Who Put the II in the Bop Shoo Bop?

…doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember.

The ’50s and early ’60s have something of a rep for harmonic simplicity. Ask anyone with half a guitar to “write you a ’50s song”, and you’ll get a slow I → vi → IV → V progression, probably pausing for a bridge that starts on the IV, only to return to I → vi → IV → V. Incidentally, the song will also have the words “you” and “love” in the chorus, but lyrical complexity is beyond the scope of this post.

This progression is so common that the Internetz just call it the “’50s progression” (also see Wikpedia’s List of songs containing the ’50s progression).

I’m not here to convince you that the ’50s and early ’60s were really a period of experimental jazz-prog. In fact, I pretty much agree that for ~15 years, chords were definitely almost as simple as Wikipedia would have you believe.

But I do think we’re throwing the II and the iv out with the… damnit, I really thought that metaphor was going to work. What I’m saying is there were a few songs that you probably think of as:

…that were actually more like:

This is similar to the general perception that all ’80s hair bands were only as good as Ratt and Warrant, but actually Guns n’ Roses is awesome and gets unfairly lumped in.

So this post, as per the title, is about “doo-wop-era songs that are more interesting than you remember”. Note it’s not just “interesting chords from the ’50s” (of which I’m sure there are a jillion), it’s songs you probably think of specifically as ’50s progression songs that are actually hiding harmonic good times beneath a thin veneer of I → vi → IV → V.

Continue reading to find the harmonic gems in infinite array of ’50s progressions →

The Doctor of Rock Certifies Meghan Trainor as Harmonically Fresh

From: Dan

To: Readers and Meghan Trainor

On an earlier post, when breaking down game film from Let It Go, I said: “I don’t know of other songs with … repeating phrases than end in Xm and X”. Let It Go looks like:

The [Em]snow glows white on the [Cadd9]mountain tonight
Not a [D]footprint to be [Am]seen
A [Em]kingdom of iso[Cadd9]lation, and it
[D]looks like I'm the [A]Queen

Turns out Meghan Trainor’s “No Good For You” does the same, arguably in a more interesting way:

I miss that [Em]happy friend that I had
[A]You've been acting so sad
Won't you come [D]back? yeah [Bm]yeah

You never [Em]take your time with your girls no more
[A]Always with your new boy
But he ain't all [D]that
But [B]you don't know yet

And just when you think nothing else is going to happen in this song… read on! →

I-IV-V-vi

…exploring the combinatorics of pop’s favorite chords, and finding the obvious gaps.

From: Ian

To: Dan

There are 6 ways to order the chords I — IV — V — vi, invariant to circular shifts. Four of those orderings are used all over the place. Here they are:

I → IV → vi → V

I → V → vi → IV

I → vi → IV → V

Every song from the 1950s, e.g.:

Also:

I → vi → V → IV

I → IV → V → vi
I → V → IV → vi

These two are totally underutilized! Maybe going from vi to I doesn't sound good. Or maybe we could write some huge hits using these progressions.


Two years went by before we ran into either of these; click to see the song that revived this thread, and comment if you have more! →

Musical Breadth vs. Depth

…the Doctor of Rock’s guide to matching your musical goals to musical starting points.

Recently a friend asked for my thoughts on whether he’d end up a happier musician by focusing on one instrument (depth-first) or spreading his time across instruments, composing, recording, singing, etc. (breadth-first). I’ve spent most of my life as a breadth-first musician with a short attention span, but I don’t really come down on one side or other. My thoughts ultimately boiled down to “first try to figure out what aspects of music make you happy, then work backwards from there”.

I’m going to more or less paste these thoughts in this post. So if you’re ready to take some advice from a mediocre hobbyist with no notable musical experience, read on!

Continue reading and join the discussion about maximizing musical happiness… →

Multiple Key Changes

…searching for the line between “pop with a lot of keys” and “prog”.

From: Ian

To: Dan, Raja

This truck driver gear shift is so smooth I’m not even sure I’d count it as the truck driver gear shift, but I guess technically it is:


It’s in Bm, but let’s say it’s in Am to simplify notation. The first two verses and choruses, and the solo, are all in Am. Then there’s a brief bridge in D, and I would definitely say that’s a real key change, before it goes back to the chorus, this time in E. The solo → bridge → chorus transition looks something like:

CHORUS (in Am)
Listen to your h[Am]eart[F] when he's c[C]alling for y[G]ou.
Listen to your h[Am]eart[F] there's nothing e[C]lse you can d[G]o.
I don't kn[C]ow where you're g[G]oing and [F]I don't know [C]why,
but listen to your h[Am]eart[F] before[G] you tell him goodbye[Am].

SOLO (in Am)
[Am] [F] [G] [Am] x 2
[C] [G] [F] [C]
[Am] [F] [G] [G]

BRIDGE (in D) (note the G → D cadence to smoothly move into the bridge)
[D] And there are voices that want to be heard.
[Bm] So much to mention but you can't find the words.
[A] The scent of magic, the be[G]auty that's been
[A] when love was wilder [B] than the wind.

CHORUS (in E)
Listen to your h[C#m]eart[A] when he's c[E]alling for y[B]ou
Listen to your h[C#m]eart,[A] there's nothing [E]else you can [B]do
I don't kn[E]ow where you're g[B]oing and [A]I don't know w[E]hy,
but listen to your h[C#m]eart[A] bef[B]ore you tell him goodb[C#m]ye.

I like this because it’s not fancy at all, but still contains two key changes and everything fits together perfectly. It’s good clean Scandinavian pop. Nothing superfluous. Like Ikea furniture.

Continue reading to find out whether Roxette is the multiple-key-change champion… →

How Many Chords Make a Key Change?

From: Dan

To: Ian

The core question here will be, as per title, how long do you have to spend in key [x], as measured in time or chords, before it feels like a key change, rather than a bunch of non-diatonic chords?

But the song I’m going to use as a prop has another property that I want to ask about first, which will be spoiled if I send you right to the candidate key change… so first listen *only* to the first 12 seconds (until the melody starts) (all the links and videos I’m including will start and stop at the right times). All the chords you’ll here are [B][E], or really [Bsus4][E/B].


Is this in B (I→IV, I→IV…), or is this in E (V→I, V→I…)? Is it self-evident with no melody, just by the way it’s played? Does the sus4 matter a little?

OK, now think about that for a bit… are you back?

Continue reading to find out whether it’s B or E, and to find out how many chords do make a key change… →

Ever Ever After

From: Dan

To: Ian

This song has an unusual structural property:

At least I can’t think of another song with this structural property.

If you hate the song so much you can’t bear to listen to it, I’ll just tell you, but if your wife is having a baby right now, that’s no excuse not to give your full attention to this thread.



Continue reading to find out (another) cool thing a Disney princess song does… →