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Old 01-14-2013, 07:59 AM   #1
robbit10
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Question Popular chord progressions - why do they sound so dang good?

I was researching "how to compose film score music" when I came across a video on YouTube, in which some guy had a list of chord progressions that sounded good, in roman numeral format. At first, I thought "what a cheater", because he used a preset list of progressions. But then he started playing, and I recognised many of the chord progressions as the ones that made the most emotional impact on me in any song.
Here's that video, by the way:
Warning: This video is very long and only shows 5 chord progressions, and will most likely be a waste of your time.


Then I realised that he had a very veritable tool in his hands: A palette from which to pick, based on the mood you want the song to express, and quickly write a new song (or at least the harmonic foundation).

As many know, many popular songs use specific chord progressions. These chord progressions seem to trigger something in people. The Axis of Awesome demonstrated it very well with their Four Chords song. The progression of which goes like this:
I - V - VI - IV


It's been overused (mostly in pop songs), but by using this, the song gets a certain emotional quality that I don't quite know how to explain.

Same goes for this:
VI - IV - I - V

Let me just say that I don't plan to become an unoriginal musician who just uses the pop chord progressions to create instant hooks. I want to learn how to create advanced compositions, but this is a good beginning. I've heard that by taking one of these chord progressions and making certain degrees minor instead of major, or the reverse, can really make a difference. As will sharpening and flattening.

---

So now I come to the question: What makes these chord progressions have such an influence on people? Is it because they have been used many times throughout music history, and people have heard them so much that they love hearing it? Is it something about the brain, specific sequences that cause these reactions?

Last edited by robbit10 : 01-15-2013 at 07:45 AM.
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Old 01-14-2013, 08:40 AM   #2
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cadence

they're designed to establish significance of the tonic without the listener having to think very much and without having to deal with much legitimate tension beyond what is necessary to provide a backdrop for a simple melody.

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Old 01-14-2013, 08:42 AM   #3
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I-IV-V works because it's probably the most basic and pure example of tension and resolution you could get in a chord progression. It has a universal appeal because the brain likes the feeling of the dominant chord (V) going to the tonic (I). If you throw a vi in there, then you have a diatonic minor chord for contrast and variety.
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Old 01-14-2013, 10:34 AM   #4
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If you start composing, I wouldn't pick a chord progression for a start. I would try to hear something in my head. If it happens to have that ordinary four chord progression, at least it wasn't forced. When you just pick chord progressions, your songs might start sounding pretty boring and repeating themselves. Maybe try to come up with the melody first and then see what chords would fit it the best. Picking a chord progression is an easy way to make music fast but it might not sound the most original. I think that's how they make the top 10 hits.

Of course you can make the most interesting music by just picking ten chord progressions from the list. I think it's just easier to come up with something original if you don't use "good sounding chord progression" list. I would try to hear a chord progression by myself, not just pick one from the list. Also if you have a melody, you can change the chords behind it. You might make a melody to fit the ordinary four chord progression and then change all the chords and it will sound way different.
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Old 01-14-2013, 11:21 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robbit10
What makes these chord progressions have such an influence on people?


The harmonic series.

The first three overtones in the series are:

Octave
Perfect 5th
Perfect 4th.

Other than that? Musical training and exposure to existing music. Acculturation, IOW.
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Old 01-14-2013, 02:09 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robbit10
Let me just say that I don't plan to become an unoriginal musician who just uses the pop chord progressions to create instant hooks.


I know, right? God forbid you write stuff other people will like. That's so mainstream.
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Old 01-14-2013, 02:35 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CarsonStevens
I know, right? God forbid you write stuff other people will like. That's so mainstream.

Hey, I didn't mean it like that. I simply meant that I wish to advance past the simple stuff as soon as I grasp it. I know that in music, basically almost everything's been done already (notice I say ALMOST everything). I want to add my own twists to these popular chord progressions, but I have nothing against people who use these chord progressions - they can sound quite beautiful.

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Old 01-14-2013, 03:13 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robbit10
Hey, I didn't mean it like that. I simply meant that I wish to advance past the simple stuff as soon as I grasp it. I know that in music, basically almost everything's been done already (notice I say ALMOST everything). I want to add my own twists to these popular chord progressions, but I have nothing against people who use these chord progressions - they can sound quite beautiful.


Good attitude to have. I just get so tired of people who insist that a song is its chord progression and that nothing can be "original" unless it's in Q-sharp minor over a Hexadiddlyian scale.

Anyway, my oft-used variant is I-VI-I-V. I just keep falling back on it and I DON'T KNOW WHY.
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Old 01-14-2013, 03:30 PM   #9
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Dominic Pedler's "Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles" does a really good job of exploring a lot of the pop chord cliches (and how the Beatles varied them to big effect).
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Old 01-14-2013, 06:56 PM   #10
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I guess I'm the only person on the "I'm sick of hearing unoriginal gits pump out the same 4 chords in every trite piece of overproduced cliched crap they put out" boat. That's just me though
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Old 01-14-2013, 06:59 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by z4twenny
I guess I'm the only person on the "I'm sick of hearing unoriginal gits pump out the same 4 chords in every trite piece of overproduced cliched crap they put out" boat. That's just me though


i prefer listening to purposely "terrible" (as in jarring, dissonant, experimental/avant garde) music than purposefully bland cadences, personally. people probably think i'm joking but litany IV (zorn) is one of my constants lately. i'm considering learning it, honestly, it's a masterpiece

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Old 01-14-2013, 07:49 PM   #12
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^ I think I listened to that in different post you made, it's not my cup of absinthe but I'll give'em credit for trying something different. I guess I'm picky about my music. I'm not against using the same progressions that have been beaten to death if it supports the melody but at a certain point after its repeated the umpteenth time I always start thinking "I guess they ran out of ideas and just decided to drive this stupid thing into the earth"
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Old 01-14-2013, 08:10 PM   #13
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another constant repost from me



very very simple progression, but it's smart enough to not need a vocal line. i mean when they added it, it added a whole new dimension but if i posted the vocalized version it'd defeat the point of highlighting the simplicity of it
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Old 01-14-2013, 09:04 PM   #14
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^ see the chord progression is fairly simple but it supports the melody which isn't overly repetitive. it creates and expands a motif which is what i like in music. i don't think thats asking too much.
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Old 01-15-2013, 12:19 AM   #15
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Man that video was painful to watch.
41 minutes of rambling to give you five chord progressions.

C Am F G.
He explains C is the first (I); the Am is the the sixth (vi); then F -and he gets stuck??!! he takes 16 long seconds umming and ahhing over the F checking his keyboard and after initially saying it was the sixth he finally settles on the fourth (IV).

Oh so painful!!! When my brain has recovered I will come back and post some better strategies for understanding and coming up with interesting chord progressions.

Peace.
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Old 01-15-2013, 12:54 AM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robbit10
At first, I thought "what a cheater", because he used a preset list of progressions.
In my opinion, it has much less to do with the actual "progression" you are using than what you do with that progression, in terms of harmonic embellishments/voicings, melody, rhythm, dynamics, accents, articulation, and timbre. There's a lot more that goes into music than a set of notes/chords.

Think of music as telling a story. You can say all the words, but it doesn't really have the same impact if you speak in monotone without any rhythmic inflection or anything else to make it exciting. That's essentially the same thing as playing eighth notes up and down a C major scale over a C G Am F with no dynamics or varying articulations or anything. You could use the same exact tonal vocabulary (i.e. major scale and I V vi IV) and make a genuinely interesting tune if it's not entirely formulaic and monotonous.

After all, there's a limited amount of notes in our tuning system and a limited number of ways to combine these notes. Many simple chord progressions are used and overused simply because of how effective they are. In terms of triads, V to I is the strongest resolution, therefore it's used all the time. I try to avoid overusing that cadence in my music, but I have to acknowledge its effectiveness. Sometimes a strong resolution is just what you're hearing in a tune. It doesn't have to be a cop-out in the case that you can't come up with a better or more original cadence.

By all means if you want to challenge conventional cadences and harmonic tendencies, more power to you. However, I don't think it's worth ignoring thousands of years of musical development and experience from millions of musicians.

Your musical sound is a composite of all the music you enjoy, learn, and study. If you are drawn to music that has basic or "generic" progressions, then don't fight it. That's part of your sound before you even play anything, simply because you enjoy it.

Edit: 20T is right, that video was god awful. I only watched the first minute or so, but that dude clearly doesn't know how to speak.
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Old 01-15-2013, 03:02 AM   #17
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Yeah, the video is pretty terrible.

The thing is, following on what Food wrote, you can do a LOT with even something as simple as a V-I cadence. Yes, it's obvious, yes we'e heard it before. But it's powerful. How can you use that power?

If you study how great musicians have used it, you'll see that they don't IGNORE the power of the cliche, but rather they work with it, and manipulate it to their own ends.
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Old 01-15-2013, 05:27 AM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by food1010
In my opinion, it has much less to do with the actual "progression" you are using than what you do with that progression, in terms of harmonic embellishments/voicings, melody, rhythm, dynamics, accents, articulation, and timbre. There's a lot more that goes into music than a set of notes/chords.

Think of music as telling a story. You can say all the words, but it doesn't really have the same impact if you speak in monotone without any rhythmic inflection or anything else to make it exciting. That's essentially the same thing as playing eighth notes up and down a C major scale over a C G Am F with no dynamics or varying articulations or anything. You could use the same exact tonal vocabulary (i.e. major scale and I V vi IV) and make a genuinely interesting tune if it's not entirely formulaic and monotonous.

I certainly agree with you. Yesterday, I tried messing around with some of these progressions (I used a progression harmonized from the natural minor scale, and the I - V - VI - IV from the major scale) and while the harmonic structure of the song was solid, the guitar sounded awful because my bar chords don't ring out fully and the strings need replacing, the rhythmic strumming pattern I was using was very standard (down, up down, up down up), and those two combined into a very mediocre harmony.
And coming up with a melody was a whole different story. I wanted it to be an instrumental song (since I don't sing very well). When I tried to compose melodies on my guitar, they would usually end up as mini-solos.

So I went searching the internet for inspiration and tips on how to come up with a good melody. One article told me that solo musicians who make instrumental guitar music usually aim for singing-like melodies, since there are no vocals.

I found two techniques in particular that seemed very interesting:
1) Listening to a human's speech, the rhythm of it, and the change in pitch while a person is speaking, and turning that into a melody.
2) Instead of trying to come up with a melody on the guitar, hum or sing it.
I found technique 2 worked best, because humming or singing a melody is a lot less constrained than doing it on the instrument, because distance between notes is no problem. I ended up with smoother, more natural, more melodic melodies. Do any of you guys use one of these 2 techniques, and do they work out well for you?

Quote:
After all, there's a limited amount of notes in our tuning system and a limited number of ways to combine these notes. Many simple chord progressions are used and overused simply because of how effective they are. In terms of triads, V to I is the strongest resolution, therefore it's used all the time. I try to avoid overusing that cadence in my music, but I have to acknowledge its effectiveness. Sometimes a strong resolution is just what you're hearing in a tune. It doesn't have to be a cop-out in the case that you can't come up with a better or more original cadence.

V to I.. Does I to V count as well? And does V - IV - I count? Having different chords inbetween, but resolving eventually to the I? (Or the reverse, I to V)
I'm fairly new to harmony/chord theory, have recently learned how to harmonize the major scale and how to apply the roman numerals to it, but resolutions and cadences are still new to me.

Quote:
By all means if you want to challenge conventional cadences and harmonic tendencies, more power to you. However, I don't think it's worth ignoring thousands of years of musical development and experience from millions of musicians.

I do want to, eventually, as soon as I grasp the most important theory concerning harmony and chords.

Quote:
Your musical sound is a composite of all the music you enjoy, learn, and study. If you are drawn to music that has basic or "generic" progressions, then don't fight it. That's part of your sound before you even play anything, simply because you enjoy it.

I am mostly drawn to music like Sonata Arctica's ballads, film scores, Nightwish's ballads, Blind Guardian's ballads.. and then there's their metal songs, too, of course. All of these seem to have more complicated chord progressions than most pop songs. Especially some of Sonata Arctica's songs.

And then there's stuff like Dream Theater and Scale the Summit. Very complex, amazing musicianship, amazing melodies, amazing technique and control over their instruments. Love that kind of music.


Quote:
very very simple progression, but it's smart enough to not need a vocal line. i mean when they added it, it added a whole new dimension but if i posted the vocalized version it'd defeat the point of highlighting the simplicity of it

Wow, that song sounds amazing
Simple progression indeed, but they've done so much with it.

Quote:
Man that video was painful to watch.
41 minutes of rambling to give you five chord progressions.

My apologies. I've added a warning in the starting post to make sure people know that it only teaches 5 chord progressions and is most likely a waste of time.

Last edited by robbit10 : 01-15-2013 at 06:00 AM.
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Old 01-15-2013, 06:25 AM   #19
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i'm kinda surprised you listen to scale the summit (and to an extent dream theater) and not haunted shores (aka periphery)
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Old 01-15-2013, 07:22 AM   #20
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Originally Posted by Hail
i'm kinda surprised you listen to scale the summit (and to an extent dream theater) and not haunted shores (aka periphery)

I didn't know about them yet. But i'm glad you showed me! Just listened to Make Total Destroy. That rhythmic variation blew me away, and I really like the lyrics. It reminds me of Animals as Leaders and Meshuggah a bit.

EDIT: Also, their Ragnarok song.. holy crap

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