Striking (The Same) Chords - Fan Week

Photo courtesy of Lemuel Cantos.

Precedent tells us that when a music critic wants to vent against a tired musical trope to a wider audience, the explanation of said trope shouldn’t require any knowledge of music theory. Call it the “dancing to architecture” principle. Yet for all of the thousands words and megabytes of space the internet holds on Foxygen, Lana Del Rey, or Lil B, there’s probably nothing about their use of Aeolian cadences – which, even if there was, I wouldn’t know.

I mention that musical term (Aeolian cadences) specifically because it references a very odd incident in the history of the mass media documenting the pop zeitgeist. By 1963, an aging and especially elite media began rubbing elbows with the teen culture. A teen culture which was just emerging from its tame infancy of the pompadoured ’50s into a historically hectic and long-haired adolescence.

Still relatively new to America, as they had not yet appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Beatles were looking to capitalize on the smash success of their UK debut, Please Please Me, with a follow-up in time for Christmas of that year. A review of that sophomore release, With the Beatles, written by music critic William Mann for the British newspaper The Times, remains infamous for it’s pedantic observation of specialized musical elements peppered throughout the album.

Their noisy items are the ones that arouse teenagers’ excitement. Glutinous crooning is generally out of fashion these days, and even a songs about ‘Misery’ sounds fundamentally quite cheerful; the slow, sad song about ‘This Boy’, which features prominently in Beatle programmes, is expressively unusual for its lugubrious music, but harmonically it is one of their most intriguing, with its chains of pandiationic clusters, and the sentiment is acceptable because voiced cleanly and crisply. But harmonic interest is typical of their quicker songs, too, and one gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural is the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not A Second Time (the chord progression which ends Mahler’s Song of the Earth).

To any composition major at Berkeley or Julliard, that paragraph is perfectly discernible. For the average, bubble-gum chewing radio listener of anytime between then and today, it should likely go right over their heads. Which is all that Mann’s emphasis on “pandiationic clusters” and other professorial terms amounted to in 1963. Yes, The Beatles’ impressive musicality helps even their most unapologetically approachable work stand the test of time, but only because all the complexity of their early songs doesn’t make them any less catchy.

Still, there’s one musical trope so unendingly pervasive in today’s pop that it’s a bit surprising how little mention it inspires in print and written online media today.

Like the Aeolian cadence of “Not a Second Time” discovered by William Mann above, the motif in question is what is known in music theory as a chord progression. But in lieu speaking in such lofty, technical terms, and taking full advantage of our multi-media landscape, I’ll point to a few YouTube videos that clearly demonstrate what I’m talking about. For our first video, I leave that task to the perfectly competent hands of the comedians known to YouTube as the “Axis of Awesome.”

Can you hear what they did just there? Using the same basic musical building blocks, these YouTube stars were able to play countless pop hits from the last 10 to 15 years, with a few older numbers sprinkled in for good measure. The funny part is they didn’t even really scratch the surface of just how many songs use this trick.

Here’s a few more:

Here’s one last video, which the user above made mention of before beginning to play his medley. This time, a comedian is harping on a slightly different trick – a play on the aforementioned Pachelbel’s “Cannon” chord progression, which only varies by one chord to all the songs we’ve heard above.

I guess you’re probably waiting for the criticism part to kick in. Yes, some long, arduous, fist-shaking rant about how pop today is a useless echo chamber where the same ideas are just recycled among pretty faces. How they are all sponsored by godless corporations who are out to stamp out individuality wherever they see it.

The trouble is, your Lady Gagas, Alicia Keyses, and Red Hot Chili Peppers all wouldn’t be the first ‘criminals’ to take advantage of a structural form that attracts a critical mass of listeners. In which case, I wonder if the popularity of this motif (I – V – vi – IV, for you musicians out there) and all its variants represent a new kind of blues – a genre whose musicians are defined by their ability to breathe new life into the same basic chord revolutions, loosely defined by the term “the twelve bar blues.”

Or what if this represents a new kind of doo-wop? In fact, it could be argued these songs above are only a variant from the equally pervasive (for its time) “doo-wop progression.” Again, so that the average listener can get the full grasp of what I’m talking about, let’s return to YouTube.

This guy needs to tune his guitar, but you’ll get the idea:

If you’ve ever sat down at a piano in your childhood and been given some instruction by an older sibling or peer about how to play “Heart and Soul,” this is the exact chord progression you’re touching on. In fact, the difference between songs like Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” U2’s “With Or Without You,” and doo-wop classics like “Earth Angel” or Rogers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” is flipping two chords in the middle of the progression (again, for musicians, that means flipping the vi and IV).

Similarly, it’s hard to calculate just how many songs written between 1951 and 1964 used this doo-wop progression. Furthermore, it is difficult to know whether or not they are qualified to be included in this new genre. Great example – the verse chords for The Beatles’ “This Boy,” see below:

It’s hard to tell if all the “gotcha” social media finger pointing by Axis of Awesome and others would even float to the surface if there were some sort of name for this trick, or some genre title to serve as an umbrella term. If so, then it would be understood that the point of the music is to retain these forms (i.e., “doo-wop” or “the blues”). Then again, bringing attention to the motif itself is something only the Average Joes on YouTube appear capable of, and they do so merely through performance. Their everyman appeal is a far cry from William Mann’s let’s-see-how-many-music-theory-terms-I-can-squeeze-in-here school of music criticism, but of course Axis of Awesome is working with a different medium altogether.

Perhaps that the reason there’s no single word to describe how songs like Five For Fighting’s “Superman” or The Black Eyed Peas “Where is the Love” are put together. Where the blues and doo-wop evolved in an era of magazines and newspapers (alongside the radio, of course), modern pop speaks to an audience who can find out how to play these songs thanks to the altruistic efforts of users like Turnscuh90.

But if it were up to me, I’d call it “dammit” music. The term could even be turned into a verb form, “dammiting”– as in, “Hey guys, I’m tired. It’s been along practice. Let’s just dammit this song we’re writing.” (God knows how many pop punks had that conversation in the last 15 years.)

Why “dammit,” do you ask? Please, who could forget this riff?

Call it the “Heart and Soul” for millennials.

For a more thorough study on the popularity of these chordal motifs and others, check out this fascinating blog entry from Hooktheory.