s funny about the typical 3 chord songs because I’ve heard a lot of songs that I could pretty much guess exactly what 2 or 3 chords they were using, but with certain artists sometimes it’s hard to tell. I think this is a testiment to those few artists’ abilities and creativity in the studio. Paul Simon, for example, has written some songs that are simply amazing musically and lyrically and I would figure he was using some weird chords, but when you get down to the root of it, he’s just using 2 or 3 chords.

    Ok, now I’m just gonna go and never write another song again. Good stuff Art!

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  6. Well, Paul Simon is such an amazing lyricist that he can get away with simpler arrangements. Though you’re right, his songs are “deceptively” simple.

    And no, “Willie From Venus” doesn’t use I – V – vi – IV. Though “For the Millionth” does… just so you know.

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  7. Mark N. says:

    I’ve never been able to understand how “America” was able to be as successful as they were with two chord songs. “Horse With No Name” drives me up the wall.

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  8. Adrian Belew did a song somewhat like that “#1 Radio $ingle” with King Crimson: “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” — but of course being King Crimson even Belew’s humor wouldn’t get it on the radio or even sounding like radio material . . .

    This is why every time I contemplate reading a book, taking a class or asking advice about songwriting I back out, fearing that I’m going to be told how to put things together that will be most likely to appeal to the greatest number of paying listeners. But I’d like to get some craft competence . . . right now I don’t even know what chord progressions my songs follow.

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  9. I tried to decide whether to put that one in as well, Charles, but I think it’s still a bit esoteric, what with the crazy time changes that they can’t help using. That one’s an awesome one. Who’d have thought KC would get heavier as they got older.

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  10. Wommis says:

    I read a piece by a musicologist about how the guitar ruined music. He basically said that almost every instrument before needed hours of practice and mastery, any composer needed to understand music theory on a Bach level to be credible. The guitar, with it’s simplicity (because you can make good sounds with just a few finger placements) changed the learning curve completely. Most would argue that it brought music to the masses, but the true musicians that placed such value in their craft and life’s work, saw the guitar as a ruinous plague (Like Arthur and I’s Great Grandfather, and Arthur’s namesake).

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  11. I would agree with that for the most part Wommis. A lot of the limitations of chord progressions in popular music correlate with the chords on guitar.

    Unfortunately, as a salesman at a guitar shop, I have seen that the “easy curve” of learning guitar still weeds out about 90% of all people who try.

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