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Jacob Collier’s four magical chords (ethanhein.com)
116 points by bobbiechen 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

Its hard to be captivated by complex harmony when you are perfectly satisfied with I vi IV V. I was a music student and piano improviser, and I spent much of my time finding ebullient and brooding chord progressions. It was a fairly lonely space, but texture took life. It takes somebody very special to capture that essence and take it to market. I feel like Owen Pallett pulled it off in modern times, Vincent Persichetti two generations earlier. Just like Blaise Pascal did with his Ponces, freely integrating the scientific and the spiritual; just like Marcus Aurelius somehow eschewing the concept of legacy, only to outlives billions.

In my younger days, I felt it a dichotomy between self-rewarding and reach. I wanted to choose the former, but ended up with neither.

These days I'm more interested in resonance. It creates excitation and movement across multiple dimensions. It starts in one place and time, and ends up spilling across the rest of your lives and that of others. Maybe you were at a concert, or a church service, or around a campfire when some music struck your 'heart strings'. Something about that sound energy turned your mesh of physiology in a new direction. Maybe when you were driving home you realized something about yourself, and eventually your career took a new path; maybe your love for someone became clear. Whatever happened next, the places you traveled, the things you purchased, the fields you trod upon; all real-world effects started when part of you resonated with some sound energy.

Developers and DevOps and Deep Learning folks face the same kind of choices with their creations each day- do I make code that is marvelous to behold? Do I care what others think of it? Does it compile fast enough for my busy schedule? Does it modify the real world in the ways I intend it to?

I no longer think there is some choice between integrity and commercial success. I think there is a choice to seek, embrace, and amplify sympathetic vibrations - or to allow dissonance to wash over you, finding your own stillness in its torrent. Of course, great artists do both in their own measure.

"Blaise Pascal did with his Ponces"


Ponce is an old term of abuse directed at gay men.






an effeminate man.



a man who lives off a prostitute's earnings.




seek to obtain (something) without paying for it or doing anything in return.

"I ponced a ciggie off her"



live off a prostitute's earnings.

"he was arrested for poncing on the girl"


That's my new favorite malapropism. Doh!

Just a note, as a brit I've heard the term ponce, used in the sense of scrounging, exactly once in my whole life. A mate told me how she wanted to get into a punk gig and was down in the underground 'poncing for money'. Cue my raised eyebrows 'till she explained.

I basically agree. Collier is a harmonic genius, but mostly his music doesn't do much emotionally. I don't think it's necessarily that he needs to write more dance-able music to improve -- just, something with more meaning and emotion (which might just come naturally by growing up).

That said his cover of Danny Boy shows that he does have it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXIApugIuqk

> his music doesn't do much emotionally.

Guh...thank you for articulating this so perfectly! I've been struggling to understand why I could tell some of Collier's music sounds good from a technical perspective, but couldn't understand why those pieces didn't leave me 'feeling' (e.g. moved, touched, in awe, etc). I agree that I hope he is able to incorporate more emotion into his work as he matures.

As a semi-professional jazz nerd, he's absolutely "got it" in the majority of tracks he records. "Right now", his appeal is to folks who understand all of the tricks in modern contemporary harmony, and his payoff is that he subverts it in "the Jacob Collier style". His burden is how/when is he going to figure out how to invoke that frisson in the average (non jazz-nerd) listener. See: Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, and others.

I am reasonably confident people are going to be dissecting Jacob Collier harmonic choices in the 2100s and beyond, similar to how we dissect John Williams, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, and other modern composers today.

I guess I am the most unimpressed with his covers. To me, his harmonic choices and reharmonizations are always on the side of complexity rather than aural pleasure. I just want him to do more original stuff.

FWIW, I find the Adam Neely/Sungazer work more listenable, so its not a dislike of covers, but I also don’t enjoy taking the melody out of things just to substitute functional harmonies.

That's the "Jacob Collier Thing" though. Consider that he's doing 'complicated' reharms, but with significantly more emphasis on microtonality.

For the average listener, it's not so much that he's "putting the harm in reharmonization", but that he's tastefully (to the western ear) being _specifically_ sharp or flat (depending on the original key - hence 'microtonality') in a way that he is gambling is more appealing to the western ear trained/developed in western music.

People said literally the same things about bebop in the 40s. Complex reharmonizations with wild new ideas over well known pop songs. But now that Charlie Parker's ideas have become integrated into the norm it doesn't seem adventurous or sacrificing soul for complexity.

Collier will be the same in 50 years.

I appreciate your perspective, but I'm not sure whether you're deeming me unqualified to pass an opinion or what? (Sorry. lol) I'm a lifelong musician, so I absolutely appreciate and respect Collier's technique. But I don't think it's beyond reason to say that I yearn for emotional substance in his work. I have always considered frisson to be invoked from both a technical and emotional balance in music. It is not just mechanical. That said, emotion is a subjective experience. Collier certainly has the technical prowess and he uses it heavily, but he seems to lack a mature emotional component. Paraphrasing the original commenter, it's not that Jacob can't get there but I am looking forward to when he does reach that point.

> people are going to be dissecting Jacob Collier harmonic choices in the 2100s

I hope so! He's nothing short of prodigy.

I find his music repugnant and cringy. The only thing I've learned from this guy is that music is such a wide, vast universe, that is okay for people to have their own little corner in it - because its a wide open vista.

Technical skill and emotional relatability are entirely based on a relative cultural background. I'm sure there are going to be downvotes from people who really like his music and his whole persona, but this just proves the point that music is an extremely powerful cultural force. You can't keep it in a box.

Have an up vote because, although I disagree with you, people are free to like or dislike art as they choose, and you address this in your comment.

While I do agree that Collier is a musician's musician, I don't agree with the remark he should look for people who are "cooler" and the "hip-hop and dance" bullshit. That is so denigrating. Music's purpose is not trying being cool. It sells, surely, but so does Helene Fischer.

I found In My Room to be an incredibly moving album. Djesse left me feeling far less after a first listen, but when I returned a few days later I started to notice things I had missed and now I really enjoy that album as well.

I am very moved by his music, in large part because of its cleverness. At the same time, I completely understand why many people are left unmoved. Different strokes, I guess.

> mostly his music doesn't do much emotionally

Couldn't agree less. I am so moved by at least half of his stuff. Try "Lua" or "Feel" from Djesse vol2 or even "In the real early morning" from his first album. The OP article is talking about "lack of collaborating with other people" - but it is opposite to reality. Most of his later work is collaborations with a lot of brilliant musicians.

I listened to Lua, and I like it better than some of the others, but it still doesn't resonate. The lyrics are.. mundane and superficial, to me. But, I don't know, I might warm up to it with some more listens.

I completely agree. The other thing that's a bit of a shame (for me) is that I don't like his voice. He's insanely talented (and probably a savant), and of course has all the voice techniques down, but the timbre of his voice (which the singer sadly can do nothing about) ends up not being my cup of tea. It has a particular pubertal property. Every time I hear his music, I wish he had written it for someone else to sing.

He's only 25. There's already lots more feeling and emotion in his latest Djesse project than his first album. He needs time to actually live life and have things to be emotional about before he can put them into music.

Jacob is such a gift to the world. I am so glad that I got to see him perform at a tiny dingy room at 3:30 AM the night before he won his first two Grammy's.

To get a sense for his creativity and technical nous I recommend his IHarmU series [1]. He crowdfunded an album that he recorded entirely by himself. Donors could send him a 20-30 second audio clip and he would overdub those tracks with his magic and upload it to YouTube as linked. I recommend the clip sent in by Herbie Hancock!

[1] https://m.youtube.com/results?search_query=iharmu

P.S. if any HNers are attending GroundUp this year, hit me up!

I would also start with IHarmU. His own music is great, but the vocal harmonisations of simple melodies sent by people are mindblowing, and there isn't any complex production masking his genius. There is a definite Take 6 influence there, but Jacob takes it to the next level. He has an incredible gift.

After IHarmU I would watch some of his live gigs - where he effortlessly plays 6-7 instruments like a pro. And he's only 25. I really look forward to hearing Jacob's music for decades to come.

While I've always appreciated some music due to some amazing specific technical aspect, such as Jacob Collier's harmonies or Steve Vai's guitar skills, the records I'd take with me on a desert island tend to consist of very simple elements combined and executed just perfectly. And by "perfectly" I mean with all their imperfections and unquantifiable emotional appeal, which has very little to do with the level of technical prowess. I guess what I'm saying is that for me, taste matters more than skill in music.

“But now maybe it’s time to get in the studio with some other people, who maybe don’t have your chops, but who are cooler than you, who listen to more hip-hop and dance music, who can balance out your intellect with some guts.”

And then he should become a teacher and teach inner-city kids multiplication tables using rap!

For a less snarky take, the Arctic Monkeys Album AM is undeniably a rock album but with a hint of hip-hop influence in the meter and composition and it’s an incredibly striking album. No one is rapping but just lifting the idea of rhyming in the middle of a word and rhyming schemes that span multiple bars gives a breath of fresh air to a mostly stale genre. What are music genres for if they can’t learn from each other?

> It’s intellectually interesting, but nobody could actually dance to it. In Dungeons and Dragons terms, the song has astronomical Intelligence, fairly high Charisma, and low to medium Wisdom. I’d rather hear all this craft being poured into a straightahead groove that’s more amenable to audience participation.

It's kinda nice to see someone getting all elitist about Music Should Be Danceable; usually when I see this sort of attitude it's connected to people sneering at music that makes people wanna shake their asses for being "simple".

But there's lots of things you can do with music, and some of them are danceable, and some of them are most emphatically not. You can't dance to bebop, you can't dance to Gregorian chants, you can't dance to ambient. And if this Collier dude wants to chase cold intellectual undanceable thrills and has an audience willing to pay him to do this, then it ain't my problem if I don't like that, there's an uncountable number of other musicians, past and present, who have made music chasing other goals.

Personally this was the first I'd heard of Collier and he's not doing much for me. I'm not at a point in my life where I wanna hear cold crystalline overdubs of one white dude's voice. But whatever.

>> cold crystalline overdubs

I do not mean this to be harsh or nasty, but there are no goosebumps.

Needs some grease from Stax or some touches of Motown.

Booker T and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, something... is... just... missing...

It did nothing for me either. A vaguely pleasant noise. But he won a Grammy and has a bazillion subscribers, so obviously there’s an appeal there for people who are not you or I.

There’s people who love living in Northern places who will rhapsodize endlessly about the joys of winter and snow and being all cozy and shit, I think they’re crazy but I’m glad they exist so they don’t all try to live in the places I like. Same thing. It ain’t for you, me, or the author of this post about it, and that’s fine.

Too much negativne comments for Jacob. Give him some time, he is a genius for that we are all sure here. Regardless if you feel emotionally moved or not, the article is about technical skills and theory. For once show humbled when you see something God-like similar to this phenomenon of a human. He is our times Mozart along with Cameron Carpenter.

"In the bleak midwinter" is an amazing recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPZn4x3uOac

But the people who say it doesn't strike a chord with them do have a point. Here's Myrone doing something similar, with 1/10th the complexity but 10x the feeling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUGkqXcFV4o

If you’re looking for some technically brilliant music that actually has some emotion in it check out Knower (Genevieve Artadi+Louis Cole). They both have the technical chops and education of Collier but their music is interesting, satisfying, and fun instead of being an intolerable mind numbing dirge.

Highly off-topic but maybe someone can help, The title rang bells for a bit but turns out the wrong ones.

There was a track I heard by terry callier (not collier) which had 3 chords (not 4), repeated slowly over and over, and sung over. I loved it, does anyone have any idea what that may be. I did some digging but never found it again.

Please flag if too far OT, thanks.

Give Lean On Me[0] a shot. This is not the Bill Withers song.

It was pretty popular and something I remember from my radio listening days.


Thank you, interesting but not what I heard. It was just 3 chords repeated, nothing else but the singing. It was very minimal. But thanks anyway!

Every musician talking shit in the thread is in denial. He’s a genius and ya’ll are jealous. Let’s be real here.

jealous musician here, was unaware of his music and am thankful that HN has again pointed me to something great. His arrangement of Moon River is amazing. but what I want to hear from anybody is the next new song as great as 'Moon River'

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