Part 2: I analyzed the chords of 1300 popular songs for patterns. This is what I found.

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This article is Part 2 of a multipart series looking at the statistics gathered from 1300 choruses, verses, etc. of popular songs to discover the answer to some interesting questions about how popular music is structured. Click here to read Part 1.

In Part 1, we used the database to learn what the most frequently occurring chords are in popular music and also started looking at the likelihood that different chords would come after one another in chord progressions.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll continue this exploration into the patterns evident in the chords and melody of popular music. First we’ll look at how popular music ends musical ideas and discuss a surprising difference between popular music and classical music. Then we’ll talk about the most popular chord progression used by songs in the database and discuss the ubiquity of this progression. Finally we will revisit the question of “which chords occur most frequently in popular music” and look at the reasons for why this is the case.

The first article received A LOT of really great feedback. We’re definitely using the feedback you’re giving to help guide us with where to go next, so keep it coming. Let’s get started with Part 2.

1. What are the most common ways that songs written in C get back to the C major Chord?

For songs written in C major, the C major chord (the I or “one” chord in Roman Numeral notation) is the song’s tonal center, so this is an important question to explore.

Probably the most fundamental rule governing chord progressions in classical music is the idea that in the key of C, G major chords (or V chords) are the right way to wrap up a musical idea. This has been known for ages, and popular music would be expected to do this too. Listen to this section from Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing. As the clip plays, we’ve highlighted the chords for you to follow as you listen along.

Listen in particular to that final G chord at the very end of the crazy buildup. That’s a V chord. And that’s how you end chord progressions. That’s just how it’s done.

…Except when it’s not. One of the interesting things about popular music is that this V → I (G to C) resolution isn’t adhered to nearly as much as it is in classical music. How much does popular music depart from this standard? We can answer that by looking at the songs in our database to get a precise answer.

The following plot shows the frequency that the other basic chords are used to come before I (or C major for songs written in C).

What stands out here, is that IV → I (F to C) is not only normal, it actually shows up just as often as V → I. This is surprising (at least to a classically trained person).

We also learn from this data that very few chord progressions go from iii to I (Em to C). In Part 1, we learned that Em (iii) almost always goes to F or Am (IV or vi) so this is totally consistent. Some of you were interested in seeing examples of songs that break with the trends that we’re finding. In that spirit, here’s one song in the database that happens to use Em (iii) in this way: Lady Antebellum’s I Need You Now:

This illustrates the point that it’s definitely possible to “break the rules” and still sound great. If you’re tempted to take this as an invitation to just experiment and do whatever you want, just remember the old mantra that I wish more songwriters would follow: “You’ve got to learn the rules before you can break them”. In fact, in this very example the weaker iii → I (Em → C) only happens in the first phrase. In the second repetition, the verse is ended much more emphatically with a strong G going to C (V → I). Also notice that the beginning of this section starts on a C (I) chord that is arrived at from an F (IV). So while this song uses the iii in an unusual manner, it is still following a lot of other “rules” elsewhere.

2. What is the most popular chord progression used by songs in our database?

To answer the question many of you were asking in the comments. The most popular 4 chord progression that shows up in the database is in fact the I V vi IV (or C G am F in the key of C). This, by the way, is a great example of a progression that uses the IV instead of V to get back to I. You can listen to a few songs that use this progression below:

What to take away from this? First, let’s be clear that just because a song uses only 4 chords doesn’t mean it’s necessarily stupid or inferior. It’s how you use those 4 chords that counts. Even more importantly though, I want to dispel the notion that popular music can’t be interesting musically.

Even though it’s true that there are a lot of songs that stick to just 4 chords, this definitely isn’t universal. There’s lots of examples in “popular” music that are really rich harmonically.

To give just one example, listen to the chorus from the song Who Says by the John Mayer:

John Mayer songs are often interesting to analyze because he studied at the Berklee School of Music and knows his harmony. This is the type of chord progression that a classical musician would recognize and understand immediately.

But popular music also uses chords in ways that are different from what a purely classically trained musician would be accustomed to hearing. Consider Christina Aguilera’s I Turn To You:

There’s obviously a lot going on in this song harmonically, and while I’m sure you guys will analyze every detail in the comments, the point I’m trying to make here is that there are examples of interesting uses of chords in popular music everywhere. You just have to look for it.

3. “Why” are the most frequently used chords in popular music what they are?

In part I, we found out that the most commonly occurring chords were the following:

The reality is, and this was pointed out by many of you in the comments, that a lot of the explanation behind all of this can be answered with some basic music theory. If you’re interested in learning some of the reasons that these chords are popular, we encourage you to check out our interactive book for iPad and web that teaches the theory behind popular music in ways that are approachable and fun to all musicians. Thanks for reading! Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Other posts in the 1300 song series


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  • Bob A

    Keep up the good work guys. Really cool analysis.

  • chris rollinson

    superb insight, keep it coming :)

  • Mak

    Good job!

  • Jochem

    Have you seen this as an interesting visual way to map common chord progressions: http://chordmaps.com/mapC.htm (for in the key of C). Steve also made a generic one: http://chordmaps.com/genmap.htm.

  • munkyboy
  • Dude McManus

    “a lot of the explanation behind all of this can be answered with some basic music theory”

    Ya know, that final chart is also a list of the primary “open” chords on guitar taught to beginners.

  • Brian Bulkowski

    Interesting,I would love to see an analysis of percentage not based on chord (G is most popular because it’s easy to play on guitar), but based on harmonic position in the circle of fifths – and percentages by progression. How many songs have I-V , how many have I-IVdim , etc. You should be able to make a very interesting graphical representation based on all 2, 3, and 4-tuples that are possible, and the top 50 of each.

    (don’t be afraid to put a little music theory in a popular post, the solid 2% of readers who have a college level understanding of music theory will be very happy)

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      Hi Brian,
      All the analyses were done with Roman Numerals without respect to a particular key. In other words G = V so the results should not be tainted by how easy a given chord is to play on the guitar.

  • http://twitter.com/wprl WIlliam P Riley-Land

    Very cool! Isn’t the IV -> I regression frequent in certain folk musics e.g. Appalachian or Irish?

  • chubbar

    The biggest problem with your analysis, although interesting, is that of sample selection. You only picked songs that stay in the key of C. So many songwriters change keys within a song, such as Elton John. In fact, the more skilled a songwriter becomes, the better they get at using chords that “aren’t in the key.” Check out “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      We actually try to account for this in our analysis. We always analyze a progression in the key that the song is currently in at the time regardless of whether it started in that key or modulated to it at some point. We also take into account things like secondary dominants and borrowed chords for when a song uses chords that are out of the key but doesn’t fully modulate. We haven’t talked about these chords in this series yet, but we will.

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  • Matthew

    Did you only use major key songs? Also, why is there no F minor on the most frequently occurring chords? Maybe this is sampling bias but I feel that I’ve heard a lot more iv chords than bVII chords in popular music

    • Brian B

      Fmin (minor 4) has been gaining traction in recent pop hits.

  • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

    We do actually analyze songs with F minors (in the key of C) in them. It’s a really interesting chord that is usually used very specifically. bVII (or as we label it, IV/IV) seems to be more popular, at least in the songs we’ve analyzed. Both are obviously much much less popular then the purely diatonic chords of course.

  • Michael

    I’d like to know what the most common four-chord progressions are in popular music. Then I can write new melodies over standard chord patterns.

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  • Matt

    I believe the Lady Antebellum example consists of 3 phrases, not 2. The initial F is a lead in, followed by 3 four-measure phrases, and the final C is part of the next section. The analysis is really interesting so far, keep up the good work :-)

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      We definitely had to stretch to find an example of a song that used iii to get to I. They just aren’t very common. Definitely agree that the F is a lead in. A perfect example of a song using IV to get to I!

  • Nate Clark

    awesome! I really enjoyed your point that popular music can be rich and interesting. Coming from a classical background and hanging out with a lot of jazz musicians I was force fed this notion that pop music is inferior and should be scoffed at. In my heart of hearts I knew this wasn’t true and you’ve done some great work proving to me that I am right in my intuition. I’m excited to read more soon! Thanks for some inspriation!

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      Thanks Nate. It’s definitely not all I IV V I. We’ll have more soon.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1304104191 Harald Græsdahl

    Fantastic work you have done here guys…really got me “hooked”…!!! Well done. What can I do to help?…Awe…!

  • Shelly

    I’m a piano teacher in Texas. Thank you for the work you are doing on this project. I’m looking forward to sharing this with my students….they will be grateful to play songs other than “London Bridge” and “Yankee Doodle”!

  • Carl

    Great stuff! I will keep rereading this. Came to think of some research on the Beatles which has a similar approach, studies which chords were just most etc. Check it out here: http://musikforskning.se/stmonline/vol_2/KGJO/Johansson.pdf

    I also have some book (or more like a catalogue) called MoneyChords where the author has organized hits in groups using the same chord progressions. I believe there is a site called moneychords.com as well.

    Cheers!

  • Jerry Shen

    Actually, interestingly, I – IV progression in classical isn’t all that rare. It’s one of the few ways for “Tonic expansion”. Meaning that the same progression can usually be substituted for I – I. The IV is just there to make things more interesting (Hence F comes after C). Where as the Lady Antebellum’s usage of I – iii, can be seen as a method of tonic expansion as well since theoretically I – iii are chords of the same function. Most importantly, structural-wise, (if you pay attention to the way those four bars are phrased) the iii – I merely happened as a by product of a repetition if “A” section in a miniature ABAC form. So the iii – I should not be seen as a harmonic transition but rather the ending of a chord phrase and the beginning of the next chord phrase.

    Hope that helps.

    JS

  • mydogiscalledbert

    Hello!
    nice site. The comments on this article range form “ooh that’s cool, useful ideas ” to a snooty “harrumph, don’t you understand music theory.” The truth is in-between. I believe this analysis is worthwhile, because “official” (snooty people) ideas about what is “correct” in music theory have changed completely over the centuries – and if you research hard on this, you’ll find the world’s top musicologists and physics-of-music and psychology-of-music professionals are still at odds with how this all works; in other words, there *is* no 100% theory of music, and don’t let the snobs tell you otherwise. On the other hand, pure chord frequency stats, while a valid exercise, are of low value on their own. Here are some points to consider to further your research:

    What’s more important is the chord progression. I have also made a study of this and have analyzed many hundreds of pop songs to look at what common patterns I might find. One thing I can absolutely assure you is that if you perform this analysis of the Beatles’ music, you be be amazed. ( Note how some of the snobby comments in this article say the Beatles “didn’t understand music.” So many people say this, especially jazz snobs (who don’t really understand music) and classically-trained musicians (who again tend to know nothing about the physics or statistics about music.) For all of their 210 songs, they seemed to have experimented, *deliberately* with a new chord progression with every song. And I don’t mean just different permutations of I II III IV V VI . In their early days, their main melodies were myxolydian and hence the chords were based on 7ths. Then soon after they based their music on what I call “borrow chords.” For the key of C, these are Eb Ab and Bb (borrowed from the related key of C minor) and D (borrowed from the cycle-of-fifths nearby key of G) and Bb (borrowed from the cycle-of-fifths key of F.) Just remember that MacCartney’s father was a music teacher who trained him from an early age, and John came from a reasonably well-heeled family that had supported his musical education from an early age, so the idea that they were completely clueless amateur musicians who didn’t know what they were doing but just played it because it sounded good, as promoted by “proper” musicians, is absolute nonsense! OK, they might not have been experts in reading and writing music, but that side of music theory is100% different from the theory of harmony and harmonic progressions, and that’s where their genius shone through.

    As an exercise, and an extreme example of how groundbreaking their chord progressions could be, try writing out the full chords to “I am the Walrus” in the key of C. I guarantee you will be astonished. The song represents a heavy use of borrow-chords and forced, but not unpleasant, key changes. But the Beatles’ music just *works* perfectly with the melody chosen, There are no notes that sound wrong, or chords that sounds wrong, in spite of all this rule-breaking (compared to a lot of bebop and modern jazz , which absolutely does contain wrong notes that sound good.) This means there is a whole body of harmony theory that is just not taught to musicians. You read these posts, and a lot of people conclude that “classical and pop music is all about permutations of I II III IV V VI , and jazz takes the theory much further” but I’ve realized that jazz only takes music in one direction; the theory is limited. You ask a good jazz improviser of whatever instrument to play a good melody off the cuff to “I am the Walrus” and they will not be able to, because the chord progressions are so alien to their idiom. Magical Mystery Tour is another, but less extreme version of this type of chord use. In C it goes like this: C Eb F C Eb F Bb Bb7 Eb Gb Bb F C… (repeat.) So there is a borrow-chord of Eb, before forcing a key change to Bb, and then via Bb7 to supposedly F, except it’s not F, because the next chord is Eb again, and then Gb – which is one of the borrow-chords for the key of Eb (taken from the key of Eb minor! )

    Professional composers tell you the correct way to interpret these things is via interval analysis, and while that is true to a certain degree and a good idea, it is not completely a correct way to do things. Consider this. *The* original scale discovered was the pentatonic major, found in all kinds of ancient music. This is the 1st, 5th, 2nd, 6th and 3rd. I say it in that order because that is the correct order that arises when you take subsequent fifths (or to put it more visually, keep chopping a third of the length of a vibrating string.) If you keep going, for another 2 5ths you get the 7th and the tritone, the flat 5. Why were these not included? In the case of the 7th (or more correctly the major 7th) , this is just a minor second (one semitone) off the octave. Now, a minor second is the most hideously clashing of intervals, and as there was no chord theory and no equitemperament tuning back then, all notes in a melody had to be sounded against root or octave drone notes, as in bagpipes, hurdy gurdies, sitar and all sorts of similar instruments. The tritone splits the scale exactly in half, so is dissonant to the human ear as it throws the key centre off. If you play C Gb C Gb there’s no way of knowing if you are in the key of C or Gb, and the interval itself is rather dissonant. However continue the process of taking fifths and you get all the other notes, namely Db (the minor second) Ab (the minor sixth) Eb (the minor third) Bb (the flat seventh) F (the perfect fourth) and then back to C, and the cycle repeats. The sting in the tail as some have pointed out is that the C you get from this process is slightly different from a perfect octave C, and indeed successive 5ths are all slightly out of tune with eachother, a problem fixed with equitemperament tuning. Now, getting to the point, conventional wisdom says that a minor second is a dissonant interval. However if you play this as a minor added 9th chord, as an arpeggio, it is probably the most beautiful of all chords. In other words, the *other* intervals have *altered* its quality. similarly celtic musicians, who did include the major seventh and perfect 4th to make a full scale of C D E F G A B C, hated the clash of the B to the C so much that a lot of their music was myxolydian, ie a G drone note and a melody scale of G A B C D E F G , the F now being a new flat seventh. In other words, playing C and B was considered dissonant. But! play a C major seventh chord – C E G B , and it sounds very nice indeed. The other intervals have tempered the effect of the B. And what about the humble triad? Remember that C to Eb is a minor 3rd and C to E is a major 3rd. Major is happy, minor is sad. However a major triad e.g. C E G is a major 3rd plus a minor third. But it does not sounds sad at all! The lower major third has altered the dynamics. And a minor triad, C Eb G, is a minor (sad) 3rd with a major 3rd stacked on top, but it still sounds sad in spite of the major triad. So interval analysis, well, if you wanted to take all things into consideration and analyze to the nth degree it can get hideously involved, so full chord progression analysis (especially when inversions are analyzed as well) represents a perfectly good statistical base from which to analyze chord progressions.

    I’ll look forward to reading the rest of the stuff on this site!

    Do have a go at writing the Beatles songs in C though, for direct comparison, it’s a real eye-opener.

    • neptune1bond

      Wow, I can’t believe that you actually have the audacity to imply that classical and jazz theory is worthless and that those musicians have no idea when it comes to music! It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sadly ignorant. Then you go on to say,”What I call “borrow” chords.” as though you or the Beatles had anything to do with the idea, even though modal mixture and borrowed chords from the parallel minor are standard in basically every theory text in existence and my Kostka and Payne text gives examples of modal mixture (or borrowed chords) as far back as Bach and Haydn in the 1700s (not to imply that these were the first) (Btw,”Tonal Harmony” by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne, Third edition, chapter twenty-one beginning on page 355, if you’d like to look for yourself). Don’t get me wrong, I like and appreciate the Beatles just fine and they were fairly competent musicians in my opinion. But why do some people want so badly to believe that classical and jazz musicians are somehow baffled by pop/rock music when that couldn’t be farther from the truth?

      To prove my point, I took your challenge and dug up my anthology of Beatles music (I didn’t bother to transcribe it myself since the that had already been done for me) and came up with a complete harmonic analysis of that version of “I Am the Walrus” needing no more than my 10 min. break while at work using my presumed “worthless” classical training and found absolutely nothing amazing or astonishing about it. Before I begin, I’ll remind all classical musicians that modal mixture, plagal cadences as a replacement of an authentic cadence (or a mixture of both as in the V-IV-I cadence), and more regular use of the mediant chord are all common devices in popular music. I’ll also remind classical musicians that, in popular music, when you see/hear a seventh chord in first inversion, the bass is sometimes (though not always) meant to be analyzed as the actual root of the chord and the chord isn’t really in inversion at all (it is in root position), they call this an added sixth (since it is a sixth above the bass). Also, if I name a seventh chord in my analysis, the seventh chord is a dominant seventh (also known as the major/minor seventh), even if the seventh is not diatonic, otherwise I will explain the “added notes.” In addition, every last chord is of major quality and this was accomplished through a lot of modal mixture and the ii chord is always a V/V. The following were the results of my analysis (I will explain the chord progressions only once and will make no further comment if the same progressions reappear later in the piece):

      The introduction begins with the progression (in the key of A):
      B-A-A(add 6)-G-G#5-F-F(add 6)-E-E7-D-D7
      or
      V/V-I-I(add 6)-bVII-bVII#5-bVI-bVI(add 6)-V-V7-IV-IV7

      Now, you’ll notice that the V/V (B) that begins the piece does not progress directly to it’s resolution (V or E) until a little while later in the introduction. What is all the stuff in between? Well that’s simply a stepwise progression of chords (passing chords) descending the parallel minor of A (except for the V/V chord (B) and the major I chord (A)) until the proper resolution is reached (B-A-G-F-E). (The parallel minor of A major is a minor, the RELATIVE minor is f# (or gb) minor for those who might be confused by this.) What about the add 6 and #5 chords you ask? Well, adding a 6 to any chord does not change it’s function, but rather acts as embellishment in this particular case. As for the #5 chord, if you look/listen to the top line of the electric piano part beginning with the first G chord, you’ll notice that the notes of the top voice at that point are D-D#/Eb-C-D creating a half chromatic/half diatonic double neighbor, meaning that the #5 sonority does not truly have harmonic function, but rather is incidental from the chromatic upper neighbor. The V-V7-IV-IV7 is meant to be a V-IV-I cadence (the I chord is the harmony that begins the following phrase) with added sevenths (since the IV is serving an almost dominant function, the dominant seventh added is simply meant to help express that dominant function).

      The next phrase begins with a repeat sign and a dal segno sign and proceeds as following:
      A-A/G-C-D-D/E-A-A/G-C-D-A
      or
      I-I/G-bIII-IV-IV/E-I-I/G-bIII-IV-I

      The reason that I put I/G instead of I4/2 is because although the G forms a third inversion dominant seventh sonority, the chord does not function as a dominant. The bass simply creates a falling fifth motion to the following C chord giving the two a stronger connection. The IV chords, since they appear in the middle of the phrase, serve a tonic expansion role rather than a cadential one. The E under the D chord does the same thing as the G under the A chord and has a rising fourth (falling fifth) motion to make a stronger connection between the D chord and the following A chord. The progression following this is basically the same and requires no further explanation.

      After the preceding progression, there is a first and second ending. The first ending proceeds as following:
      A-A/G-D9/F#-F-G-A-A/G-F-B-C-D-E
      or
      I-I/G-IV9-bVI-bVII-I-I/G-bVI-V/V-bIII-IV-V

      This time the G after the first I chord is simply a stepwise descending baseline (A-G-F# or scale degrees I-bVII-VI) and still serves no dominant function. The D9/F# is a dominant ninth IV chord (dominant functioning) in first inversion which then resolves deceptively (though this is not a cadence) to bVI. The following bVII is merely a passing chord to lead back to I. The next G is, again, non-functional and is simply passing motion in the bass to the following bVI. The following progression is then a V/V leading to the V with passing chords in between, just like in the introduction, except this time ascending rather than descending. The first ending has a “to coda”(1 and 2) sign, which will, of course, only be important after we have reached the D.S. al coda (either 1 or 2).

      This then goes back to the repeat sign mentioned earlier and goes to the second ending which then proceeds as following:
      D(sus 4)-A-E-D
      or
      IV(sus 4)-I-V-IV

      The first IV chord serves a tonic expansion role. The following I-V-IV is meant to serve as a half cadence (dominant functioning IV).

      There is then a D.S. al coda 1 sign (referring to the dal segno sign and the “to coda” (1 and 2) sign mentioned earlier), so I will continue at the “to coda 1″ which proceeds as following:
      E-B-A-G-F-E-B-A-G-F-E-F-B-C-D-E-D
      or
      V-V/V-I-bVII-bVI-V-V/V-I-bVII-bVI-V-bVI-V/V-bIII-IV-V-IV

      The first V chord is simply a continuation of the V chord from just before the “to coda 1″ sign. The V/V-I-bVII-bVI-V progression is the same stepwise progression as in the introduction, this progression is then repeated. The following bVI chord is a deceptive resolution of the V chord. The following V/V-bIII-IV-V-IV is, again, the progression in the introduction but ascending instead of descending.

      There is then a D.S. al coda 2 sign so I will continue after the “to coda 2″ sign which proceeds as following:
      D-C-B-(repeat sign)-A-G-F-E-D-C-B-(repeat and fade)
      or
      IV-bIII-V/V-(repeat sign)-I-bVII-bVI-V-IV-bIII-V/V-(repeat and fade)

      The first IV is simply a stepwise descent from the preceding V and this stepwise descent continues and repeats endlessly as the music fades. This is a way to make the music seem as though it will forever continue to repeat even after the listeners hear it fade by giving the progression a “circular” quality. (The bass notes descend until each V/V chord where the bass jumps up a seventh. Also, the upper structure chords continuously change inversion to, more or less, stay in the same place. This is how they can have the continuous harmonic or chordal descent without exceeding the range of the instruments.)

      For anyone who may question my 10 minute analysis claim. Realize that I did not have to explain the chordal functions and progressions to myself, but simply needed to recognize a chord or group of chord’s function/s before moving on. Everything in this song should be easily recognized by any person with the adequate theory knowledge and should not take very long at all to analyze. Especially since there is technically no modulation or other common difficulty that an analyst might struggle with that would cause him/her any sort of problem (only tonicizations of V which is the most common of tonicizations and quickly recognized by most trained musicians).

      Also, I disagree with your analysis of the chord progression in “magical mystery tour.”

      If the progression truly is:
      C-Eb-F-C-Eb-F-Bb-Bb7-Eb-Gb-Bb-F-C

      Then it could be analyzed one of two ways the first one is:
      I-bIII-IV-I-bIII-IV-bVII-bVII7-bIII-Gb-bVII-IV-I

      I-bIII-IV-I is a simple tonic expansion. The bVII7 is merely a tonicization of bIII (simply to make the falling fifth or circle-of-fifths harmonic “sequence” motion from IV to bVII(7) to bIII a little stronger) and, therefor, no modulation has occured at all. The reason that I did not give Gb a roman numeral analysis is because it would not function in the key of C at all, but rather would share a chromatic mediant relationship to Eb, and then in turn move through a similar chromatic mediant relationship (by major third instead or minor third) to Bb (bVII in the key of C) before moving to a (cadential) IV and then I.

      the second interpretation involves the same circle-of-fifths motion, but we instead interpret a modulation to actually occur at the Eb chord (that follows the Bb7 which puts us in the key of Eb, NOT F). In which case, the Gb is the bIII of Eb and the following Bb chord serves as the common chord for the modulation from Eb back to C.

      Either way, nothing that you gave is unexplainable to the trained musician. There simply is no ” whole body of harmony theory that is just not taught to musicians.” All of the best popular musicians actually took their music seriously and studied and trained just as much as any classical musician (take The Beatles for a great example). Don’t let ridiculous lies about the “uselessness” of classical and jazz theory or outdated ridiculous principles (like the K.I.S.S. principle and the apparent “anti-establishment” and “anti-academic” principles of some pop/rock/alternative/etc. musicians) discourage you from taking your music seriously and becoming the best musician that you can possibly be. Don’t fall into the ridiculous fallacy that a trained musician simply means a classical or jazz musician and does not include many, many musicians currently working in popular styles. All current music, regardless of style or genre, is based on the same scales, chords, and/or post-tonal theory as in the classical or jazz tradition. In fact the classical/jazz/pop/rock/etc. music of today is simply the culmination of a singular musical tradition based on the same twelve tone chromatic scale that we all know and love. The very small exception would be music that uses alternate tunings and/or traditions of other world cultures (almost never in popular music, even with music that uses ethnic instruments). Even in that case, there is a theory to explain it. (Honestly, what do you think people do for 4+ years in college? Sit around twiddling their thumbs while the professor simply states,”Betty, John, and Patty have talent while Steven, Christina, and Fred do not. Therefor the latter three fail automatically, while the proceeding three can go home and wait for four years, at which time we will give you a degree. Lucky you!)

      • Kyle Stenseth

        I was recently informed about your website and the work you have done. It is interesting from a musicians (percussionists) stand point to see the melodic breakdown of a lot of today’s popular songs and famous classic songs. Seeing this in the format you have created gives you a better understanding of the music. Also see how a good majority of songs a similar in structure as far as chord progression goes. One thing I noticed while working with the music editor was that for the average non-musician and someone like me who plays percussion and does not work with chords and melodies very often, it is not very accessible for creating a coherent piece of music. If there was a way to format it so people with no musical knowledge could create music to some extent. Doing this could help bring your theory and slight musical knowledge to the general population allowing people to enjoy their music even more.

  • mydogiscalledbert

    Sorry another comment. I re-read an older post, which is very good advise but very old fashioned. To repeat the post it says :

    “When you study music theory, you’ll understand that, there is a pattern that all chords follow, regardless of key. If you took ALL Western music written since the 17th cen., you would find that the roots generally move in three ways:

    up a 4th (same as down a 5th), e.g. iii to vi to ii to V to I,

    up a 2nd, e.g. iii to IV, IV to V, etc. and

    down a third, I to vi, vi to IV, IV to ii, etc.

    In addition, I moves to V and IV to I as they are the pillars of any tonal piece (i.e. the DOMINANTS)
    A couple of semesters in music theory will give you a basic understanding about why all of these things happen.”

    rounded off with the usual snobby “take a course in music” type comment. Now, the root movement analysis stated above is correct and an excellent starting point for understanding diatonic harmony, *but that’s all it is;* it is 100% correct if and only if you think the whole of harmony theory was worked out and completed 300 years ago. Yes, the stuff above is correct, but theory has moved on a bit in the last 300 years!

    In reality , ANY combination of I II III IV V VI VII is possible, and will sound more ‘correct’ if the harmony is chosen appropriately. Yes, Em does sound naturally good if followed by Am or F, as above, but it can also sound good with any other chords – if the melody is chosen correctly.

    A case in point is the Beatles’ song Honey Pie. It goes C Ab7 A7 D7 G7 C Ab7 G7 .
    Now if you just play these chords, the C to Ab7 sounds a bit harsh and Ab7 to A7 is a weird semitone parallel fifths step (which 300 years ago would not have been allowed) but with the melody they composed, sounds fantastic, AND more importantly, 100% “correct.”

  • munguialma

    This is really interesting! For someone that doesn’t know anything about music I actually found this really helpful and interesting. The videos were great because they actually showed the common patterns of songs which made it a lot easier to understand.

  • Theresa

    It was really fun reading this and learning from this analysis the similarities in songs that most don’t recognize, I will keep my ears open for more similarities, and keep my eyes open for part 3. :-)

  • maya_keys

    But what’s meant by popular music? The Christina Aguilera chords you cited are STRAIGHT out of the decades and decades-old, earliest black gospel music tradition (as is ALL contemporary popular music when you trace it). So I think it’s a little misleading to take the 4-chord rock thing as the model for popular music, because actually that’s a later form of rock and roll that has really denied its blues/gospel roots, hence leaving out most of the complexity that was ALREADY there in the soul/blues tradition, get what i mean? So in the opposition “popular” versus “classical,” it seems you are leaving out the harmonic heart and soul of american music

  • Alan Hu

    Really awesome stuff. Question–what was done for songs in minor keys? From what’s been posted, it seems like minor key songs/chord progressions have been omitted from the statistics

    Also, it’d be really cool to have a look at chords that follow the V chord in popular music (similar to the analysis completed for chords that follow the iii chord). Despite what classical theory dictates, popular music is FULL of retrogressions that aren’t supposed to work–but do.

    Finally, a more general point: though I think this sort of analysis is really interesting, I don’t think we’re really analyzing this music in the right way. While a lot of popular music can definitely be analyzed with functional harmony (the John Mayer song as a great example), I would argue that a significant portion of popular music is better analyzed with some system of understanding other than the major/minor functional theory paradigm. Here’s why:

    1. Songs with four chord progressions are not really tonal because there are no true cadences in them
    I’m going to make a distinction between four chord/three chord songs and songs with long and more varied chord progressions. While Who Says was clearly written with a functional harmonic framework in mind, songs like Let It Be (I V vi IV) cannot be understood through functional harmony.

    Let’s analyze I V vi IV–all are diatonic chords and there is a sense of where the tonic is. The I to V and V to vi movements are easy enough to understand; however, what doesn’t make sense is why the vi goes to a IV and ends there. If we try to analyze this with classical theory, it would be a four bar phrase that ends on not a I and not a V, but rather a IV. There’s no name for a progression that ends in a IV chord in functional theory. We also can’t explain why there is forward motion between iterations of the progression: IV – I is a weak progression and really shouldn’t provide harmonic motive to continue. Authentic cadences, pretty much a requirement for all songs in classical theory, are nowhere to be seen. We could argue that this progression is just some form of tonic extension repeated, but this can barely capture all the nuance and difference between different four chord progressions. As such, functional harmony is really not a good system for describing pop harmony.

    2. Some four chord progressions are modal:
    Most pop progressions are written in either the major or minor key; however, there’s a lot of stuff out there that departs from the major/minor key system we’re used to using. The I V vi IV progression, for example, is quite clearly in the major key. Florence + the Machine’s No Light, No Light, on the other hand, uses a progression we would usually label as ii IV I V in normal functional harmony. However, if you listen to the song (which is written in the C major key signature), C really doesn’t sound like the tonic for most of it–in fact, it’s hard to pinpoint the tonic of this song but when you do, you’ll find that this song is generally in D Dorian. If we were to rewrite the chord progression in this context, it really should be i III VII IV. Again, this makes no sense in functional harmony which really can’t deal with modal harmonies.

    Roman numerals, functional harmony and the major/minor key paradigm is really a system of understanding European music written in the Common Practice form. While some pop artists who have been trained in this school of thought incorporate harmonies that make sense in a classical way in their songs, many pop songs do not use harmonies that can be analyzed with functional harmony. A lot of popular music is written with a fixed chord progression that does not make sense when analyzed in functional harmony and we lose a lot of the nuance in these songs when using functional harmony to analyze it.

    Awesome site, great analyses and I’m looking forward for more!

  • Jarred

    This is very cool! I never thought of common trends with chord progressions in songs!

  • Alexandria Hooks

    Its amazing on how you can find so many of the same exact chords found in popular songs these days and older songs back in the day.

  • Peter Yang

    That’s amazing that you’ve taken your time to do all of this and I really appreciate it because this is a great source to read due to all of the facts and visuals. Thank you!

  • Pangkou

    I think this article provides great information about chord progressions. It’s amazing how the most popular 4 chords progression can create songs using the same chords with different lyrics and meanings. This is a great place for music studying.

  • music beginner

    dont really know about music…but this is amazing…using chord from different kind of songs and it’s like making a new song or a new instrumental…these chord sound so emotion…cant stop thinking about the chord..keep up the good work..

  • langlor

    This is surprising to me because I don’t know anything about piano music but i now understand a bit more that most songs uses the same chords in there music just changed with a couple more chords to make it sound different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brett.salomonson Brett Salomonson

    great website. Fun way to learn about music

  • Juli

    This is great! So interesting and helpful. :) I love the I V iv VI medley!

  • Phil Thao

    Nice site and great work with the analysis

  • 106558783

    Nice job and great information on music theory.

  • Aj Jones

    Very cool observation, I didnt realize the definite simlarities between past and modern songs. The melodies and rhyming patterns are so much alike, but with different instuments and vocals added to a song it differentiates them to make the similarities almost unnoticable. This pattern obviously works since songs using it have become so popular and it will definitely will continue to be used.

  • Yoshimano

    Analyzing popular music both on the harmonic and rhythmic levels often leads to discover how rich and more interesting it can be compared to the well-learnt rules of classic harmony and limiting laws which it is full of. It’s just that most of pop music is commercial music and that in most cases it sticks to tonality, but the fact is pop music is not really tonal, even if it can be broken down into chords. There’s often a modal approach in pieces of pop music, and musicians can virtually do what they want (for the best or worst) without the pressure of a heavy scholar background.

  • Zhaloo Chang

    Great site and great article. I found this very useful because as a music beginner this can really benefit me to learn more about music. I found the chord progression to be very interesting because I did not noticed the similarities between songs from now and songs from the past. Overall, a very helpful site for me and one I wouldn’t mind visiting again for help.

  • Zhaloo

    Great site and great article. As a person who loves music but has very little knowledge about it, I found this very interesting and useful. At least know I know a little bit more. :) Definitely a site that I wouldn’t mind visiting again to use as a helping guide.

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  • Alona Dudko

    Thank you for your research its very helpful and bring a lot of new facts and statistics that I didn’t know before but now I understand much better why music is written the way it is.

  • brenda

    overall the website was a great advantage to discover. had really neat full things to learn about. Not know much about music i found it still interesting things to view and learn. really great site.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesus.gonzalez.1000 Jesus Gonzalez

    Hello everyone. Well after I had purchased this book I have read the first two chapters and I have leaned a lot. From how most of the song that we listen to on the radio use the most popular chords I, IV, V. I also learned that major chords have a sound that is like “rich” and minor chords have like a “sadness” to it I guess you can say. Something that I did not know about was “cadence chords,” these are chords that wrap things up and take you back to like the base chord. I also learned a better and clearer understanding on how transposing a song to be played in a different key.
    I look forward to what is ahead and I can’t wait.

  • Darlene Vitoria

    I think this article provides very good information. I really do not know very much in music. I do not know anything about piano or chords. I think it provided useful information in regards to the patterns of many popular music that are much alike but with different instruments or sounds added that makes the song sound different or be noticed completely different. Also, many popular songs use the most popular four chords which songs are made but with different lyrics. This is a great site with very useful information.

  • bsicairos10

    I found this being very useful because not only are you explaining the way the chords and harmonies are being used but you show us in videos. I also like how you guys do the comparison with classic music to the type of music that is being herd know. I like how it is explained about the chords and how the letters are being used so that its easier to read and go along to the music. I really enjoyed how as the song was going the chords were following along and i was able to see what was being played. I really like how the music was flowing together harmonically. i really find the videos explain really well what the reading says and makes it easier to follow along not only follow but also play the notes as i follow along as well.

  • 5582

    This is a very helpful website. Being someone who knows very little about piano or the general background of music, this helps some what. I am still a little confused but im sure the more i read, the more interested and knowledgeable I will become.

  • bryant calderon

    hook theory has been a huge help trying to understand how the chords and
    patterns work together not only to make sound and music but to make art
    in its best. the online version book is vary help to the college
    student now because instead of carrying tons of books one can have it in
    the palm of their hand and take it anywhere they are at and at any
    time. another reason i liked hook theory is because it is inexpensive to
    the student which also helps them out financially. overall hook theory
    not only show me how to understand the theory of chords but helps me
    learn it with music i know and like and now cant wait what else hook
    theory will come up with.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/cjsmusic C.J. Smith

    Why are “Who Says” and “I Turn to You” not in the analyses database? Was gonna check something in one of them…

    • http://www.hooktheory.com/ Dave

      Just added them. Thanks for the heads up.