19 Apr 2011

Paean to Four Chords

I've taken some time out from this site in order to establish my new classical blog - the biting point - but I felt compelled to write this article after being comprehensively wooed by Secret Eyes, the 2008 album by Swedish indie-disco-pop duo Cloetta Paris. My recent relationship with this album seemed as good an excuse as any to write what will be a tribute post to a perfectly common - even quintessential - pop gesture, but one which always manages to totally seduce me. It is a gesture in some ways emblematic of the simple but endlessly repeatable pleasures that pure pop is capable of. It is the gesture which is largely responsible for my personal weakness for both epic, super-mainstream club music and unpretentious, playground pop-punk. It is a four-chord harmonic sequence.

Chords can signify in pop music in a different way than they do in classical music. In a tonal classical piece, a chord will function as part of a key, and progressions will usually relate to larger-scale tonal functions. Individual chords can hold their own characteristics, but we tend to understand harmony phrase-by-phrase rather than chord-by-chord. I would argue that, within the repeated structures of pop, meaning pivots far more on individual chords and chord-to-chord movement. If a chorus, or an entire song, consists of the same four chords repeated, then the relationship between each of these chords, and the role of each chord in the cycle, becomes very important. It might be considered inappropriate or 'pseudy' to look at pop in this way, but there must be reasons why we like any music that we like, and just because harmony is simple doesn't mean it doesn't mean, and such meanings can't be part of the attraction.

The chord sequence is as follows:

     I     -     V     -     vi     -     IV

(If a quick explanation of harmony is needed, the roman numerals relate to chords which are rooted on a particular pitch in the scale of the key (each scale has seven pitches - these pitches constitute the notes which are 'in the key'). So if a song is in G, 'I' means a chord rooted on G (the first note in the scale), and 'V' means a chord pitched on the fifth note of the scale which, if you count up G-A-B-C-D, is a chord of D.)

I latched onto this sequence recently when it appeared, on a single occasion, set in the middle of the chorus of Cloetta Paris's cover of 'So Serious'. The whole song is constructed from different organisations of these very common chords, and yet this particular sequence stood out for me, like a jewel, like a swoon, beneath the line: 'I guess we've really been out of touch'. Like a secret message actually, at a time in my life when I've been getting secret messages from all directions. Perhaps one of the most iconic permutations of this chord sequence, which is reasonably rife in general, is in N-Trance's anthemic 'Set You Free' (the original version). It occurs in the same guise in Blink-182's 'What's My Age Again?'. Both of these are comfort tracks for me, like Milky Bars; in both cases, the four-chord sequence above lends a sense of perfection through its infinite cyclability, its simplicity, and its non-'classicalness'. For me, it is the very essence of pop.

One of the key features of this sequence, which give it its attractive characteristics, is the movement between V and vi, what would be recognised in classical analysis as an 'interrupted' progression. Chord V (the 'dominant') has properties which imply progression towards chord I (the 'tonic' or home/key chord), but here this expectation is 'interrupted' by vi. Chord vi is a minor triad related to chord I, a kind of evil twin which can stand in its stead - a dark doppelgänger. The other key feature is the progression from IV to I - what's called a 'plagal' progression. Any movement onto the home chord (I) should suggest some kind of finality (since songs normally end on the home chord of the key), but the plagal progression is notoriously 'soft' and unfinal, compared to the V-I progression. It has a lightness to it. It implies that the cycle could start again, especially as the descending movement through a fourth (IV-I) is followed by (potentially) another descending movement through a fourth (I-V) which could also be heard as a plagal progression.

The effect that this has on the whole sequence is that nothing feels anchored or nailed-down. Each chord relates only to the one before and after it, because of the 'softness' of each relationship. This emphasises the individual qualities of each chord, especially those of the 'doppelgängers': I and vi. They are the flipside of each other, darkness and light. Some songs - such as the Knife's 'Heartbeats' - rely on the simple oscillation between these two triads, a common pop gesture, making use of the Yin-Yang qualities of the two chords. The kind of fluidity between the two creates a 'bittersweet' effect. The 'N-Trance sequence' also sets these two chords on an equal footing, each lapping over the other as they cycle round, staking a gentle claim for 'key chord' status. The unexpected V-vi progression is like a shadow falling, whilst the equally unexpected IV-I is like a ray of light breaking through.

Heartbeats - The Knife by musicnomad

This blurring of the roles of these two chords is emphasised in another common form of the progression:

     vi     -     IV     -     I     -     V

In this version, chord vi is placed on the strong beat or bar, which obscures even further the sense of key. Cloetta Paris use this version of the progression in 'Already Missing You'; the chords are in constant flux between minor and major - neither feels conclusive. The result is a potentially endless cycling which lends a kind of zen ecstasy when used in epic eurodance tracks, some of my favourite - in their pureness and simplicity - being Basshunter's 'All I Ever Wanted' and Aqua's 'Roses Are Red'. The same sequence forms the raw material for most of Sum 41's Does This Look Infected? album, which turns three-chord anger punk into four-chord sugar punk, as well as my favourite song by the Offspring: 'Self Esteem' (although much of the brilliance of this particular number comes from the hysterical harmonic lift into the 'middle-eight', throwing the same progression up a fourth).

Basshunter - All I Ever Wanted by ClockworkLLC

Aqua - roses are red by acckaya_sweet

Sum 41 - The Hell Song by Cover77

Self-Esteem by Offspring

All these songs are ostensibly in major keys, although the reliance on this cycle creates a kind of 'keylessness' which should be celebrated as a uniqueness of pop harmony. However, my main pop-punk crush from the last five years, the beguiling Fall Out Boy, demonstrate the ability to use the same sequence within a minor key context in their 'This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race' (listen to the chorus). The same progression can therefore be spelled out as:

     i     -     VI     -     III     -     vii(/V)

The chords sound almost exactly the same as the previous sequence, but the final chord (vii) has a greater dominant effect. This serves to establish the minor triad (i) as a stronger 'home' chord, but by doing so it also gives the unexpected, major sounding chord III an even more striking feeling of brightness.

This Ain't A Scene It's An Arms Race by FallOutBoy

The codification of certain harmonic sequences is a fairly common part of classical discourse, while people are equally effusive over the apparently infinite virtues of the 12-bar blues, a sequence which has very little effect on me. But I feel that, as an explication of my simultaneous enchantment with both ostensibly 'embarrassing' skate punk and ostensibly 'embarrassing' chart dance, the properties of this magic formula are long due a fitting tribute. There are many similar progressions, but it is this specific combination which appeals to me in this particular way, which suggests that harmony in pop music is far from arbitrary, neither does it operate as a mere padding to melody or the vessel of signifying timbre, but that it can mean independently at the smallest level. A well-placed minor triad, however fleeting, can inflect the sweetest love song with the shadow of doubt or a Hardyesque sigh, while a particularly pivotal major triad in a minor context can offer the glint of hope or the bittersweetness that defines melancholia. It is by an intuitive understanding of these harmonic micro-properties that the most direct lyric can be rendered with the most complex of emotional shading, and that's the power of the pop song.

Cloetta Paris's Myspace

Buy their superb album Secret Eyes here



Beirut - Scenic World by so_high

Waka waka (time for africa) - shakira by ♪ ♪Jose Sandrea♪ ♪★

A neat little illustration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Co9mW_9hH2g&feature=youtu.be