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Auditory Repetitive Stress Syndrome

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Even with the understanding of the premise that nothing is original, I still have to wonder about the direction of popular music, and the “song writing” in particular. Without getting too theoretical, there is an annoying pattern in the structure of many of the songs today that render them more or less identical from one to another. And yet, they are what comprise much of our current pop music selection.

Even the pop radio DJ’s seem oblivious to the pattern, since they will often play three or more songs back-toback-to-back that have the same chord structure. We’re talking about repetitive stress to the ears.

Let me describe it this way: Consider any common song, say, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” You know the melody well enough and there are chords that accompany that melody. Perfect. But what if I were to take that song and change the words. Does that make me a song writer? Would you even recognize that I replaced the lyrics with my own?

If there is a copyright in place on the song, I can guarantee you that the original songwriter will notice. Just ask George Harrison of The Beatles. His song “My Sweet Lord” was found to be a ripoff of another song entitled “He’s So Fine.” Another example is the song “Hello Dolly!” Songwriter Jerry Herman had to pay up for his infringement of another very similar song.

But I’m referring to something different: not an exact rip-off of another song, but simply using the chord structure of another song, then changing the lyrics and the feel to make a new song. For a novice listener, their reaction may be “Hey, I like that new song!” To which I would answer, “Yes, of course you do. It is the same song as the one you heard just prior. And the same as the one coming up next in the rotation.”

Various music genres over the past century have used similar chord patterns. Blues music, for example, commonly uses a twelve-bar blues pattern of chords from one blues song to another (albeit with slight variations here and there). The song’s key, tempo and lyrics may change, but the basic song structure is present.

Country music has for many years used its own chord patterns that still are used today. For a player, it makes the song structure predicable. For the listener, it brings about an immediate familiarity with the song that makes it more likeable, dance-able, and, hopefully from the label’s perspective, sellable.

In the early days of rock music in the 1950’s, there were a few common patterns employed. One was the aforementioned twelve-bar blues pattern which can be heard in the song “Rock Around the Clock.” Another common pattern used in that period was the four-chord pattern of 1 - 6m - 4 - 5, such as the song “Little Darlin’.” It was a very listenable pattern and was present in many songs of that era. But even as a child, I recognized how all those songs sounded alike.

The sixties music changed all that. Popular songs became more complex. The Beatles, for instance, incorporated some very unusual and complex chord changes that I believe have contributed to their long-lasting popularity and relevance. Seventies groups like Steely Dan incorporated complex jazz chords into their rock songs. There were still those songs that relied on the simple changes, but pop music was really evolving. Mercifully, we will skip over Disco entirely. Uh-huh, uh-huh.

In the 1980’s, a chord pattern emerged of 1 - 5 - 6m - 4. Does that pattern look familiar? It is a jumbled-up version of the 1950’s pattern. The U-2 song “With or Without You” used this pattern throughout the song. I mean, the entire song. Holy frijole, guys!

So here we are with today’s pop music. The “1 - 5 - 6m - 4” pattern has endured since the 1980’s as the go-to structure for desperate songwriters. They’ve done well with it, but my ears need a rest!

On the plus side, if you’ve ever yearned for music from the “good ole’ days” of the 1950’s, this may be as close as you’re ever going to get.

Johnny McNally is Grimes County’s Best Dressed Businessman advocating for Grimes County and writes a bi-weekly column for the Navasota Examiner.