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Why are only a few chords used in hit songs in recent times?
Old 15th November 2015
  #1
Gear Head
 

Why are only a few chords used in hit songs in recent times?

It seems to me that in the last few years, most hit songs in UK/US charts use a few chords only.

For example, Adele's Hello is written with these chords: Em, G, D, C. Another chord, Bm is used only once.

No matter what we think of hit songwriters, I'm sure they are competent enough to use more chords in their songs - if they want.

So the question is why do many hit songs use only a few chords?

Thank you.
Old 15th November 2015
  #2
Lives for gear
 

Maybe the writers know their audience.
Old 15th November 2015
  #3
Gear Nut
Seems to be the era of the vocal hero right now and melody is king. A simpler progression focuses your attention on the vocal which propels the song.
Old 15th November 2015
  #4
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by troiontroi View Post
It seems to me that in the last few years, most hit songs in UK/US charts use a few chords only.

For example, Adele's Hello is written with these chords: Em, G, D, C. Another chord, Bm is used only once.

No matter what we think of hit songwriters, I'm sure they are competent enough to use more chords in their songs - if they want.

So the question is why do many hit songs use only a few chords?

Thank you.
The vast vast majority of people who are writing hits are more than competent enough to use as many chords as they could possibly want in expression. I have been lucky enough to hear some of these people speak and the resounding opinion is that writing hits a very much about getting stuck in peoples' heads.
Words do not get stuck in peoples' heads.
Chords don't really get stuck in peoples' heads, complicated chords really don't get stuck in peoples' heads.
Melodies get REALLY REALLY stuck in peoples' heads!! Simple, easy to learn melodies.

Now I honestly don't see the demand for complicated chord progressions. Like seriously what's the point? To make it "more interesting" for the music majors who are too good for pop music?
Old 15th November 2015
  #5
Gear Head
 

Hi, thank you.

But do you think popular songs in the 'old day's were more complicated than pop songs in recent times?
Old 15th November 2015
  #6
Quote:
Originally Posted by lukeforester1 View Post
The vast vast majority of people who are writing hits are more than competent enough to use as many chords as they could possibly want in expression. I have been lucky enough to hear some of these people speak and the resounding opinion is that writing hits a very much about getting stuck in peoples' heads.
Words do not get stuck in peoples' heads.
Chords don't really get stuck in peoples' heads, complicated chords really don't get stuck in peoples' heads.
Melodies get REALLY REALLY stuck in peoples' heads!! Simple, easy to learn melodies.

Now I honestly don't see the demand for complicated chord progressions. Like seriously what's the point? To make it "more interesting" for the music majors who are too good for pop music?
You have some good points. Chords don't get stuck in people's heads. Riffs and simple melodies do. Often, of course, they don't actually WANT them there. (Ear worms.) I would also suggest that while complex ideas don't stick in people's heads -- most can't even figure out simple ideas -- simple phrases do, particularly when glued to a hooky melody.

That said, there actually are many people -- even people who enjoy a good, catchy-but-simple pop tune -- who also crave more complex fare as well.

Some folks are content with a steady diet of vanilla wafers. Many are not.
Old 16th November 2015
  #7
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
You have some good points. Chords don't get stuck in people's heads. Riffs and simple melodies do. Often, of course, they don't actually WANT them there. (Ear worms.)
I don't care if people want my melodies stuck in my head, my job is to get them there in 3 or fewer listens. If I have to rape your ears to sell a record I got problem with that.





....
(this was not meant as a rape joke, before I get flamed)
Old 16th November 2015
  #8




[I'm navigating around the loaded 'r' verb to get to that laugh, per your disclaimer. I'm sure neither of us think there's anything funny about rape.]
Old 16th November 2015
  #9
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by troiontroi View Post
Hi, thank you.
But do you think popular songs in the 'old day's were more complicated than pop songs in recent times?
Not at all:

Louie, Louie
Wild Thing
Hanky Panky
Wooly Bully

Simple songs using only I, IV and V have been around for quite a while. And long before my time.

Banks of the Ohio
Tom Dooley
Long Black Veil
Lonesome Whistle


Most folk music, classic country and pre 60's rock and pop.
~Bob
Old 16th November 2015
  #10
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
You have some good points. Chords don't get stuck in people's heads. Riffs and simple melodies do. Often, of course, they don't actually WANT them there. (Ear worms.) I would also suggest that while complex ideas don't stick in people's heads -- most can't even figure out simple ideas -- simple phrases do, particularly when glued to a hooky melody.

That said, there actually are many people -- even people who enjoy a good, catchy-but-simple pop tune -- who also crave more complex fare as well.

Some folks are content with a steady diet of vanilla wafers. Many are not.
If you crave complexities you can find them outside of the harmonic progression. Try recreating the sounds and processes in most pop songs today and you'll realize just how complex they are.
Old 16th November 2015
  #11
Lives for gear
 
GeminIAm's Avatar
Pop songs being 'simple' is nothing new.

I do think there is a lot of boring stuff around, which to me has more to do with a lack of desire for wanting to stand out. This is less about chords but more about style and personality for me. It's not specific to music either, just look at how similar young people's dress senses and hair styles are - the desire to be different/stand out has completely vanished in the last 20 years. There are no groups/scenes, apart from maybe the odd goth.

It's a shame, because along with music being less important to kids/youths (just a background noise for many of them) it eliminates diversity in pop music too.

Where are the Bowies, the Siouxsies, the 2pacs?
Old 16th November 2015
  #12
Lives for gear
 

Not sure its intelligent to risk your whole career writing a freak hit like "Somebody That I Used To Know" just because charting music is not complex enough.

Thats a factor that damn near nobody ever considers here.

These people have families to feed and themselves to take care of so its actually dangerous to your career stepping out of the formula of making modern hits.

Not worth the risk.

Last edited by Adonis Martine; 16th November 2015 at 11:18 PM..
Old 16th November 2015
  #13
Quote:
Originally Posted by top40 View Post
If you crave complexities you can find them outside of the harmonic progression. Try recreating the sounds and processes in most pop songs today and you'll realize just how complex they are.
And yet, so often, mainstream pop music tends to sound, you know, awful samey, from one hit to the next.. Of course, the closer one gets to any subject, the more variation and detail one is likely to see.

Just so we're clear here: I have a long immersion in electronic music. As a musician, going back to 1981, when I learned to patch on a Moog Modular. As a listener, going back to the mid-60s. I think I bought my first album that was dominated by synths in '65 or '66 and my first all-synth album in '67. I own a number of hardware synths.

I just hate boring, formulaic, music that sounds like everyone else's boring formulaic music. Oh yeah, and tuning artifacts -- it's just a sound that drives my ears nuts.
Old 16th November 2015
  #14
By the way, in addition to melodic cadences (and catchy lyrical phrases, particularly when paired with the former), I would also say that rhythmic cadences also stick in folks' heads, as well. Look at the long dominance of the Amen break syncopation in post-disco dance music, as well as in hip hop and rap.
Old 16th November 2015
  #15
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Carnalia Barcus's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by top40 View Post
If you crave complexities you can find them outside of the harmonic progression. Try recreating the sounds and processes in most pop songs today and you'll realize just how complex they are.
Although if one of the things you specifically crave is more interesting harmonic content, that doesn't help.
Old 16th November 2015
  #16
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Carnalia Barcus's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by pdiddy View Post
Seems to be the era of the vocal hero right now and melody is king. A simpler progression focuses your attention on the vocal which propels the song.
It would be nice if we were to have more interesting melodies, too. And I'd say that more interesting melodies would amount to more interesting harmonies, since harmony consists of all of the pitched material that occurs simultaneously.
Old 16th November 2015
  #17
We in the west are comparative simpletons when it comes to melody...






And complex scales and melodies CAN actually have more-or-less instant appeal... this tune from Ukraine has become a sort of underground hit...

Old 16th November 2015
  #18
Lives for gear
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by troiontroi View Post
It seems to me that in the last few years, most hit songs in UK/US charts use a few chords only.

For example, Adele's Hello is written with these chords: Em, G, D, C. Another chord, Bm is used only once.

No matter what we think of hit songwriters, I'm sure they are competent enough to use more chords in their songs - if they want.

So the question is why do many hit songs use only a few chords?

Thank you.
This is very much the same topic as the Adele thread.

Overall, I think what most people do now started with people like Michael Jackson, who had a very limited knowledge of music. He wrote groove songs, much like James Brown, but more pop. Big influence. Combine that with tech such as drum machines, sequencers, daws, plus successful people who aren't willing to take any sort of risk, or don't have the ability to or interest, and you have nothing but a few repeating chords in most every song.
Old 16th November 2015
  #19
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
By the way, in addition to melodic cadences (and catchy lyrical phrases, particularly when paired with the former), I would also say that rhythmic cadences also stick in folks' heads, as well. Look at the long dominance of the Amen break syncopation in post-disco dance music, as well as in hip hop and rap.
I believe it's the rhythm that initially attracts the young listener. Not the lyrics and not the melody. I figure that most kids aren't really listening to a song until that rhythm grabs them. I wonder if that's why so much top 40 has such strong and intense drums and electronic whizz-bang going on? Rhythm takes no real understanding or interpretation. It crosses the boundaries of culture and the musical scales they use.
~Bob
Old 17th November 2015
  #20
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by MLKjr View Post
This is very much the same topic as the Adele thread.

Overall, I think what most people do now started with people like Michael Jackson, who had a very limited knowledge of music. He wrote groove songs, much like James Brown, but more pop. Big influence. Combine that with tech such as drum machines, sequencers, daws, plus successful people who aren't willing to take any sort of risk, or don't have the ability to or interest, and you have nothing but a few repeating chords in most every song.
And aren't almost all modern pop songs developed first as a bed of rhythm and background music then the melody and lyrics written over the top? That was my impression. If so, then it seems that there's a lot of people who could take that bed of music and create the melody. People like MJ were talented enough for that I would think.
~Bob
Old 17th November 2015
  #21
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Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
This tune from Ukraine has become a sort of underground hit...

Nice find!!

It sounds nothing like what I hear from the Ukrainians in my church.
Could it be that they speak Russian instead of Ukrainian??

Could it be that they are singing in Ruthenian; the original language of yore.

Questions?
Old 17th November 2015
  #22
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ksandvik's Avatar
 

I do miss the old Motown/Philly times where someone could write *both good melodies* in combination with clever chord sequences. Or listen to 99% of Stevie Wonder's material, he could pull off a melody out from a chromatically sequenced song such as "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing":



So writing catchy melodies with clever chord progressions is doable -- but as with anything else in life it takes talent and know-how. For example, many of the original Chic songs have pretty much jazz chords as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were old jazz cats. People still sing them today.

PS: As a bonus, if you write unexpected chord sequences, in many cases the melody just bubbles out from the chords wanted to be heard.

Last edited by ksandvik; 17th November 2015 at 01:15 AM..
Old 17th November 2015
  #23
Quote:
Originally Posted by IdiotStick View Post
[...] Rhythm takes no real understanding or interpretation. [...]
Or perhaps it's an understanding at a primal level. But, of course, it can be fiendishly complex and yet still emotionally compelling.

I know I've grooved to some Latin rhythms and African syncopations that befuddle my poor suburban sensibilities, not just as a player but even as a listener, yet I find myself pulled -- or pushed -- along in their thrall.
Old 17th November 2015
  #24
Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
Nice find!!

It sounds nothing like what I hear from the Ukrainians in my church.
Could it be that they speak Russian instead of Ukrainian??

Could it be that they are singing in Ruthenian; the original language of yore.

Questions?
Those are questions I can't answer, I'm afraid. My ear for slavic languages is pretty much totally undeveloped. I do know the Trio is more or less based in Kiev.

I just like the melodies -- and I'm always a fool for sibling harmony acts. (At least if they grew up together singing; just being siblings is no guarantee.) And, of course, these young women have a pretty ingratiating charm, at least to this old grouch.
Old 17th November 2015
  #25
Lives for gear
 
Herr Weiss's Avatar
 

Yeah, they are cute.
Is this staged or are they 'hillbillies'?
Peasants walking down a dusty road.
Perhaps, gypsies.

Cossacks!!
Old 17th November 2015
  #26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Herr Weiss View Post
Yeah, they are cute.
Is this staged or are they 'hillbillies'?
Peasants walking down a dusty road.
Perhaps, gypsies.

Cossacks!!
Their video representation has been pretty long on single take phone video kind of stuff. But hey're definitely getting some attention now. They have a proper album out and everything now but it's not a big budget or heavily produced thing. It sounds nice, though. Heck, someone even has a remix built around one of their tracks.
Old 17th November 2015
  #27
The real question should be: why do we need more chords when less sells so well? if the majority of people like a certain thing a certain way, why change it and go against the tide?

The last thing you really want to be, is a salesman who succeeds IN SPITE of their product.

It's hilarious how people on GS assume because something is simple, it's a sign of weakness or primitivity... You guys REALLY think someone like Michael Jackson created songs like Billie Jean because he LACKED the ability to be complex...? Really?

Last edited by Godson; 17th November 2015 at 07:09 AM..
Old 17th November 2015
  #28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Godson View Post
The real question should be: why do we need more chords when less sells so well? if the majority of people like a certain thing a certain way, why change it and go against the tide?

The last thing you really want to be, is a salesman who succeeds IN SPITE of their product.

It's hilarious how people on GS assume because something is simple, it's a sign of weakness or primitivity... You guys REALLY think someone like Michael Jackson created songs like Billie Jean because he LACKED the ability to be complex...? Really?
You're putting words in people's mouths.

I very much appreciate elegant simplicity, economy of expression, that sublime shorthand when someone really communicates with a few simple lines or musical gestures.

I just don't mistake simplistic, formulaic commercial product for that. As a rule.
Old 17th November 2015
  #29
Quote:
Originally Posted by ksandvik View Post
I do miss the old Motown/Philly times where someone could write *both good melodies* in combination with clever chord sequences. Or listen to 99% of Stevie Wonder's material, he could pull off a melody out from a chromatically sequenced song such as "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing":



So writing catchy melodies with clever chord progressions is doable -- but as with anything else in life it takes talent and know-how. For example, many of the original Chic songs have pretty much jazz chords as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were old jazz cats. People still sing them today.

PS: As a bonus, if you write unexpected chord sequences, in many cases the melody just bubbles out from the chords wanted to be heard.
I think for musically naive folks, this song above or those old Chic songs you reference probably seem 'simple.' But when analyzed, they often seem to be rich with interesting aspects, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, textural...

I think a lot of folks have found it's really quite hard to write good, simple sounding stuff.
Old 17th November 2015
  #30
Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
You're putting words in people's mouths.

I very much appreciate elegant simplicity, economy of expression, that sublime shorthand when someone really communicates with a few simple lines or musical gestures.

I just don't mistake simplistic, formulaic commercial product for that. As a rule.
Fair enough, but it's a sentiment I've seen in thousands of threads on this site. Especially in the mastering sections
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