4 chords to rule them all

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!

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Music, Popular culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to 4 chords to rule them all

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    If the melody is simple enough, the tune only needs three chords (I, IV, and V). Any more and you’re getting “jazzy”! 😀

    All the songs from the notes makes more sense maybe when compared against all the books from just 26 letters. It’s all about the way you string them together! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t that funny? I have a PhD in English, and never in my life did it ever occur to me that 26 letters could be limiting in the same way I worried that we’d run out of music. One might think someone with my “word” orientation would have been more tuned in to that frightening possibility. But nope, completely oblivious!😂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Even more mind-blowing, every human now, then, or ever, is “spelled” with a unique DNA string made from only four “letters” (the four amino acids usually denoted G, A, T, and C).

        As an expert in the written word, you might appreciate (and perhaps already know) that letters can be treated as extended digits and therefore every book, every post, every comment, can be considered as a single very, very large unique number (one with as many “digits” as there are characters in the text). Songs and videos can also be considered as single numbers — in a sense, anything stored digitally already is if we view all its bits as comprising a single numeric value.

        Fortunately, there are a lot of numbers! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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