March Challenge - Four Chords

March 2, 2012 7:19 PM

Hey all. unSane here, posting via sockpuppet cuz I already posted something to Talk this week. Anyhoo, the March challenge is to write or cover a song which uses the infamous Four Chords of Predetermined Pop Success.

That's it. For the record, the chords are I V vi IV, or C G Am F in the key of C (transpose to the key of your choice). Feel free to subvert, invert, pervert, mock, or otherwise exploit this cliche of all turn of the century musical cliches.

Please tag your entries 'mefimusicchallenge' and 'fourchords'.

And - still looking for someone to take over the challenges for a while if there are any volunteers...
posted by sweet mister (23 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Okay, *removes sockpuppet*, here's a list of songs in that Axis of Awesome video linked above. This by no means exhausts the songs which use this darn progression.

Journey - Don't Stop Believing
James Blunt - You're Beautiful
Alphaville - Forever Young
Jason Mraz - I'm Yours
Mika - Happy Ending
Alex Lloyd - Amazing
The Calling - Wherever You WIll Go
Elton John - Can You Feel The Love Tonight
Maroon 5 - She Will Be Loved
The Last Goodnight - Pictures Of You
U2 - With Or Without You
Crowded House - Fall At Your Feet
Kasey Chambers - Not Pretty Enough
The Beatles - Let it Be
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under the Bridge
Daryl Braithwaite - The Horses
Bob Marley - No Woman No Cry
Marcy Playground - Sex and Candy
Men At Work - Land Down Under
Banjo Patterson's Waltzing Matilda
A Ha - Take On Me
Green Day - When I Come Around
Eagle Eye Cherry - Save Tonight
Toto - Africa
Beyonce - If I Were A Boy
The Offspring - Self Esteem
The Offspring - You're Gonna Go Far Kid
Pink - You and Your Hand
Lady Gaga - Poker Face
Aqua - Barbie Girl
The Fray - You Found Me
30h!3 - Don't Trust Me
MGMT - Kids
Tim Minchin - Canvas Bags
Natalie Imbruglia - Torn
Five For Fighting - Superman
Axis Of Awesome - Birdplane
Missy Higgins - Scar
posted by unSane at 7:22 PM on March 2, 2012

nice one, thanks.
posted by dubold at 12:32 AM on March 3, 2012

Cortex already has it in the bag.
posted by Beardman at 6:27 PM on March 3, 2012

Oh, I like this.
posted by davejay at 9:51 PM on March 5, 2012

This is every song I've ever made. There are other chords?
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 3:28 PM on March 6, 2012

In your case, then, Karlos, the challenge is precisely inverted.
posted by unSane at 3:38 PM on March 6, 2012

posted by Karlos the Jackal at 5:04 PM on March 6, 2012

So how does on "invert" this 4-chord concept? Hmm...

Inverting the actual chord voicings doesn't make a lot of sense, not enough change to mean anything. So maybe we invert the actual chord meanings in just a really straightforward fashion, major-to-minor and minor-to-major? So the original I-V-vi-IV (C G Am F) is now Cm Gm A Fm (or in the same key Am Em F# Dm).

Or perhaps there are other ways to invert this? Or maybe just pervert it in general?

What if we just add a half-step on each chord each time (while maintaining the original color of the chords)? C G# Bm G# weird, probably wouldn't work

Or maybe add a whole step each time:
C A Cm B well that's different

What about using the dominant in an increasing manner:
G D Em C you just transposed up a fifth, genius

Ok so add another dominant each time and run through it twice. If a chord repeats switch to the minor/major:
D E C#m Em F# G# F G#m kind of messy but it could work

Polyharmony might be fun. Or rather, take the concept of an arbitrary polyharmony and mold it into recognizable chords. So doing the 'ol I-V-vi-IV dance with a base key of C and an added key of G you get:

Cmaj9 Gmaj9 Am9 Fmaj9 bit obvious isn't it


Well. That was all a bit silly, wasn't it? Perhaps we need a more philosophical approach.

What is it about these four chords that's so effective? Is it the familiarity? Is it the relationships of the harmonies? The movement? Maybe it's like Leonard Cohen said in Hallelujah:

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord,
It goes like this the fourth the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift

Ok, ok so it's not exactly the same progression but it's basically the same chords again, just in a different order (IV-V-vi-IV-V if you care), but even in that slightly different order there's a chordal relationship that doesn't change: V-vi-IV (G Am F). Maybe that's the key right there. It's the sad slump of the minor, a sadness heightened by the preceding major chord, then the redemption of the next major chord. Tension, yeah baby.

So how do you invert that? Or at least pervert it? In a phiolosophical way?

What about I v-VI-iv (C Gm A Fm)
Or maybe I iv-VI-v (C Fm A Gm) oooh you pivoted the fourth and fifth, switching their order, nice

I think I'm running out of ideas. You know, the Cars did a nice little tweak of this in the chorus awesome pop anthem I Guess You're Just What I Needed. They alternated the fourth chord between the standard and a flatted version:

E B C#m A
E B C#m Ab
(which is technically the dominant of the preceding chord for a bit of fun...aka a secondary dominant)

It's pretty cool. Maybe that's all it takes. One little tweek, some snappy guitar, a cheezy synth and some angsty lyrics.

... ... ...

Wow I could go on an on about this stuff. I think the key for me is using the 4 chords in a way that doesn't feel so cheap and schmaltzy. Like the way Cars did. That is a really great example.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:05 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

ha, well I just meant he had to write a song that DIDN'T use that progression, but now we've started...

I'd just invert the interval leaps, so instead of going down a fourth, up a tone, and down a minor third, it goes up a fourth, down a tone and up a minor third which gives us

C F Eb G

or some variation on that using minors, like C Fm Eb G or C Fm Eb Gm, both workable I think.

Or throw in the secondary dominants (you gotta love secondary dominants!)

C D7 G E7 Am Bb7 F G7

Or do both...

C C7 F Ab7 Eb D7 G G7
posted by unSane at 7:42 PM on March 7, 2012

(I didn't play any of those but they all look kind of interesting)
posted by unSane at 7:43 PM on March 7, 2012

Ha, I just played through them. The last one is awesome. The first one is good too.
posted by unSane at 8:10 PM on March 7, 2012

I just want to go on record that I'm addicted to secondary dominants. And add9s.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:25 PM on March 7, 2012

You can also just play the sequence backwards -- F Am G C -- but it's uber-bland.

What about literally turning the music upside down?

This maps the notes as follows (in the treble clef)

C -> A
D -> G
E -> F
F -> E
G -> D
A -> C
B -> B

So the chords become

C (CEG) -> Dm (AFD)
G (GBD) -> G (DBG)
Am (ACE) -> F (CAF)
F (FAC) -> Am (ECA)

Dm G F Am. That's if you reflected it. But if you rotated it the chords would be reversed to Am F G Dm.
posted by unSane at 8:34 PM on March 7, 2012

Ha, well maybe we should extend the challenge to allow transmutations of the four chords.
posted by unSane at 8:42 PM on March 7, 2012

Darn, I suppose I have to go through the permutations of the chords too

C G Am F
C G F Am
C Am G F
C Am F G
C F G Am
C F Am G

G C Am F
G C F Am
G F C Am
G F Am C
G Am C F
G Am F C

Am C G F
Am C F G
Am F C G
Am F G C
Am G F C
Am G C F

F C G Am
F C Am G
F G C Am
F G Am C
F Am C G
F Am G C

Lots of those are workable. Of course the real challenge would be to through-compose something using all of them.
posted by unSane at 9:02 PM on March 7, 2012

Speaking of those permutations, let's not forget the Doo-wop variant:

C Am F G ("Heart and Soul")

And the "sensitive female chord progression"

Am F G C (Jewel's "Foolish Games")
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:35 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought you meant I had to make a song using every other chord in the world. *whew*
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 11:16 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oops I messed that last one up, it's supposed to be Am F C G
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:04 AM on March 8, 2012

And add9s.

Mu major!
posted by mintcake! at 8:00 AM on March 11, 2012

Heh - I did exactly this a couple of years ago as something of a challenge for myself, as it happens. Decided to make it about the chords themselves, and also do a sad little love song: The Same Four Chords.
posted by ZsigE at 4:09 PM on March 14, 2012

I had a few spare minutes, so I decided to record myself singing the most insipid thing I could think of (around those four chords), while having a nervous breakdown. It's, uh, interesting.
posted by davejay at 10:31 PM on March 21, 2012

I am now saving the file to disk, and feeling somehow creeped out about it.
posted by davejay at 10:31 PM on March 21, 2012

That Axis of Awesome video is both hilarious and brill. 11/10 guys.
posted by marienbad at 12:19 PM on May 2, 2012

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