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Just Harmony?

Hellooooo fellow friends and readers and welcome to my blog!

I recently got asked about popular music and the famous "four chords" idea. For those of you who don't know, it's well-known in trained music circles that the three primary chords plus one secondary chord (vi usually) for the basis for this music. Have a listen to this cool take on the four chords here, this fun live performance has been doing the rounds since 2009 but still has that same punch about the stuff popular artists create presently.

So back to that question. "If most popular music is just four chords, why don't you write some songs and make millions?" a student asked. And this is a good question, one I've heard many, many times over. My response is usually to smile and consider the questioner, then decide to what level I'd respond. In this instance, my response was simply "I could. And I might." The class then proceeded to design what I'd write about and what the song would be like and this is where my blog heading comes into it.

Truthfully, the modern landscape, especially in popular music, is most certainly not about musical prowess or inventiveness. It's not about musical integrity or even the structures that make them (I'm curious to know if your bog standard industry leaders even know the four chords in every key, if they even know all the keys?), it's about something completely different, and here the students arrived at the conclusion themselves as to why it isn't really just about harmony, if that at all. But I'm not going to tell you what it was just yet. Listen to "say something", a typical four-chord piece that uses four chords in the verse section in D Major (vi-b min, IV-G Major, I-D Major and V-A Major), and then uses another four chord structure a little later at "and I, am feeling so small... all" (I, iii, IV, I and V if you're keen to know). So yes, the harmony is pretty boring, and other than the cute suspension from I to V (holding the tonic note, yay), there's really not much going on here harmonically that tons of other songs don't have. So what makes this piece work? That's if you want to consider it working at all, and for argument's sake, my students definitely think it works based on number of views and income for the artists (not that I believe those are signifiers of a successful piece, but let's just use those parameters for the hell of it).

The clue lies in the discussion we had post me deciding I would write a song. Slowly it dawned on the students that a number of things would have to happen: Image, text validity, recording and editing, footage, pacing, beat, and then, the ever elusive 'melody'. I'm more than capable of writing a catchy melody over a few repeated chords, and even more capable at creating text, but the real deal-breaker is not so much in the music, but in everything else. I'm convinced that to be a popular artist, your skill doesn't have to be in music, but instead in creating an image and having the resources to portray that image. The music component is easy and is usually done by a few savvy musicians and sound-engineers in the background while a few brave souls have the grit to go in the lime-light and shine as a being of some sort that's bigger than the music.

Don't be sad. This is not the case for ALL popular musicians, and some have shown remarkable musical prowess that helps them dignify their fame, but generally, take off your critical ears for popular music and just bask in the fakeness of it all for a few minutes while munching on your burger of choice from a fast-food joint.

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