Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

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"Chord Types Musicians Use Most - Part 1"

  Hi! Welcome to Spotter Stats blog, Chords Musicians Use Most part 1. In these two videos we’ll be taking a look at what chords people use the most, or the least, when writing pop songs!

  Alright, the most important thing to note before we get started, is that this is a study of chords used in popular music--as defined by like, rock critics, and myself I guess.

  The majority of the data I collected was taken from the Rolling Stone Magazine 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time survey, because I figured if I was gonna spot “big picture” Tonal Trend Stats, I was gonna need a large enough, and comprehensive enough Data source, that was decided on, and compiled by a whole bunch of music lovers, instead of just like, some guy who really likes Grunge era Japanese Ska-Punk 7-inches…

  We’ll do a Tonal Trends Spotter Stats on that genre Someday, but only after we get enough data, and only after it turns out that I didn’t just make that up.

  So yeah, Rolling Stone—Rock, Blues, Pop, Alternative, Funk, Hip Hop, Metal, Folk, all that stuff--so, that's a lot, but unfortunately this isn't a study of classical music trends, and not jazz trends either really.

  Alright, first, get ready to take a look at chord usage overall, across all songs studied, no matter their tonality. And then, probably more useful, in Part 2 we’ll break down chord usage as separated into the three most common tonalities. Major, Minor(s), and Blues/Rock.

  And real quick, if you don’t know what blues/rock is, it’s basically just the Tonality that happened when musicians started to like, smush together major and minor, like mostly majorish chords and minorish scales. They were just like, *Sploo-ish*, here ya go: Bluesrock.

  Now, I don’t want to oversimplify things too much, but it’s like this: See, Major and Minor have existed separately in human music for at least a thousand years, some say longer, and blues-rock has only been around for like a hundred years or so, so some people don’t think of it yet as its own Tonality.

  But if you’re gonna simplify all popular music into just three categories, there’s really no other way to do it, that I’ve thought of anyway.

  So remember, Major, Minors, and Blues-rock. I went Minorzzzzz cause that plural is important later.

  See, sometimes, you just gotta simplify; sometimes, you gotta focus your binoculars if you want to see the eagle, soaring in the sky…

  Also, regarding simplification and Focus--the charts we’re about to look at only go up to the first 24 most commonly used chord triads in any given key. And, 24 chords is only about half of the triads you can possibly play in music. The other 24ish basic chord triads that are available to the musician virtually flat-line in terms of how much people use’m after this chart I'm about to show you, so for now we’ll ignore them.

  Seriously like I only found one, two, or none at all of these guys: mostly dims and augies.

  OK, so lets Look at the charts! And, since I’m not any kind of good at drawing, we’ll have to go inside my computer to where the files are, if we wanna see’m, Ready?


  OK, welcome to my computer.

  Here we go: chord usage across all songs studied. So yeah, here they are: our first 24 cool kid chord triads people use the most:

  The first seven are the major diatonics here:


  Oh BTW, “Diatonic” is just a fancy way some musicians say “regular’, like, the regular chords found in whatever key we’re talkin bout, that’s all.

  So like, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, Mary Poppins notes: normal notes making up the normal, or diatonic, chords.

  Oh, and here’s the thing, I’m playing all these chord types in the key of C, mostly cause that’s the most common key that people teach music in, mostly cause it has no sharps or flats in it--in its Major Diatonic Normals that is.

  Alright, the next seven on the chart here are the diatonic normal minors:


  People call these seven ‘minor’ guys Borrowed chords if you use them when you’re in a Major key, and vice versa, but--It’s interesting to note that minor keys aren’t as notorious for borrowing major diatonic chords, as Major is for borrowing minor chords. There’s a bunch of reasons for that, but we’ll save it for another time

  Next up, we have the Secondary Dominants, or secondary fives chords:


  These guys are handy little chords, telling ya, if you’re not using these chords in your music making, you better start, cause you’re missing out.

  Alright, They’re called secondary 5 chords cause they usually resolve down a fifth, like the regular 5 does. But, thing is even though that’s what they do a lot, they don’t have to in order to be called a secondary chord. And if anyone ever tells you they do have to, you tell’m to come see me, and I’ll be like, “Hey man, this ain’t about Rule Enforcement--this is about Tonal Trend Spotting K? The only black and whites around here are on the keyboard keys, everything else is a grey area, dude.

  Anywayz, then after that—some miscellaneous honorable mentions:


  Like,[V+] "Riding around in my Automobile."

  OK, Like I said before, everything past this not pictured kind of flat-lines, and so, for the lack of a more academic term, we’ll just call’m: The Rest of’m.

  If you’re curious about the rest’v’m, I have started a rough draft Tonal Trends SMARTS blog, about some of these rare chords and where they’ve been used before, so just be patient, it’s in the cue, it’s coming up.

  OK so, again, to review: Diatonics/Borrowed/Secondary/Misc./the rest’v’m.

  Now, YOU certainly don’t have to--my dear chord usage knowledge seeker of truth…person seeker--but I find that it’s pretty helpful to think about all chord triads as being in one of these four categories. Some wouldn’t agree with me, and that’s fine. It’s a potatoe pota-toe thing, you know?  

  Alright, now, I’d like to focus in on some of the cool Tonal Trends happening in this chart:

  First, the One chord predictably tops them all, about 85% of all songs have a major one chord.

  Next, the minor ii and iii chords are posting pretty good odds, about where you’d expect’m, ii a little more played than iii.

  The IV and V follow close behind the I at just under 80% of all songs, with the V chord a little lower than the IV--more on why that is in a couple minutes.

   Here’s the vi chord, doing his thing around 31%, like a champion.

  Next, check out this drop-off, and this next drop-off coming up two chords from now—these are the Diatonic diminished chord triads: these guys are used just about as little as the miscellaneous chords and rest’v’m chords not even on this chart. So it just goes to show, just because all your notes are diatonic normal scale degrees, Mary Poppins do-re-mi’s, that doesn’t mean people will for sure play you a lot.

  If you’re curious, The main reason you hardly ever see the normal 7 diminished chord alone is cause it can be found, also within the top half of a V7 chord, which is probably the most popular 4 note chord anyone ever played, like here listen: hard to tell the difference right?

  But let’s move on cause "diminished chords being the top halves of 4-note Dominant 7 chords" is like-—a topic for its whole own video, I mean, it’s a pretty deep rabbit hole we don’t need to go down right now.

  But again, just thought I’d mention there WAS a rabbit hole, to peek your interest. For later.

  OK, Minor diatonics!

  The i chord balances nicely with the I chord at around 18%. So like, If you add’m up there’s about a 2% surplus, which means, that about 2% of songs in the Rolling Stone Greatest survey use both at some point. So that’s pretty cool, hey you should try it!

  Again, iio: pretty low.

  bIII is kickin some butt...telling ya, people love to borrow the bIII when they’re in major, especially rockers.

  iv, not too shabby.

  v...Hmm…seems pretty low huh? I chalk that up mostly to the fact that in minor, people really like to borrow the major V chord. In fact, that’s where you get the Harmonic Minor scale from (that’s the most popular minor scale, if you’ve ever heard of that.) I mean, some people think it’s so trendy to use a major 5(V) in minor, that we shouldn’t even call it 'borrowed' anymore, and I’m cool with that, you should be too. It’s like, if you had a step-mom for a long time, and after a while you stopped calling her your step mom, and just your mom.


  bVI, also a popular chord in both Major, Minor, and Bluesrock.

  And, Last for the minor diatonics, the bVII may seem like a surprising spike, but remember: this is a sampling of mostly Rolling Stone Magazine song picks, with a bias towards rock, blues, and pop. These genres have a tendency to like to play the bVII instead of the V chord, and that’s why the V chord got beat out by the IV chord as second most trendy to play, in this survey.

  We’ll get deeper into the reasons why the bVII is so popular in pop and bluesrock, in the next video called “Tonal trends spotter stats—Chord Usage, Part 2.”  

  Again, that’s the video were we’re gonna have three graph lines instead of just one, each showing the trends for their specific tonalities, and not like here, where we’re showing all total chords.

  K, Here at the secondaries--in the same way as it’s hard to distinguish 7 diminished chords from V7s--Secondary I(7) and IV(7) chords are also pretty low on this chart, since in major, they’re already major!

  So you can only really spot one, or point one out if you hear it has a dominant 7 like this, and then resolves down a fifth, like five chords like to do.

  If they don’t then they’re better explained as just being Borrowed chords.

  And now I know there’s some smarties out there right now who are thinking “hey, I thought this was a study of just chord triads, and not their 7s, or sharp 11s, or inversions, or whatever!”

  And hey, you’re right, hands up, OK you got me. But here’s the thing: Music, and Tonal Trend spotting, wouldn’t be a creative Art if there weren’t a few good reasons to break some rules. And this here: this is a good reason. This kind of thing is the reason you’re even watching this right now!

  Secondary Is and IVs, at their core, and like--deep down in the cockles of their hearts--really are different chords than their normal counterparts that really are used enough, like, used in their own way enough, to get the spotlight, to get spotter.

  So yeah, I mean, again, if some of the ways that we like to spot tonal trends didn’t get proven ineffective or incomplete from time to time, it would be way boring, and we probably wouldn’t even do it.

  I mean, that’s what creative Art is: it’s why we like it: cause we like to see good ‘rule breaking’ and good ‘Trend breaking’ too... It’s why it’s interesting.

  So yeah, agree with me, disagree, it’s all good. Just as long as you know what I’m saying first.

  Also gotta mention, that because I added these 2 secondary 7 chords as honorary Triads, that means that there’s really 26 "rest’v’m" chords not pictured, out of the 48 possible triads you can play with 12 chromatic notes, For a max totally of 50 1-3-5 triads you can play at any given time, that I know of. Oh, also, That’s 50 total triads, depending on what you think of inversions of augmented chords! More on that in some Spotter Smarts videos to come.

  Oh, if you’re wondering—-while I’m arguing that secondary Is and IVs exist, Secondary V chords don’t exist: for the simple reason that if a secondary 5 could exist, it would sound and function exactly the same way a regular diatonic or borrowed five did.

  So…there’s that. But, I dunno, maybe someone will find one someday, and prove me wrong. Like maybe they’ll put some notes in a hadron collider and the scientists will be like 3-2-1, and they’ll press a button, and it’ll be  like-- bang, we found one!

  OK, as we get to the end, just take another look at how we’re flat lining here…

  This flat-lining of the other 26 triads not even pictured on here, really highlights the last three main points I want to make with this video:

  #1) Only 16 chord types are used more than 5% of the time.

  #2) Only 6 chords are used more than 20% of the time!

  #3) Only the I-IV-V chords make it past 40% usage mark!

  So yeah, Really, makes ya think, don’t it.

  Seriously though, If this is all really intimidating, and you’re just like not getting any of this: Simplify it first.

  Just focus on learning about and playing around with the 6 most popular chord types. Then expand to the 16 most popular chord types. Then once you can rifle off those 16 like it aint no thing, start tackling the rest’v’m.

  If you want a little help getting them all in your ear and fingers--Check out the “Spotter Smarts Chord Calisthenics videos.”

  Also, I’ll be putting those out in different keys too, so you don’t have to play in the Key of C for the rest of your life.

  OK, More tonal trends specific to the tonalities of Major, Minor, and Bluesrock, coming up in the next video called “Tonal Trends Spotter Stats—Chord Usage, Part 2!”

  Thanks for watching, and don’t forget to join our mailing list and like us on FB and stuff.

  See ya next time!


CHordchart all Enlarged


Tonal Trends Chords used most transposition chart