• 4-Chord Songs: How to Become A Piano Player In A Day

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    4-chord songs image

    Turn on any “top 40” radio station, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be hearing one of the many popular “4-chord songs” within 10 minutes.

    It’s either going to be the song that’s on, the next song, or the song after. And heck, if you had tuned in a couple minutes prior, it probably was the song that just ended!

    Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than this video by Australian musical comedy act, “The Axis of Awesome.” They literally take 4 chords and cycle through dozens of popular songs you know and love. Check it out:



    Since the beginning of Hearandplay.com (August, 2000), I’ve been preaching, “Songs follow recycled, reusable, repeating patterns. There is nothing new under the sun.”

    In fact, once you’ve learned enough of these patterns, the “Pareto Principle” kicks in and you’ll pretty much find yourself playing the same things over and over.

    Also known as the “80/20” Rule, and applied to music, the Pareto Principle tells us that 80% of songs will come from the same 20% of chords and chord progressions. I think this holds true, if not even more drastic (especially in today’s pop music where it just might be 90/10). 4-chord songs exemplify this perfectly.

    That’s not to say every song will sound the same.

    Even though I’ve shared this viral video featuring 47 “4-chord songs” following the SAME chord pattern, when you add in varying rhythms, melody lines, instruments, chord inversions/voicings, and lyrics, you can create “new-old” masterpieces that fool your audience into thinking they are new creations. We, as Ear Musicians, know better.

    (And to be fair, some will argue that, despite this, they ARE new creations. I get it. My grandma’s sweet potato pie is, after all, my grandma’s sweet potato pie. Much of the same ingredients as the next person’s but with her magical touch applied).

    “What are 4-chord songs made of,” you ask?

    Introducing 4-Chord Songs

    They are songs built off these degrees of the scale:

    1 – 5 – 6 – 4

    How did we get these numbers?

    They are simply taken from the major scale of the key you’re in.

    Say you’re in C major…

    This is the C major scale:
    4-chord songs c major

    C D E F G A B C

    (I won’t take time in this post to cover the creation of major scales as I’ve written extensively about this in the past. But check out the beginning of this post).

    Now all you gotta do is number this scale.

    C is 1
    D is 2
    E is 3
    F is 4
    G is 5
    A is 6
    B is 7

    So when we talk about “4-chord songs,” we’re talking about songs based on these notes in the key of C.

    Some type of chord on C (the 1).

    Some type of chord on G (the 5).

    Some type of chord on A (the 6).

    Some type of chord on F (the 4).

    These 4 chords make the world of pop music go round n round… trust me.

    “What do you play on these tones?” you ask.

    4-Chord Songs: Chord Names

    Similar to my major scales post, I have a more extensive article that explains what we call “diatonic chords” (the naturally occurring chords on each tone of the scale). And here’s a 44-pg “Complete Guide to Chords.” For now, I’ll just tell you.

    C major (the 1):
    4-chord songs c major

    G major (the 5):
    4-chord songs G major

    A minor (the 6):
    4-chord songs a minor

    F major (the 4):
    4-chord songs f major

    “So then why don’t my chords sound like the songs in the video above?” you ask.

    Because you have 12 planets in music.

    To play this progression on planet earth (let’s say the key of “C major”) won’t sound the same as playing it on Jupiter (let’s say “F major”).

    The chords in the video happen to be in the key of D major (“pluto?”).

    You’ve got to do what it takes to “translate” what is being played in C major to the new key of D major.

    If earth uses oxygen but pluto uses some other element, well, you had better figure it out.

    D major has its own scale:
    4-chord songs D major

    Which means, it has its own number system:

    D is 1
    E is 2
    F# is 3
    G is 4
    A is 5
    B is 6
    C# is 7

    Which means, its “4-chord songs” are going to use these keynotes:

    Some type of chord on D (the 1).

    Some type of chord on A (the 5).

    Some type of chord on B (the 6).

    Some type of chord on G (the 4).

    And those chords look like this:

    D major (the 1):
    4-chord songs D major

    A major (the 5):
    4-chord songs a major

    B minor (the 6):
    4-chord songs b minor

    G major (the 4):
    4-chord songs g major

    Add in your left hand, and it looks like this:

    D major (the 1):
    4-chord songs D major

    A major (the 5):
    4-chord songs a major

    B minor (the 6):
    4-chord songs b minor

    G major (the 4):
    4-chord songs g major

    It’s now your job to learn this pattern in all 12 keys.

    I’ve given you the first 2. You do the rest.

    Then, when it comes to figuring out these simple “4-chord songs,” first find the key of the song (aka – the “planet”) using these free ear-training techniques I share, apply the chords of that key, and “boom,” you’ll be very close.

    I say “very close” because you then might have to rearrange the notes of the chord (aka – “invert“) to make them sound exactly like the song.

    For example, it may not be this C major chord:
    4-chord songs c major

    …it may be this one:
    4-chord songs c major

    …or this one:
    4-chord songs c major

    But fret not! We haven’t added or taken away any notes. We just rearranged them. Whatever was on the bottom goes to the top. It’s that simple. Cycle through them til’ you’ve found the chord that sounds the “most” correct. As I always say, “let your ear be the final judge.”

    In a future post, I’ll cover why 4-chord songs work and sound good to our ears (especially in western music).

    But for now, enjoy this list of 47 songs from the “4 chord” video:



    Journey – “Don’t Stop Believin'”
    James Blunt – “You’re Beautiful”
    The Black Eyed Peas – “Where Is the Love”
    Alphaville – “Forever Young”
    Jason Mraz – “I’m Yours”
    Train – “Hey, Soul Sister”
    The Calling – “Wherever You Will Go”
    Elton John – “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (from The Lion King)
    Akon – “Don’t Matter”
    John Denver – “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
    Lady Gaga – “Paparazzi”
    U2 – “With Or Without You”
    The Last Goodnight – “Pictures of You”
    Maroon Five – “She Will Be Loved”
    The Beatles – “Let It Be”
    Bob Marley – “No Woman No Cry”
    Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”
    Men At Work – “Down Under”
    Jill Colucci – “The Funny Things You Do” (Theme from America’s Funniest Home Videos)
    Jack Johnson – “Taylor”
    Spice Girls – “2 Become 1”
    a-ha – “Take On Me”
    Green Day – “When I Come Around”
    Eagle Eye Cherry – “Save Tonight”
    Toto – “Africa”
    Beyoncé – “If I Were A Boy”
    Kelly Clarkson – “Behind These Hazel Eyes”
    Jason DeRulo – “In My Head”
    The Smashing Pumpkins – “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”
    Joan Osborne – ” One of Us”
    Avril Lavigne – “Complicated”
    The Offspring – “Self Esteem”
    The Offspring – “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid”
    Akon – “Beautiful”
    Timbaland featuring OneRepublic – “Apologize”
    Eminem featuring Rihanna – “Love the Way You Lie”
    Bon Jovi – “It’s My Life”
    Lady Gaga – “Poker Face”
    Aqua – “Barbie Girl”
    Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Otherside”
    The Gregory Brothers – “Double Rainbow Song”
    MGMT – “Kids”
    Andrea Bocelli – “Time To Say Goodbye”
    Robert Burns – “Auld Lang Syne”
    Five for Fighting – “Superman”
    The Axis of Awesome – “Birdplane”
    Missy Higgins – “Scar”

    And don’t think this list stops at 47. There are hundreds more. Here are just a few more songs “Axis of Awesome” (from the video above) have used in their live performances (Caveat: Not all of them are as close to the 1-5-6-4 pattern as the ones above though):

    Alex Lloyd – “Amazing”
    Richard Marx – “Right Here Waiting”
    Adele – “Someone Like You”
    Christina Perri – “Jar of Hearts”
    Crowded House – “Fall At Your Feet”
    Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge”
    Daryl Braithwaite – “The Horses”
    Pink – “U + Ur Hand”
    The Fray – “You Found Me”
    3OH!3 – “Don’t Trust Me”
    Tim Minchin – “Canvas Bags”
    Blink-182 – “Dammit”
    Kasey Chambers – “Not Pretty Enough”
    Alicia Keys – “No One”
    Amiel – “Lovesong”
    Bush – “Glycerine”
    Thirsty Merc – “20 Good Reasons”
    Lighthouse Family – “High”
    Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Soul to Squeeze”
    Banjo Paterson – “Waltzing Matilda”
    Bic Runga – “Sway”
    Ben Lee – “Cigarettes Will Kill You”
    Michael Jackson – “Man in the Mirror”
    Mika – “Happy Ending”
    The Cranberries – ” Zombie”
    Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”

    Can you think of any others?

    Until next time.

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Allysia

    Both the video and the tutorial are amazing! I’ll have to share it around with my (older) students, I know they’ll get a kick out of this.

    Reply

    2 Donna Patterson

    Brilliant at explaining how simple chord progressions work. thanks.

    Reply

    3 ABRAHAM VIOKEBE

    DATZ POWERFUL.ITS WORKING

    Reply

    4 Al Smit

    Awesome explanation as always. Thanks!

    Reply

    5 emmanuel

    You are indeed my source of inspiration. All your post has greatly been of help to me. Thanks more grace

    Reply

    6 aniekan

    Griggs, you are the best ever.

    Reply

    7 ben

    can you change traditional songs like amazing grace into 1-5-6-4 progression if so can we have an example liz.

    Reply

    8 Mel Pottinger

    this looks great! VERY GREAT TEACHER..
    meld

    Reply

    9 piano lessons

    They are 4 chords but they can help me learn piano lesson in just a day. Thank you very cool and helpful.

    Reply

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