Studying the Music Theory of pop songs on the Billboard Hot 100

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Chord Progression in Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass”
Neapolitan Chord in Lady Gaga G.U.Y.

Chord Progression in Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass”

We are taking things back to basics in today’s Pop Music Theory post. As someone who is passionate about music theory, it is often tempting to study complex topics such as deviations from normal harmony (non-diatonic chords for example). However, have you noticed that many pop songs use the same basic chord progressions over and over? Well today, we dive into a truly basic and fundamental aspect of pop music theory – the chord progression.

Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” is currently sitting pretty at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps the song’s wide appeal stems from it’s simplicity. The song is literally the same four chords, over and over, for the entire song. And two of those chords are the I chord. The chord progression is I – ii – V – I. Repeat. For the entire song. By the way, this song is not even close to the first song to have done this. Perhaps you noticed that Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was literally just the same 4 chords repeating over and over, also for the entire song.

Now what I want to do is get really simple and basic here, so that any beginners out there can actually start to learn what the roles of different basic chords are in a chord progression. “All About that Bass” starts with the I chord (aka the tonic). We are in the key of A Major, so our I chord is A major. The I chord can be thought of as your home. Where you wake up, and where you go to sleep after a long day. It has centrality and familiarity.

If a song was to just stay on the I chord forever, it would eventually start to sound boring, because you need to leave your “home chord” and venture out, in order to spice things up a little bit. However, in pop music, you need not venture very far, because you want to keep your song nice and simple so that it will appeal to a wide listening audience.

Back to “All About that Bass.” After hitting the I chord, our chord progression now ventures to the ii chord (aka the supertonic). Since we are in the key of A Major, our ii chord is B minor. The ii chord can be thought of as a unit of “interest.” You have left your home, and now you are doing something new and interesting, something that is not your home chord of I. The ii chord is like leaving your home and going to get a cup of coffee. You get out there, you enjoy yourself, and you are doing something different.

The third chord in the “All About that Bass” chord progression is the V chord (aka the dominant). In the Key of A Major, our V chord is E Major. You have had your coffee, and you start to head home. What is unique about the V chord is that it is always leading towards home. The V chord is like the drive home, then opening your front door, hanging your keys up on the wall and yelling “Honey, I’m home!” The V chord indicates to your mind that you are going home, and it leads you there. As you enter your home and settle into your slippers, take off your coat, you have now transitioned back to the I chord.

In pop music, simple chord progressions are used because that is what the average listener has the capacity to understand. “All About that Bass” is not only #1 on the charts in the US, but it has also hit #1 in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Now that’s wide appeal.

Now that you have read about the character of the I, ii and V chord, let’s go ahead and listen to the song below. Listen for the A Major (the I chord), the B minor (the ii chord), the E Major (the V chord), and the return to the A Major (the I chord, again). Listen to the basic chord progression, and how it creates a simple and fun environment for the singer to express her lyrical message.

Did you like this article? Would you like more fundamentals of pop music theory content like this? Please let me know in the comments!

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Neapolitan Chord in Lady Gaga G.U.Y.

Lady Gaga meets music theory and the Neapolitan chord.

Here’s another club thumper brought to us by Lady Gaga and Zedd, producer par excellence, and the man behind this Bieber banger.

Little monsters rejoiced earlier this year when Lady Gaga’s “G.U.Y.” peaked at no. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts (though it was her worst charting single to date).

Have a listen to the song:

Notice anything interesting? If you have an instrument or tuner nearby (or if you happen to have perfect pitch), you will note that the piece is in the key of C minor (3 flats). But do you hear anything that is NOT in C minor? (aside from the C Major chord, which will be a topic for another day)

At the precise moment Lady Gaga is singing the lyric “new and exciting positions,” we are hearing a new and exciting example of today’s music theory topic: The Neapolitan chord. Note this chord appears for the first time at 0:12 in the video above.

This fierce and compelling chord is a simple major chord, but placed in a not so simple location – the lowered second scale degree. Also called the supertonic, the second scale degree is normally home to a D (in the key of C minor). In this piece, however, we hear a major chord built on the lowered scale degree of D♭. The notes of the chord are D♭-F-A♭. That is our Neapolitan chord.

We first hear the Neapolitan chord at 0:12 in the introduction, but the chord is repeatedly brought back during the chorus (the first chorus occurrence is at 1:08).

The Neapolitan chord is a type of non-diatonic chord (a.k.a. chromatic chord), meaning that the chord is not within the normal key signature of C-minor. Non-diatonic chords, in moderation, add interest and allure to a pop song.

Listen very carefully to the chorus. Pay particular attention to 1:08-1:10 and 1:16-1:18, and listen for the chord which finalizes each loop of the chorus. Do you hear a fascinating and intriguing D♭ Major chord? That is our Neapolitan chord.

Listen to the chorus several times until you can hear the D♭ major chord. If necessary, take out your instrument and play along to assist you in hearing and identifying this chord. Once you unlock your true understanding of the Neapolitan chord, you will have a powerful new tool in your songwriting arsenal.

Interested in learning about other types of non-diatonic chords? Check out this post analyzing Bruno Mars – When I was your Man.


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Copyright © 2014 Eric Strom