Reason: It's easier to play these chords on a 6 string guitar, which has been the dominant instrument of choice for pop song composers.
The first C chord on a guitar is easy to hit with no finger twisting required. It's also easy to switch between the first C, Am, and G chord, you can even do it quickly and repeatedly while drunk as you can imagine many pop songs are written. The first F chord requires a little more careful finger placement but still easy to get too. Sure enough you hear this over and over in pop songs, some simple sequence of C F G A chords over and over.
Not surprising that the complex guitar chords that require six pencil-thin rubber fingers and a degree in music theory to know how to play aren't heard as often.
Unfortunately your explanation doesn't hold water if you consider other instruments.
C major / A minor are even easier on piano. (C major and A minor are relative keys – they contains the same notes, just with a different note emphasized as the root, or tonic.) They're the two keys that are made up of just playing the white keys on the piano. In contrast, G major / E minor is probably the easiest key to play in on guitar (containing G, C, D, Em and Am), and it comes in second place.
IMHO C major / A minor, C scales, etc. start out easier, but don't necessarily stay that way: sometimes it's nice to have a couple of black notes in there as a reference point. Especially if you aren't looking at the keyboard.
Only easy because they are traditionally taught first. This is because from a music theory standpoint the keys in which those chords are tonic have the least number of sharps and flats. From a memory and hand position standpoint chords that have a black key in the middle (D maj. E maj. etc) are the easiest.
From a memory and hand position standpoint chords that have a black key in the middle (D maj. E maj. etc) are the easiest.
Disagree. You can move around the chords on the white keys without changing your hand shape and everything will sound harmonically related and therefore in key, plus it's easier to count on the white keys. I've been playing music as an adult for 15 years (and had 5 or 6 years of piano lessons as a kid), I know a great deal of music theory and am familiar with a wide variety of scales, modes, and alternate tuning systems, and I still find it easier to move around on the white keys. I happen to particularly like the Phrygian mode, but tend to just play things in E Major when I'm trying out ideas and then transpose afterwards, because as long as I'm playing on the white keys and remember what the root is I literally can't hit a wrong note.
Some people just stick with the original key that lets them play this way; music teachers refer it as 'white note fever.'
I think you are misunderstanding the article - All the songs were transposed to the key of C for the purpose of analyzing chords, so don't draw conclusions from the actual chord names presented as the most populat. Instead, what the article is saying is that the I, IV, V chords are the three most common (as one would expect from basic music theory). In the key of C, these are C, F, and G, so that is how it is presented.
Em is probably the very simplest guitar chord to play, only needing 2 fingers beside each other. Yet it doesn't come in at the top of the list. So I don't think your explanation is the dominant force here.
Don't leave out the fact that these are the "home row" power chords too - even easier to play and sound like you have an idea about what you're doing. Many popular songs (and of course 'garage band' simpleton songs) are unimaginative power chord arrangements.
There may be some truth to this, but it also goes the other way.
The modern 6-string guitar became popular in part because it was good for the kinds of music people wanted to play. I, IV, V, and vi (C, F, G, and Am) have a long history after all.
It's an interesting idea, that the evolution of music might be guided by an interplay between people choosing and designing new instruments to suit their tastes, and people developing new musical tastes using whatever existing instruments happen to be available.
I'm going to have to disagree with you pretty strongly. F is just about the most difficult basic chord to play. In fact, besides B flat, it's the only one on the graph that requires four fingers (or a barre). Similarly, A minor is much easier to play than C, yet it is far less common.
The popularity of C and Em as keys is undoubtedly a result of what's easy to play on a standard guitar with no capo, but I see no correlation between chord popularity and ease of playing.
Playing an F requires neither 4 fingers or a barre; a chord only requires 3 notes. Playing an F with 4 fingers is playing the root note twice, you can drop the high F (the hard one) and you're still playing a full F chord. The full barre has the root note in the chord 3 times, only one is necessary.
Muting the first string is natural, trying not to mute it and fret it correctly is what makes it hard to play. It's vastly easier to just play the triad on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings with the first 3 fingers; forget the bar. And if it sounds weak, turn up the volume or strum harder. :)
Perhaps you missed the smiley. In any case, you can drop the low root and add the high one and it still only takes 3 fingers. I generally leave out the high note and play the middle triad and the bass with the thumb Hendrix style as it feels the most comfortable.
But your main point was that the F was the most difficult to play, when what you really mean is your favorite 4 note version of the F is more difficult to play. A simple F triad, or even the triad with the bass is trivial to play, certainly no harder than any other first position chord except perhaps Em.
Very good analysis. I wasn't even going to comment, since my reaction (personal impression) to the article was "too bad there might be 2 of the 1300 songs that have chords that don't sound like crap" - since they all do, there might be a couple of dozen well-orchestrated popular songs over the last several decades. (I should add that, despite this fact, I do avidly listen to popular songs and don't have a problem. I wouldn't try to reverse engineer their chord patterns though...)
At least your response tells me why this is the case. Thanks!
That is a fair critique of the article. The vast majority of the songs that came into the analysis were in fact billboard top 100 so that naturally filters out songs with chords that might sound bad (chords that as a rule are not built off of the major scale the song uses). What we found most interesting, however, was that there are certain patterns that really do show up. The one that was most striking, and that we pointed out in the article, is that the iii chord is almost always followed by IV or vi in pop music. There were similar trends for other some of the other chords that we'll be posting in a later article.
Nice post, I'm looking forward for the next one. Meanwhile I'll give my 2 cents.
The main problem in analyzing tonal music is that we mainly listen to relations between chords. For instance, in the following progression in C major, A major functions as a dominant of D (D is the dominant of G and G is the dominant of C):
C A D G C.
OTOH, in the following progression the same A is the subdominant of E:
E A B E.
This means that if a song modulates or there's a tonicization  the same chord will have different tonal functions and we'll listen to it differently. Just counting a chord in a song may not be enough if they have different functions.
The number of repetitions also matters. Tonally, the progressions C | C | C | G | G and C | G | C | G are the same as C | G. Is he eliminating repetitions in the analysis?
About using A major in C; you can use it as a dominant of D (see my 1st example) or as a chromatic mediant  in C major. Of course, in modern music you can use anything you want, but these two are the most common uses.
And, naturally, the types of chords used will vary according to the music style.
The grandparent is talking about modulation within a song. Unless they normalized each section of each song to C without saying so, modulation is still an issue. For instance (though I greatly doubt it's on their list) Jethro Tull's "The Whistler" has one key for the verse, a different one for the chorus, and yet another for the whistle solo...
Right, all of the songs were normalized to C, which exactly the point. At Hooktheory.com you can examine all of the songs in relative notation (i.e. I IV V in place of C F G) which makes it easier to compare chord progressions without having to bother with their respective keys.
1. Normalize for key: Express chords as I, ii, iii, IV, etc. This will permit analysis of chord progressions/exceptions (see below) across all keys.
2. Detect common constructs, e.g., 8-12-16 bar Blues, and analyze for exceptions, e.g., use of vi instead of I, use of V versus V7 as turnaround, etc. (And more interesting exceptions, e.g., resolution to ii or iii instead of I, etc.)
3. Related to #2, search for popular songs that do NOT follow/use common constructs. Are there are common characteristics across "second rank" popular songs (by which I mean "popular but not quite smashes, or short-duration - novelty - smashes")?
4. How much variation in key and/or chord progression is there for each artist?
A. Not much of a surprise that C/Am is the most popular key: It is the most accessible - the white keys of the piano. It is also very accessible on the guitar, once one learns F...
B. ...but surprising to me that E is so unpopular, being "the natural key" of the guitar (E, A, B/B7 being so easy to learn and so common to the Blues). Analysis of key use by decade - or genre - could prove interesting....
C. Keys these days (the days of equal temperament) are chosen largely on accessibility: Can the soloist hit all of the notes important to the key? Can the accompanist make all the chords important to the song? Once upon a time, prior to equal temperament, keys had sounds and feels of their own, but nowadays, with equal temperament, the progression from unison to octave is by steps of absolutely the same value in each key.
Writing likable, memorable songs is about striking a balance between comfortable and interesting. It always irks me when people go from "this chord progression is in a lot of popular songs" to "therefore all you have to do to write a good song is use this chord progression".
The "comfortable" bit is the easy part. Making it interesting is the trick. There are thousands of songs using this same progression that are awful.
That's my main objection to the original post, and similar articles I've seen. It doesn't really tell you anything usable about how to write a good song. At no point as a developing songwriter does looking at a statistical breakdown of chord progression help you take the next step. "It's got the same chords as X, so it'll definitely be good!" is not something you hear good songwriters say.
Edit: To clarify, I think I'm agreeing with the sentiment of your last 2 sentences, as I understand them.
The chord choices in Garageband are the chords found within the scale of C, plus Bb (even the Bdim - but, to be pedant, it should actually be a B7b5). Having Bb you can modulate (or "change the key") to F without having to switch scales etc.
Also, the fact that he found D, E and A among the results is probably because of modulations. It's VERY common for pop songs to modulate a whole step during some chorus near the end . As mentioned, G, F and C are V, IV and I. If we modulate a whole step, from C to D, the V, IV and I are A, G and D. It would be nice to consider those modulations into the research.
About the key choice, I believe it's irrelevant. It depends a lot on what's your instrument (Bb, Eb is easier on brass instruments), your style (lots of Metal songs in the key of E because E is the lowest note on guitar), your tuning (lots of rock bands downtune their guitars to Eb or D etc), your proficiency, and, most important, the vocalists range.
 Otis Reeding - My Girl, Celine Dion - Because You Loved Me (actually lots of songs by her), Monty Python/Eric Idle - Always Look On The Bride Side of Life, Talking Heads Nothing But Flowers (If you search "whole step key change" you'll get a bunch)
When I was young and learning music theory in piano lessons, one day I realized that literally half the songs on the radio used the chord progression "I V vi IV". This was a huge revelation to me! To my dismay, I couldn't find any evidence on the internet that anyone else had noticed this, until very recently I saw the "Four Chord Song" by Axis of Awesome (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I). I was hoping to see some mention of that in this article, but was disappointed.
All the music nerds I've been hanging out with consider this a pretty obvious observation. So maybe it's a bit weird it hasn't shown up on the internet before.
But like a lot of other people in here have been saying: There's more to a song than the chord progression. We might as well have been talking about rhythm - the vast majority of Western music is in 4/4 time. Also, practically ALL Western music uses the 12-note system. Not pointing this at you, but it's annoying to hear all the people in this thread complain about how pop music sucks because it's all based on the same foundation. Practically all computer programs are in some way based on C. Does this mean that all computer programs suck?
Hi fferen, I V iv V is indeed a super popular progression. You can see an example of it here: http://www.hooktheory.com/analysis/view/james-blunt/youre-be.... One cool thing about the way we store music (using relative notation) is that we can compare any two songs to see how similar they are harmonically. For example, there are several "similar songs" shown below the I V vi IV example in the link that all use the same progression in different keys.
This may best thought of as a lexical analysis of 1300 popular novels. E.G. what is the most popular word following the word "it". The key of a tune 'controls' the chords available, using a typical chord progression. A song in the key of C most typically has the progression C-F-G or I-IV-V in roman numerals signifying 1 for the dominant C, and 4 and 5 for F and G respectively the fourth and fifth notes in the key's scale.
More interesting might be what are the most popular chord progressions. E.G. I-IV-V or II-IV-Im. Which is what I was expecting to click through to.
A million monkeys can write a hit in how many years, now? And BTW "it was a dark and stormy night" don't you know.
That's an interesting site, very nice lessons. But one would have to actually read the material to understand the chart (grin). But that chart is getting on toward what I expected to see at the subject of this HN post.
The reason people fall back to the I IV V and VI chords (C F G and Am in the key of C) is that going between them creates a false sense of forward motion in the listener without actually going anywhere. Moving from the IV to V creates tension that can be built up and released by resolving to the I, or increased by going to the VI and resolved to the IV. Any combination of those pretty much sounds "good". Variations add the II (Dm) in place of the V or in between the IV and V, or add the III on the way to the IV. It's really simple, and made even simpler by power chords because you don't even have to move your hand shape to play entire songs on rhythm. Leads can then switch between major scale phrases and pentatonic (aka blues) phrases of the minor of whatever key is being played in, (so Am blues over C) and almost anything they do sounds good to the average listener. In the end, you only have to keep their attention for ~40 seconds between hooks and just crutch on the catchy chorus and you've got a hit. But if you analyze most popular forms of music, the above is at their core anyway. It's just more bare bones in modern pop and rock music.
This is a good start, I'd be more interested if these chord patterns were compared against a database of UNpopular songs to see if the what sort of differences in chord distribution correlated with popular songs (although where you'd find that, I do not know). It's difficult to understand what this really quantifies - all the "2nd chord" distribution suggests to me at this point is that there's a large difference between actually playing music vs a random sequence of chords. It's good that you're recapitulating that at least, but not really a striking observation.
Regardless, I will be keeping tabs on this. Hah, totally didn't intend that pun.
We spent a lot of time doing this sort of stuff to flesh out harmonic and melodic patterns/meaning of pieces while at music school. To (grossly) simplify, it's essentially a form of reduction analysis, but the final step of the analysis is always I - V - I chord progression (tonic - dominant) with the 3 blind mice melody above (stepwise descending). I never found the final reduction particularly useful as, though he had a point about the prevalence of the tonic dominant relationship, it was over blown. The reduction steps were very useful for stripping away flourishes though, in order to see what was happening at a more base level in a piece (we analyzed a lot of Mahler this way).
> Eb with 3 flats, for instance, is slightly (though not statistically significantly) more common than F with only 1 flat.
Ask any singer: F is the hardest key to sing in. Most people who have to sing in F unaccompanied will inevitably go flat over the course of the song without lots of practice.
I would have plotted the frequency of each chord relative to the key. (e.g., count chords as I/IV/V/ii/etc. instead of C/F/G/Dm) This automatically corrects for the relative popularity of different keys seen earlier in the post.
I'm amused by the fact that this person doesn't seem to know that chords per se - and the analysis of them - is practically useless because they can and actually do vary from version to version of the same song. The thing that matters is how the chords are related (modes and progressions).
I don't know -- I still thought it was interesting. The author could have spent all kinds of time trying to figure out if certain chords were functioning as substitute dominants and all of that, but then the article would have been so musically technical so as not to appeal to anyone who doesn't have a fairly high-level music theory background.
This was an interesting article, but it's really sad to see that the comments here have devolved into the predictable "all pop music is garbage because they only use 4 chords" argument. It's exactly the same thing as someone looking at a Jackson Pollock and determining that it's garbage because "how much talent does it take to throw a bucket of paint on a canvas?".
The point of music, or any art, is to evoke an emotive response from the audience. To equate the "quality" of art to the technical abilities of its creator is essentially to reduce it to something more akin to juggling knives or spinning plates. Art isn't about virtuosity, it's about emotion.
But hey, if that's your thing, there are a ton of Dream Theater records available on iTunes.
How does this compare to what Music Theory says about chords and chord progressions? Any Music Theory experts/aficionados around? I've unfortunately forgotten most of what I learned in my one class on it.
He doesn't go nearly enough into depth to say anything surprising. That "C/Am" is by far the most common is not surprising at all; C major is the first key any music student learns.
I wish he separated out the major keys from minor keys. It's easy to tell the difference; almost no-one writes pop music in the natural minor (which shares a key signature with the relative major), as it has no dominant fifth. Rather, melodic and harmonic minor keys are used, which have a distinct key signature from major keys (both have the 7th note of the scale raised to accommodate a dominant fifth chord). This should make them easy to detect.
The "Chord Use" chart also does not say much; C, F, and G are the I, IV, and V chords of the key of C major (the Roman numerals indicating their relative position in the scale), which together form the basic pop progression. Much more useful would have been to bin the chords relative to the key in which the song is written, rather than as their absolute pitch.
What I would also like to see is a histogram of chord progressions, e.g. I-IV-V vs. I-IV-ii-V vs. I-vi-VI-V etc. His preview of next week hints at this, but again he should use relative chord names rather than absolute chord names.
The preview graph, "Chords following em", is not very surprising either. Since this is an absolute chart rather than a relative one, we must assume that the data is reflective of the chord's use in the most common key (C). (Em will rarely occur in a song written in Am; rather, it will be altered to an E7 dominant chord.) Of the other chords available in the key of C, C and G both share two out of three notes with Em and thus are unlikely to be used due to lack of motion between them. Bdim is rarely used in C.
This leaves Dm, F, and Am as likely to occur following an Em. The E and B notes of the Em chord are a half-step below the next higher note in the scale, so they will tend toward upward motion, meaning the next chord will likely contain an F or a C. F contains both of these, hence its prominence in the graph. Both Am and Dm contain one of these notes; however Em->Am is an upward (downward) skip of a fourth (fifth), which is a resolving motion – it is likely that the next few chords following these two will be Dm, G, and C, to continue this motion. Em->Dm, being a skip of a second, does not share this property and hence should not be as common.
I was going to write up pretty much the same analysis of the Em->X progression. I think you aptly covered it. Interestingly, though, as you say Em->C sounds relatively static, I bet you see a lot more C->Em than the reverse (which should suffer from the same problem), and I'm hard pressed to say why exactly.
My guess would be that it's a precursor to an Em->F or Em->Am transition; i.e., if you wanted to transition to a minor mode convincingly from C, you'd toss the Em (or even E7) in there before hitting Am. Example: Santeria by Sublime (I-III-vi-V)
Regarding "chords following em": Since all of the songs were transposed to the key of C, em == iii, am == vi, and F == IV. Really what the post says is IV and vi follow iii most often in popular songs.
Everything in this post is consonant with typical music theory.
The most popular chords are the good old I, IV, and V, and the next most popular are their relative minors (C -> am, G -> em, F -> dm).
The example they give of chords following "em" is also pretty much what you'd expect. The most classic resolution for "em" would be "am" (it's dominant -> tonic in the relative minor key).
The more popular resolution here ("em" to "F") is more of a pop music thing, because it's harder to do classical voice leading with it -- classical composers tended to avoid parallel fifths.
Edited to add: Why mention classical rules at all in a post about pop music? Because there's not much new under the sun -- you'd be hard pressed to find any harmony in pop music that Mozart or even Bach wouldn't recognize.
Good points. Many rules in popular music come directly from classical music (after all, it's been around for a while).
However, as you can see in the Hooktheory database, there are many progressions that seem to be unique to popular music.
You mentioned iii->IV, which is a no-no in classical music due to the parallel fifths (more common: V/vi -> IV). But also look at progressions like: C G Bb F, which is extremely common in pop. Here we have a double plagal cadence set up by the dominant that was never used by Bach or Mozart, which is probably best functionalized as: I V IV/IV IV
Well, like the article went into briefly, the I, IV and V chords are going to be the main ones used in a song, especially one from a rock/blues tradition. (a minor, d minor and e minor are the 1, 4, and 5 for a song in a minor key.)
C and a-minor, F and d-minor, and G and e-minor are related chords, and can be interchanged in a standard progression for a different "feel". So it makes sense that e-minor would go to F (V to IV transition) or a-minor (V to I) more than any others. It's interesting that C and d-minor are under-represented in that transition.
It's interesting that the possible chords are all simple triads, with no options for extra tones. A C6 with particular notes in the bass could be interpreted as an a-minor, for example. There's a fair amount of ambiguity there.
The chord stuff is all perfectly reasonable (in pop music, that is; in a classical piece in the key of C you would have an Em going to an Am way more than to F, for example, and you'd see way more D chords).
I don't buy that Eb/Cm is the third most common key in pop music, though. There's not a whole lot of pop music in minor keys, and Eb is a weird key to play guitar in.
I think one of the primary issues with popular music is that it's often ambiguous whether it's in a major or minor mode, even when the song starts on a minor chord. Classically, one would mark the transition to a minor mode by the existence of an authentic cadence: V/vi -> vi, or by the raised scale degree 5, but neither of those clues exist in either song that you mentioned.
In songs like My Heart Will Go On, it appears that the verse tonicizes I, where as the chorus centers around the relative minor. However does it make sense to say it switches modes every time the section changes? Maybe not
I would make the argument that there is little in the way of pop music that strays from traditionally accepted chord progressions. Dissonance isn't something that appeals to a broad audience, and you'll be hard pressed to find someone who can point out an interesting choice in progression for a song on the radio.
Sorry in advance for the pedantry. ;) Dissonance is when notes "clash" with each other and in traditional voice leading dissonance always resolves to consonance.
Atonality, on the other hand, is a more recent development in Western music and is defined as the lack of a tonal center. Atonality can be an extremely interesting way to write music. Some of the first atonal music (note how it's not markedly "dissonant") can be found in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and the prelude to act I of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde .
I don't listen to a huge amount of pop music, but is there anyone out there that is at least experimenting with atonality?
Sorry, I should have been more clear. I was listing a few things that wouldn't show up on this list and wouldn't be in pop music. Dissonance and interesting chord progressions were the two I called out specifically.
While I think this sort of analysis is really cool and potentially interesting, there really isn't anything non-obvious in this article, assuming one is familiar with basic music theory. Hopefully this is part one and the more interesting material is being saved for later.
I have a pessimistic theory on melodies that could be enforced by this study. Melodies are sequence of tones that can be remembered and sung. We have 7 or 12 or 5 tones, about the same number of distinguishable time patterns. Memory for melodies seem powerful, maybe allowing up to 40 elements in the sequence.
By pure combinations it seems the space of melodies is very large. But this space is in fact dramatically shrinked by the very strict relationships imposed on subsequent tones and the result could be that "we have finished exploring the space of interesting melodies", we are deemed to repeat ourselves, musical invention is something of the past.
Probably more interesting than the actual notes would be the figured chords and their progressions.
In other words, "C G a F" isn't materially that different from "G D e C" or "F C d Bb". All three are instances of the same progression: "I V vi IV" ...which happens to be the most hackneyed (or "effective", depending on your point of view) chord progression in popular music over the last 30 years.
If you transform each chord progression into its figured representation then you can pick up more significant trends such as the above, or blues changes (e.g. "I I I I / VI VI I I / V VI I I") and then you can start to discern when they rose to popularity and which ones are falling out of favor.
For example, in the 50s and 60s, I have no doubt "I vi IV V" was more popular than "I V vi IV" but I have no way to prove it currently and would love to find out if I'm right or wrong on that.
Hooktheory stores all of its chord progressions in relative notation so we have tools to answer questions like the one you've posted here. Although the Hooktheory database is relatively small, we have 20 songs that contain I vi IV V, compared with 100 songs containing I V vi IV. Just by visual inspection, of the songs that contain I V vi IV, none of them were written before 1975, which may not prove, but certainly supports your claim.
So if you open up a book like 'Music Theory for Complete Idiots' there's a section on "Chord progressions" that essentially has what you'd recognize as a state transition table for "what chords will sound good after this chord?" and I'm pretty sure there's a row that looks like [iii => IV, vi].
Coming up with a computerized vocabulary for the elements of coherent large-scale composition structures would be more of an interesting area to research than individual chord transitions, because the latter is really a solved problem.
Yes, given that C major is the most popular key, it follows that C, F, and G are the most popular chords. That's called a I-IV-V chord progression, and is the basis for most blues, which rock (and subsequently pop) evolved out of.
Oh, and a G chord isn't any easier to play on a guitar than a C# chord.
Very interesting! Although, for most common chords chart, I think that instead of simply counting the number of times a chord appears, you should have also considered the duration of that chord in the song.
Didn't Pandora radio did the same analysis for its recommendation engine?
Yeah, I play guitar as just a personal hobby, and there are a lot of times when I'll play an "in between" chord on my way to the next chord I would consider to be in the progression. Many times it's not a traditional "chord" you would find in this list, but just something to bridge a key change or just create a feeling of movement.
I would say that this is most often limited to music that falls outside of pop culture, though. Katy Perry doesn't need to create movement or flow because emotional expression on the backing track is not what her music is about. The Raconteurs might, though. But once you get to that point you have to make the distinction between notes and chords.
On a related note (corniest pun of the day), the Australian musical comedy act Axis of Awesome made a song called Four Chords Song, which is basically a 47-song medley all using the same chord progression.