Looking for a hit! Is there a pop formula loved throughout the world?
Do chords ultimately decide the success of a song?
Good music? Bad music? Who decides what is good? Think of the different genre playlists there are and you’ll see that our taste in music is as far apart as a currywurst with fries is from bread with gouda. But, of course, there is a common denominator on these playlists as well. There is some music that reaches more people than other music. At first glance, there is no proper explanation for the success or failure of a song.
As a musician, you probably dream of writing songs that become hits! Over time, you will probably have noticed that chords in a certain sequence produce a language that appeals to more people than other chord sequences. This is because each chord carries a certain emotional energy in relation to the other chords.
This article discusses why some chords touch us more than others and how you can use this info to write your next hit.
Decrypting the matrix
First of all, it is important to know that chords correspond to our listening habits. So it is no surprise that the chords that sound good with each other are neighbours. Lars Hengmith (pianist, producer)
However, the anatomical similarity of the chords fulfils another important component that can make a chord progression successful. From “Silent Night” to “Highway to Hell”, many successful songs are built on chords that lie close to each other. Scientists have found in studies that the more they resemble the sound spectrum of the human voice, the more pleasing these simple chords are for the human ear.
In short: the more they sound like human speech in terms of their harmony and frequency intervals, the more pleasant and promising they ultimately are. This is because the love of certain sound combinations is closely linked to people’s social communication. These popular sound combinations allow you to pass on information with more than just words. The listener can learn about the size, age and gender of the singer and his/her emotional status through the sound spectrum heard. And that seems to be important to us listeners. So far, so good, but what exactly does all this mean?
The chord, which is formed with the root note on a scale (also called “tonic”), sounds coherent for us listeners, because we are basically “at home” there tonally. Everything is built around the root note (C – using the example of the C major scale).
Each step in a scale has a particular role, similar to the characters in a story. We all know the types of narrative characters – the protagonist, the antagonist, etc. – and the way in which they each have multiple functions in a story. Chords are the same. They are characters that fulfil one or more roles in relation to each other.
This is according to Lars Hengmith.
(Music producer, pianist). In Western tonal music there are 12 chromatic pitches, which are designated by the letters A to G. Then there are the accidentals: the sharp (#), which increases the root by a semitone, and the flat (b), which reduces the root by a semitone when applied. The distance between two pitches is called an “interval”, and you can combine intervals to form chords. The standard major scale contains 7 pitches (separated by combinations of semitones and whole tones). If you already know that, you’re already a good step ahead as chords are the pillars that carry your songwriting. Together with the rhythm and melody, harmonies are a fundamental part of musical composition. And composition is the magic word. Melodies usually do not happen, they are created.
If you take a closer look, you will see a preference for certain chords and applications in more successful artists. As the saying goes, “Never change a winning team”– you don’t have to believe in coincidences. You can see an example of this in Lorde’s super singles. The New Zealander artist and her co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff chose the same chord progression on her worldwide breakthrough hit “Royals”, as well as on “Greenlight”, the first single from her second album, “Melodrama”, as well as the first single on her third studio album, which bears the same title as the album, “Solar Power”. This example shows that the most important consideration when writing your song is the chord sequence. The right chords in the right order can make the difference in the end.
Probably the most successful chord sequence
Yes, it exists. An unbeatable ‘Magical Chord Sequence’ and the biggest surprise: it consists of just four chords:
D major, A major, B minor and G major.
These chords are the main stages of the D major scale and the tonic parallel (B minor). The main stages are D major (tonic), G major (sub-dominant) and A major (dominant). It seems very important that the melody is in a uniform key throughout the piece; this can only be major or minor. It is also a significant advantage if the melody is supported by a “continuous rhythmic pulse”.
Countless songs use this chord sequence, including “The Beatles” with “Let it Be”, “Beyoncé” with “If I Were A Boy”, or “MGMT” with their hit “Kids”. Many, many hits in all genres have been made using these four simple chords in recent decades. That is no coincidence, but it is not a guarantee either. There is a definitive origin for our “European” listening habits. But what exactly is it?
Oldie but Goldie
These successful chord progressions have a strong connection to the chord progressions of classical music. There are two connections here that even have their own name:
Firstly, the “interrupted cadence”. This describes the connection between the dominant and the tonic parallel. The dominant does not resolve in the descending fifth to the tonic, but in the parallel a whole tone above the dominant. (Parallel because this is the parallel key root chord in B minor to the tonic key root chord in D major, which have the same accidentals – namely F sharp and C sharp).
This is according to Lars Hengmith. The plagal cadence describes the connection from G major back to D major. This is a way to resolve a musical phrase by moving from the IV chord (i.e. G) to the I chord (tonic root note D). Sometimes it is also referred to as the “Amen cadence”, because it is often placed over the word “Amen” in hymns. A great example is the closing line in the chorus of “Yesterday” by the Beatles, which resolves with a plagal cadence from ♭ to F.
There is another famous way of combining the four chords with a slight variation: the so-called turnaround. This is in the sense of “reversal”, “change of direction”, and also “completing the circle”, since the chord sequence often comes at the end of a piece and leads back to the beginning. The turnaround does not always work as well as in our ‘Magical Chord Sequence’, but it is always worth trying to play your chord progression backwards. Sometimes enough of it works that you can use it as a new starting point.
What more tricks are there to use chords to help you create a hit?
A palindrome usually refers to a word or phrase that reads the same in both directions. For example: “Madam, I’m Adam”. Similarly, some chord sequences work well if you change direction in the middle and end back at the beginning.
For example, something simple like: C-F-G—|G-F-C—||
- Pedal point
A pedal point is the repetition or holding of a single note during various harmonic changes. It can either make a standard sequence more interesting or root a complex sequence in something familiar. This does not create a new sequence, but if you have found a sequence that sounds somewhat disorganised or overly complex, you can let your bass sit on a note – usually the tonic – which gives the sequence a kind of musical glue and makes it sound stronger. Let’s say you have C as the lowest note. You can see then that the C will be totally anchored and listeners will be fixed to the key of the sequence, i.e. C major.
A very good example of this is “Jump” – by Van Halen
(G/C F/C F/C G/C G/CC …)
- Diatonic chords
A diatonic chord is also called a diminished chord. Here, you remain within the scale. Diatonic triads are often used in music genres. This refers to the seven chords that are built on the seven notes of the selected major or minor scale. To do this, for example, using the C major scale, simply add the third (third note) and then the fifth (fifth note) to each note of the scale.
Use the circle of fifths
On the one hand, the circle of fifths helps you to determine keys and to find out the accidentals of keys. On the other hand, you can also use the circle of fifths to see which major and minor keys go together. The closer two keys are in the circle of fifths, the more closely related they are, which means that they have more notes in common. That’s easy. In the circle of fifths, the tones are arranged in a circle. The outer circle shows you the major keys and the inner circle shows the minor keys. At the very top of the circle of fifths are C major and A minor. Both keys have no accidentals. If you move clockwise to the right from there, you will see all the keys that have a sharp (#) accidental. If you move anti-clockwise to the left, you will find all keys with a flat (♭) accidental. The number of accidentals increases as you move.
Practice, practice, practice
That was a lot of information at once. If all this was too much for you, there are tools to help you. Nowadays, there are helpful tools, such as apps, that help you create a song, structure it, and suggest matching or unmatching chords, depending on what you are looking for. In this respect, the app GarageBand, that has been around since 2004, has brought about a true music revolution. Another example is the app Tonaly that offers you suitable chords. It can suggest hook lines, or melodies for bass lines or solos.
All of this can help you think outside the box and give you new impetus as an artist – even when writing your new hit. Using what? The perfect chords, of course.