• The state of the song: Have all the great songs already been written? (part I of III)

Yet another series!

1) Have all the great songs already been written? 2) Why is today’s most popular music fundamentally less interesting than yesterday’s? 3) What can we do, if anything, to restore pop/rock music to its former glory?

In a recent post, I was, among other things, lamenting over the decline of quality in music over the last decade, on which Bret commented:

The question is why hasn't there been a great symphonic composer for more than 100 years?

I think it's that the few thousand symphonies written basically cover the range of possibilities for symphonic instruments. To be any more varied or adventurous basically made it less listenable. Sure, you could still write a different symphony, but you can't write a better symphony, and it can't be different enough for many people to bother listening to it. The world can only utilize so many symphonies.

I think we're starting to hit the same point with modern music. Amplification, distortion, effects, and synthesis enabled radically different sounds and forms of music. If you're more varied or adventurous than others since the 1960s, most people simply aren't going to like it.”

And Bret’s comment really set me to thinking. Now I know next to nothing about classical music, but Bret also mentions modern music and on this I have something to say.

To start, virtually all Western music relies on two chord changes to create tension and release, the critical elements of music, or at least the kind of music I like. These changes are the IV to the I and the V to the I. For those who don’t know, the Roman numerals refer to chords in the major scale, so if you had a song in G, the IV would be C (G, Am, Bm, C) and D (G, Am, Bm, C, D). They are both major chords, as opposed to minor, which I denote using a lower-case m. And the most common chord progression you’re likely to hear is I, V, IV. To wit:
Bad Moon Rising, by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Ballad of John and Yoko, by the Beatles.
Pride and joy, Stevie Ray Vauhgn.
This Land Is Your Land, Woody Guthrie.
When I Paint My Masterpiece, by Bob Dylan.
Death or Glory, by The Clash?
Love Is a Stranger, by Eurythmics.

I could go on and on and on and on and on and on. Most amazing, you could make a playlist of a bunch of I IV V songs and not get bored. How can this be? How can one progression lead to so many great songs? Simple, it’s not just about the chords. There are lyrics, melodies, bass lines, drum beats, tempos, performers, arrangement and production, but equally important, there’s also context, or what’s going on culturally at the time of a song’s release as well as what’s happening in the listener’s life. Still, this I IV V thing and several other progressions have been mined pretty deep and you have to wonder if maybe we’re scraping bottom. Maybe, maybe not. I mean, Waylon Jennings was musing on this back in the 70s when he wrote “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, the lyrics for which begin with the following verse:

It's the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars
We've been the same way for years
We need to change”

For me, I think the answer to the question Are we reaching the limit of rock/pop the answer is Yes and No. Yes, in that we have surely explored rock/pop to its very edges. I mean, every time I hear a song, I can pretty much figure out how to play it without even picking up a guitar, as I, V, IV makes its appearance yet again (or II, V I or a few others). And I am less and less likely to hear a song that surprises me, which is both a factor of experience and age. Recent tunes that have caught my ear for innovative chord changes/melody include Ray LaMontagne’s “Beg, Steal and Borrow”, which has a KILLER modulation, and Lady Ante Bellum’s “Need You Now”. But this happens less and less. On the other hand, when I heard The Black Keys’ song “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be” I could not get the song out of my head. The chord change is not I, IV, V, but Dm to C and back and forth and back and forth and that’s it! But the lyrics, the sound, the mood, man, it’s a great track and older than the hills, really, though it was released only a few years ago. More surprising is Jamey Johnson who I first heard about on NPR and whose tunes could not be more traditional and yet work on my brain like nano-tech enhanced earworms, especially “Mowing Down the Roses”.

So what’s going on? How could songs with NOTHING NEW musically be every bit as interesting to me as tunes that are genuinely at least a teensy bit fresh? The truth lies in the near endless variations of those elements I mentioned earlier (lyrics, melodies, bass lines, drum beats, tempos, performers, arrangement, production and context), which leads me conclude that music is suffering today for reasons wholly other than the possibility of a limit being reached. They are:

1) Formulas work
2) Rock/pop is no longer counter culture
3) Artists are spread too thin

In my next post, I’ll elaborate on these points.