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

Rock ‘n’ Roll Theatre – The case of Ziggy Stardust

Sukita Bowie: Speed of LifeWhen David Bowie appeared on the UK’s Top of the Pops singing ‘Starman’ as Ziggy Stardust on July 5th 1972 a strange androgynous alien visitation was beamed to 15 million viewers across the nation.

He was shocking, bizarre, beautiful and talented and within days Bowie mania swept the country.

Too many it seemed that he had appeared from nowhere, but Bowie had spent the previous ten years in a long, varied and difficult artistic gestation.

From his early teens to that career defining moment he’d tried almost anything, from R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll bands, to mime theatre, acting, television commercials and a folk trio called Feathers.

He even had a go at a children’s novelty record, The Laughing Gnome.

Check it out:


In 1969 Bowie timed the release of his single ‘Space Oddity’ with the luna landings and had a hit. But with remnants of his aforementioned folk incarnation on the rest of the album, his image was confused and he seemed destined to be a one hit wonder.

It wasn’t till Bowie met pop music manager Tony Defries, who launched the careers of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, that things changed.

Tony, you see, had money, and, perhaps more importantly, Tony had a plan.

He introduced Bowie to the New York underground theatre and music scene, which in the early 70’s was as weird and wacky as it gets. There he met Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and became fascinated with the avant-garde.

The brilliant Hunky Dory was released soon after, but the record didn’t sell.

Bowie, it seems, needed more than just good music. He needed a fully formed persona, an otherworldly character, to fully engage the imagination of his audience – to become, perhaps, some kind of identity defining cultural phenomenon that all the kids could attach themselves to.

He needed Ziggy Stardust.

So wanna-be rock stars take note: despite David Bowie’s undeniable talent, it took Ziggy Stardust, an alien who had assumed human form as a rock star, appearing on the Top of the Pops to shoot him out of stratosphere and make him the Starman we love.

So there is certainly something to be said for musical theatrics.

That said, seeing it now, it seems pretty tame (especially with the daggy kids dancing around the stage). But remember, this was 1972:

If you enjoyed this post, it would be great if you could ‘like’ it and my facebook page in the sidebar, and better still if you could take the time to listen to my song ‘Full Moon Rising’ (also in the sidebar). If you like it, sign up to my mailing list for 4 free songs and updates on my gigs and activities.

photo by: Shemp65

Hurt – Trent Resnor (Cover)


“I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure”

Trent Resnor

That ‘Hurt’ was covered by the legend that is Johnny Cash in such as way as to render all who heard it spellbound is perhaps not as surprising as Trent Resnor makes out.

The song is the ultimate bittersweet tune and was recognised as such when it was first released in the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral, receiving a grammy award nomination in 1996 for best rock song.

When covered by an ailing Johnny Cash in 2002, as you probably know, Cash’s version and the accompanying video won a spate of awards and accolades.

The Economy Of Song

The KinksOne of the fundamental laws of good writing is ‘omit needless words’. The same law, I am beginning to find, applies to structuring a song, only with songs the law is perhaps better expressed as ‘omit needles bits’.

Don’t get me wrong good songs come in all varieties. There are many great songs that just sit on a tasty groove and quality melody for a long time, but most I am finding have a tightly structured craftsmanship to them.

A good example is ‘Leaps and Bounds’, a Paul Kelly song I was analysing recently.

Here’s the structure:

  • Intro: 21 seconds (21 seconds)
  • Verse 1: 15 seconds (36 seconds)
  • Chorus: 9 seconds (45 seconds)
  • Verse 2: 15 seconds (1 minute)
  • Chorus: (extended): 15 second  (1 minute, 15 seconds)
  • Bridge:15 second bridge (1 minutes, 30 seconds)
  • Chorus: (extended): 15 seconds (1 minutes, 45 seconds)
  • Guitar solo:17 seconds (2 minutes, 2 seconds)
  • Verse 3 (repeated 1st verse): 15 seconds (2 minutes, 17 seconds)
  • Chorus: (extended/outro): 45 seconds (3 minutes, 2 seconds)
  • Intrumental Outro: 20 seconds (3 minutes, 22 seconds)

Have a listen:


Notice that by 1 minute and 15 seconds, we’ve already had an intro, two verses and two choruses, at which time the bridge kicks in before heading back into another chorus.

Kelly doesn’t stuff around.

Notably, the guitar solo starting at 1 minute and 45 seconds goes for only 15 seconds but still managers to make a tasty contribution to the song.

By 2 minutes and 17 seconds the song has divulged all its secrets. We’ve already heard the chorus three times, gotten familiar with it and want to hear it more. And our wish is granted. The last chorus repeats for 45 seconds before leading into a chilled-out 20-second instrumental outro.

I’ve decided it’s time for me to write a tight little tune like this one.

If you enjoyed this post, it would be great if you could ‘like’ it and my facebook page in the sidebar, and better still if you could take the time to listen to my song ‘Full Moon Rising’ (also in the sidebar). If you like it, sign up to my mailing list for 4 free songs and updates on my gigs and activities.

photo by: forayinto35mm

Every Good Songwriter Reads Poetry

John Keats, Portrait by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn (National Portrait Gallery, London).

John Keats

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night

                                   Mathew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’

Poets don’t get a good rap.

The idea of going to a poetry reading is perhaps the least favourite entertainment option available to modern humans. But ask anyone about his or her favourite singer-songwriter and they’ll likely quote you a favourite line or verse.

Make no mistake lyrics are poetry – well, good lyrics anyway.

And if my recent revelations regarding the plagiarism of songwriters are anything to go by, most songs you admire have probably been ripped off in some way from the poetry of one of the greats.

So it is now my sincere contention that every good songwriter should read poetry all the time.

Now, I haven’t been reading much of it lately, so I recently picked up the Norton Anthology of English Literature, a tome I read with regularity in my late teens and early twenties.

I always considered Mathew Arnold to be a clever chap, so wasn’t surprised to find that on reading his stuff all manner of quality images were dancing about my head.

But John Keats was a teenage favourite, so I re-read ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’. It’s pretty grandiose, which, if you’re anything like me, isn’t a bad thing, and the imagery is spectacular.

Check out the opening two stanzas. They’re killer:

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave 
A paradise for a sect; the savage too 
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep 
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not 
Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf 
The shadows of melodious utterance. 
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die; 
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams, 
With the fine spell of words alone can save 
Imagination from the sable charm 
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say, 
‘Thou art no Poet may’st not tell thy dreams?’ 
Since every man whose soul is not a clod 
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved 
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue. 
Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse 
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known 
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave. 

Methought I stood where trees of every clime, 
Palm, myrtle, oak, and sycamore, and beech, 
With plantain, and spice blossoms, made a screen; 
In neighbourhood of fountains, by the noise 
Soft showering in my ears, and, by the touch 
Of scent, not far from roses. Turning round 
I saw an arbour with a drooping roof 
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms, 
Like floral censers swinging light in air; 
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound 
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits, 
Which, nearer seen, seem’d refuse of a meal 
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve; 
For empty shells were scattered on the grass, 
And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more, 
Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know. 
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn 
Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting 
For Proserpine return’d to her own fields, 
Where the white heifers low. And appetite 
More yearning than on earth I ever felt 
Growing within, I ate deliciously; 
And, after not long, thirsted, for thereby 
Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice 
Sipp’d by the wander’d bee, the which I took, 
And, pledging all the mortals of the world, 
And all the dead whose names are in our lips, 
Drank. That full draught is parent of my theme. 
No Asian poppy nor elixir fine 
Of the soon fading jealous Caliphat, 
No poison gender’d in close monkish cell 
To thin the scarlet conclave of old men, 
Could so have rapt unwilling life away. 
Among the fragrant husks and berries crush’d, 
Upon the grass I struggled hard against 
The domineering potion; but in vain: 
The cloudy swoon came on, and down I sunk 
Like a Silenus on an antique vase. 
How long I slumber’d ’tis a chance to guess. 
When sense of life return’d, I started up 
As if with wings; but the fair trees were gone, 
The mossy mound and arbour were no more: 
I look’d around upon the carved sides 
Of an old sanctuary with roof august, 
Builded so high, it seem’d that filmed clouds 
Might spread beneath, as o’er the stars of heaven; 
So old the place was, I remember’d none 
The like upon the earth: what I had seen 
Of grey cathedrals, buttress’d walls, rent towers, 
The superannuations of sunk realms, 
Or Nature’s rocks toil’d hard in waves and winds, 
Seem’d but the faulture of decrepit things 
To that eternal domed monument. 
Upon the marble at my feet there lay 
Store of strange vessels and large draperies, 
Which needs had been of dyed asbestos wove, 
Or in that place the moth could not corrupt, 
So white the linen, so, in some, distinct 
Ran imageries from a sombre loom. 
All in a mingled heap confus’d there lay 
Robes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish, 
Girdles, and chains, and holy jewelries.

And it gets better. Read the whole poem here.

If you enjoyed this post, it would be great if you could ‘like’ it and my facebook page in the sidebar, and better still if you could take the time to listen to my song ‘Full Moon Rising’ (also in the sidebar). If you like it, sign up to my mailing list for 4 free songs and updates on my gigs and activities.

photo by: Books18