Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

Songwriting and Music Theory Vlog youtube-icon twitter-icon facebook guitarate guitar curriculum

Guitarist looking for something to play or teach? Visit our other site:

Get Updates:

Click Here for a List of the latest Songwriting and Music Theory Vlogs

"Chord-Totals Musicians Use Most"

   Hey everybody welcome to the TonalTrends Spotter Stats Vlog. Today we got a real short and sweet one for you, so short and sweet in fact, that for this one, we won’t even have to go inside my computer, so that’s nice. It’s called “Chord Totals Musicians Use Most.”

   What that means is that we’ll be taking a look at how many different chord triads per song, musicians use, when writing popular music.

   Alright, first, let me talk about how I sampled the data for this study.

   If you’ve heard this spiel already, in one of the other stats vlogs, you can skip ahead, that’s cool.

   OK first--what did I sample? The short answer is: pop songs, mostly the songs from the Rolling Stone Magazine Greatest 500 Songs of all time List, and then also some more modern pop tunes, mostly ones that my students have asked me to teach them over the years.

   So yeah: Pop Songs, not Classical, and not a lot of Jazz, mostly top 40 type hits, and other songs that critics have felt to be important to the popular music lexicon.

   All in all, the total number of song chord-totals for this graph up here, makes up a pool of around 550 songs sampled. And remember, just like the other chord-stats vlogs, I’m only counting “triads”, like I’m talking the 1-3-5 triads. That means that if you have a C major chord in a song, and also a C major “add 9” chord or something, that’s still just one chord type counted.

   The other main disclaimer here, is that, similar to the BPM Stats Vlog--when I counted separate tempos as separate songs--here I’m counting separate keys, or modulations within songs, as separate songs too.

   I’m doing it this way because I feel like counting chords from modulations would just muck up the data in a dishonest way. Like, for example, take the song “Mack the Knife”: that song modulates five times, meaning it plays the same 4 chord-types in 6 different keys before it’s done. So, what are you going to call that: a 4 chord song, or a 6x4=24 chord song? I think calling it a 4-chord song is probably the more honest thing to do. Plus 24 fields on the horizontal axis would totally mess up my graph up here.

   Oh, and by the way, I used a projector to trace this. So yeah, I don’t have like, a robot graph-drawing cyborg in the other room or nothing—at least as far as I know.

   Alright let’s get started.

   So, first off, I couldn’t find any songs with no chords at all. I tried, but I guess there just haven’t been any substantial Pop Music Hits by High School Drum Lines or Solo Oboists or anything like that. So yeah, no-chord songs do exist, just none of them made it to the study. But yeah, I mean, maybe you could even take that as a challenge. Like: See if YOU can get a top 40 hit yourself without using any harmony at all, Okay? 3,2,1 – go!

   Just kidding, probably not gonna happen, unless you’re ridiculously good looking, like me. Or unless you’re like that girl with the cups, like [demo cups] “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone… you know that one?

   Alright, moving on, 1 chord songs made up around 3.8% of songs sampled, and 2 chord songs made up about 3.4%.

   And it’s hard to notice here, but the one-chord songs beat out the two-chord songs by just a little bit. Kind of interesting, don’t you think? But yeah, I should tell you that that’s mostly due to the Rolling Stone List paying its proper tribute to all the old blues legends, who made rock and roll possible. I mean, back then, sometimes just one chord and a blues scale was all they really needed.

   Okay, your basic 3 chord song came in at 20% of songs, and 4 chord songs top the list, almost getting up to 21% usage.

   And then we begin to drop off. 5 chord songs are at 16%, 6 chord songs: 13%, and 7 chords: 10.5%.

   Now, we’re going to see a sharper dip here, after the seven chord song. That’s most likely due to the fact that you really only have 6 or 7 diatonic chords to work with in any given key, after that, you have to start spicing it up with the non-diatonic chords, and that can be tricky. I mean, past this point, you really gotta know what you’re doing, either cause you know your theory, or just cause you’ve got a good ear and you’re really talented and creative, like Brian Wilson or something.

   So yeah, 8 chord songs: 4.4%, 9 chords: 2.6%, 10 chord songs: 0.9%, then for some reason we have a slight uptick to 1.2% for 11 chord songs. Then we drop out with 12 chords: 0.3%

13 chords: 0.5%.

   And that’s that! But, to give you an idea of how a song can even have 13 chord triad types in it, let me single out one of the songs that arguably has 13-chord types: Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

   So yeah, Paul Simon’s definitely on the list of top harmony users of all time, but it was his piano player friend, “L.A. Wrecking Crew” session musician Larry Knechtel, spending 4 whole days working on his accompaniment for this, that most likely pushed us into the music theory stratosphere. That, combined with Simon’s original concept, and the fact that even Garfunkel added in some chords he liked in between the verses, is I think how we got this chunky 13 triad stew.

   Alright, broken down, here’s what we’ve got—and if you’d like to see these written out, scroll down the transcription on the watch page for this video:

   -Alright, we got 5 diatonic triads: I iii IV V vi. Though I should mention that the iii could also be called a Imaj7 chord if you wanted. I called it a iii here just because I felt it sounded different enough from the regular I chords to warrant its own name.  

   -Anyways, next we’ve got 2 of the more common borrowed chord triads from minor: the bVII, and the iv.

   -Finally, a whopping 6 secondary triads: II, biiio, iiio, III, bvo, VI.

   And you could even argue that there are more, if you wanted, that is if you counted some more of the secondary dominant 7’s as secondary diminished chords and vice versa. But yeah, that’s enough of that gibberish.

   If you’d like to learn more about Diatonics, Secondaries, Borrowed, and other triad types I was just blah-blahing about, you should watch the Tonal Trends Chordisthenics Intro, or the Chords Musicians Use most Vlog…or just google the terms you’d like to know more about.

   So yeah that’s it for this blog, ‘hope you enjoyed our comprehensive study of the “Chord-Totals Musicians use the most.”

   And we’ll see ya next time here at the music vlogs.

Number of Chords used per song