38 Major Pop Songs Played with the Exact Same Four Chords: Watch a Captivating Medley Performed by the Axis of Awesome

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Music Is Tru­ly a Uni­ver­sal Lan­guage: New Research Shows That Music World­wide Has Impor­tant Com­mon­al­i­ties

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

Alan Lomax’s Mas­sive Music Archive Is Online: Fea­tures 17,000 His­toric Blues & Folk Record­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.