When we call music a universal language, it’s usually understood to be a metaphor. In its purest theoretical form, music may be more like math—a truly universal language—but in its manifestations in the real world, it resembles more the great diversity of tongues around the globe. Each regional, national, and global music has its grammar of scales, rhythms, and chords, each its syntax of melodies and harmonies, though these share some important commonalities.
The syntax of pop music, like its blues predecessor, consists of standard chord progressions, easily swapped from song to song: repeatable units that form a range of available emotional expression. Want to see that range on full display, in a bravado performance by an Australian comedy rock band? Look no further: just above, the Axis of Awesome perform their live rendition of “4 Chord Song,” a stunning medley of pop hits from Journey to Missy Higgins that all use the same four-chord sequence.
With the exception of an original composition, “Birdplane,” the ensemble’s selection of 38 songs includes some of the biggest hits of the past few decades. The tonal breadth is surprising, as we leap from “Don’t Stop Believing” to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to “With or Without You” to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Imagine Natalie Imbruglia, Green Day, and Toto trading licks, or Pink, the Beatles, and A-Ha. Maybe these artists have more in common, linguistically speaking, than we thought. Or, as one of the Axis of Awesome bandmember asks, mock-incredulously, “You can take those four chords, repeat them, and pop out every pop song ever?”
Well, maybe not every pop song. One could choose other progressions and make similar compilations. These particular four chords have something of a melancholy sound, and tend to come up music with an undercurrent of sadness (yes, even “Barbie Girl”). One can quibble with some of the particulars here. “Don’t Stop Believing,” for example, throws a different chord into the second phrase of its progression. But the ubiquity of this melody in pop is quite revealing, and amusing in this musical mashup. See the Axis of Awesome in a polished video version of “4 Chord Song,” above, and consider all the other ways pop music recycles and reuses the same elements over and over to convey its range of feelings.