The 4 Chords That Make A Hit Song

N.At the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Axis Of Awesome illustrated hilariously how a particular four-chord chord progression is the basis for numerous hit songs from the last forty years.

The progression is I V vi IV.

In the key of E major (the key in which their examples are given), using the E major chord scale (or harmonised scale) this equates to E, B, C#m A.

Check it out:

Now, as much as I think this is a hilarious sketch, the truth, as is common with a lot of comedy, isn’t really something they have concerned themselves with.

Benny say’s “It’s dead simple to write a hit pop tune, you just use those four chords”, but the reality of writing a great song is that, whereas a good chord progression can be a benefit, the hardest thing is to write a catchy melody.

But, more to the point, there are numerous other chord progressions that have each been the basis for a plethora of hit songs.

I have been working my way through a book called ‘Chord Progressions For Songwriters’ by Richard J. Scott for the last few months and the number of examples for each chord progressions is extraordinary.

As any musician will tell you, I IV V progression (known as the Rock ‘N’ Roll progression) is probably even more common than the I V vi IV.

Here are just a few examples:

‘La Bamba’, Ritchie Valens; Twist And Shout’, The Beatles; ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, The Beatles; ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, The Beatles; ‘I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll, Joan Jett; ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’, Rolf Harris; California Girls’, Beach Boys… and the list goes on.

Then there’s the classic rock progressions of the late 60’s and 70’s that used ‘borrowed chords’ (chords that are taken from the parallel minor or major – ie both keys have the same root).

The I bvii IV I for example (the flattened vii chord being the vii in the parallel minor key):

‘Sympathy For the Devil’, Rolling Stones; ‘Fortunate Son’, Creedence Clearwater Revival; ‘Addicted To Love’, Robert Palmer; ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine, Guns N’ Roses; Norwegian Wood’, The Beatles; ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, Steely Dan…

In fact, you could probably go through about ten progressions (possibly more) and give as many examples as the Axis of Awesome presented, if not more of hit songs that used each progression.

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photo by: ValetheKid

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