I remember thinking when I was about 11 or 12 years old that pretty soon there would be no new music. Because how could people possibly continue creating new songs? There was only an octave’s worth of notes, iterated multiple times on a piano keyboard. Twelve notes, including black keys, from C to B. I guess a full octave would be C to C, but you get my point. How could songwriters keep putting out so many different songs when they only had those 12 notes to work with? Yet songwriters are obviously still going strong like 50 years later.
This Australian musical comedy group, The Axis of Awesome, noted that the same four chords underlie many pop songs, and they made their case brilliantly in this video (which was posted 10 years ago, but which I was only just introduced to by my daughter about two months ago).
It occurs to me that there’s a metaphor here for all creative practice. If you know these four chords, you can improvise a melody that harmonizes with them, and that can lead to a song.
One of the “sneak peak” clips from Peter Jackson’s “Get Back,” the Beatles documentary streaming on Disney+ right now, shows the exact moment that Paul McCartney lands on the melody for the song “Get Back.” If you watch this clip, you see Paul playing a series of chords over and over, lightly singing an exploratory test melody. (John is apparently “late again,” which Paul notes in another version of this clip before beginning to play. I chose this clip instead of that one because this one shows the exact moment Paul nails it.)
It’s interesting to watch the way Ringo and George sit there quietly with Paul while he works out his musical thoughts, just very patiently supporting him with their presence. George yawns, Ringo appears to be zoned out. But we soon realize they are actually very engaged despite their silence. As soon as Paul hits on the melody we recognize as “Get Back” (at about the 1:11 mark), George perks up. He begins to accompany Paul on his own guitar, and tells him yeah, it’s good; musically it’s great. Paul keeps playing, and then Ringo joins in, clapping out a beat.
It’s exciting to see this classic song coaxed into existence!
And circling back to the “4 chords” video, it’s also reassuring for all of us non-Beatles to realize that creativity is a process of building, block by block, upon what already exists. There’s a foundation of the familiar, of the already known, and our job is to search out a new melody that fits atop this preestablished pattern.
Years ago I wrote a blog post on a man called “Mr. Patent,” Marvin Johnson, who was a research fellow at Phillips Petroleum with over 200 patents to his name (link here to read “Creativity, “Mr. Patent,” Keith Richards, and me). All you need for a patent, he said, is a unique solution to a problem. Your idea may build on top of lots of other people’s work, but if it incorporates something new to comprise a unique solution, it may be patentable.
We don’t have to start from scratch to be original.
Just like songwriters can use the same “4 chords” but add a new layer of melody on top and have a hit song. Or, as in the case of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” maybe even win an Academy Award for Best Original Song!