Take me down like I’m a four-chord loop


DominoI’ve been analysing the PPL’s list of the top 10 most played pop songs of 2012, and discussing it today on BBC Radio Ulster with music journalist Chris Jones.

Here’s the list, and I’ve made a playlist of all the songs;

  • 1 Jessie J – Domino
  • 2 Gotye ft Kimbra – Somebody That I Used to Know
  • 3 Emeli Sandé – Next to Me
  • 4 Maroon 5 – Moves Like Jagger
  • David Guetta ft Sia – Titanium
  • 6 Olly Murs – Dance with Me Tonight
  • Kelly Clarkson – Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)
  • 8 Rihanna and Calvin Harris – We Found Love
  • 9 Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
  • 10 Maroon 5 – Payphone

From memory, I recalled that all of these songs had some similar sonic characteristics, so I did some basic analyses to see which music/lyric elements they shared. I found the following;

  • All of them are love songs of one type or another
  • 3 of the love-related lyrics include references to dancing
  • 5 of the songs have a tempo of 128 BPM (or pretty close)
  • The lowest tempo is Next To Me (96BPM)
  • The highest tempo is Dance With Me Tonight (a crazy 166BPM – but it’s a 1950s pastiche)
  • All the songs are in 4/4 time (OK, pretty obvious, that one)
  • 6 of the songs use 4-on-the-floor kick drum in the chorus
  • All of the songs use four-chord loops over 2, 4 or 8 bars
  • 5 of the songs use one four-chord loop throughout
  • All of the songs are in chorus form (none are AABA) and most have very similar forms
  • 2 of the songs contain specific references to other hits (Titanium opens with a sample from Every Breath You Take and Dance With Me Tonight uses the 8-bar chord loop from Stand By Me)

Some numbers;

  • Mean average intro length is 11 seconds
  • Mean average BPM is 124.4
  • Mode and median intro length is 4 bars

Here are my stats if anyone wants them. Methodology note – I measured the BPM using a click-along manual counter (BPM Counter widget for Mac) so some of the BPMs might only be accurate within a tolerance of 1 or so. Corrections welcomed.

What can we conclude from this? Well, it certainly appears that the centre of popular mainstream has some pretty clear norms. Previous readers might remember that I ascribe some of this to economic Darwinism applied by listeners to songwriters via the marketplace. One might argue that the PPL list itself is unrepresentative, as it mainly represents songs that are playlisted in large numbers (i.e. it’s a DJ/radio station poll rather than a true measure of listener interest) but I don’t agree with this point of view. Yes, playlists influence listener preferences, but any radio station that didn’t play songs that people liked would lose listeners overnight. And the playlist does also include TV performances and venues – including pubs, shops etc. I think it is impossible to argue that these songs are anything other than extremely popular. Which, for me, makes them worthy of analysis.

I am of course fascinated by the prevalence of four-chord loops here (more in this annual top 10 than in any previous chart top 10 I’ve analysed), and I wonder if, in some types of mainstream song, 4-chord loops have become like choruses, breakdowns or intros – they’re just a part of the form that becomes a musical constant against which the track’s variables (lyric, performance, melody, production) are contrasted. Certainly when listening to them I don’t get bored by the loop itself. I’ve briefly alluded to chord loops as an evolved constraint before.

Most surprising to me was the prevalence of 128BPM. Not just 120+, but almost exactly 128BPM, in half of the songs. The mean BPM (124.4) is a fair bit higher than the mean average over the previous 60 years of US/UK chart hits (around 119BPM). Only Emeli Sandé is keeping us relaxed (96) and only Olly Murs is crazily jivin’ (166BPM).

All of this is to be poured into the songwriting creativity studies that will form the PhD thesis to be published in late 2014.

Comments

  1. evanjroberts says:

    Reblogged this on Evan Roberts and commented:
    Great post Joe, thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] geek), of course I recognise structural similarities between pop songs (here’s a brief analysis of 2012 hits). But as a listener I’m influenced by the differences between otherwise predictable musical […]

  2. […] in 2013 I looked back at the top 10 airplayed songs of 2012 (see Take Me Down Like I’m a Four-chord Loop) and found a number of musically similar characteristics, notably a prevalence of four-chord loops […]

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