The Three Most Important Chords In Pop Music – The Police: Every Breath You TakePosted: June 18, 2013
If you’ve just started learning guitar (if you haven’t, stop reading, go buy one, and start now), then you’ve probably heard about being able to play thousands of songs with just three chords. Start with G, C and D, and you’re off and running! Those would be, in the key of G, the tonic (I), the subdominant (IV), and the tonic (V). The numbers come from the pitch in the scale they are built on.
These, actually are NOT the most important chords in Pop Music.
They *are* the most important chords in Country & Western music. And 12-bar Blues, of course. Maybe even Gospel and a few others. But pop music, no. The Axis of Awesome have put together a wonderful act on **four-chord** rock:
And I certainly won’t argue with their point–all those songs use four chords in precisely the same order: I – V – vi – IV as a cycle. Different songs start at different points in the cycle, so it doesn’t necessarily have the same feel every time. When this marvelous piece gets to the four-chord cycle at the chorus, it starts on the minor chord (the vi), for example:
These lyrics are in Japanese; I don’t even know what this song is **about**, and I absolutely love it, just for the music alone. Okay, and the synthesizer sounds, love the synths too. This is genius composer/producer Yasutaka Nakata at the top of his game.
Sorry, got distracted there. This post is supposedly about the Police’s number 1 hit from exactly thirty years ago, “Every Breath You Take”.
The Police launch right into a four-chord sequence of their own, but not in the Axis of Awesome order. Their song gives us the same four triads, but the order is I – vi – IV – V. They cycle it two different ways, one is called the ‘deceptive cadence’, where the V leads to vi instead of the more ordinary V – I (‘full cadence’), which is a cadence that feels more like returning back solidly to the ‘home’ chord. Unlike Axis of Awesome 4-chord, this one can’t really start and end just anywhere. Because of the V-I, it **has to** start on the I. Otherwise you’d be left hanging, waiting for the V-I to arrive.
There’s plenty of smart chord choices in this song, but the one I’m getting to is the long coda, which starts at exactly 3:00. Just before this, Sting has sung the line “I’ll be watching you” using the deceptive cadence twice in a row, for the first time. Wait, what about the full cadence?
It’s gone, that’s what. There’s not going to be another one for the entire remainder of the song. They switch to a **three** chord cycle for the close: I – vi – IV. No dominant chord (the V). It’s too much “on the nose”, it nails down the home key **too** obviously. So now the cadence comes around as IV – I, known as the “plagal cadence”.
THOSE are the three most important chords in pop music. They give subtlety and emotional depth to the music, where there would otherwise be, I’m sorry, obvious music for children. Case in point, there are only two chords in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, guess what they are?? (hint: no vi, no IV, no interest). There are three chords in Barney’s “I Love You, You Love Me” song–guess which? (hint: think Country & Western).
The Police take us to exactly the right place by dropping out the V chord. It’s superfluous at this point. Just as this song oscillates between the deceptive cadence (mournful) and the full cadence (assured) earlier on, at the end it now moves in and out of mournfulness **without** assurance. No V. This one deliberate omission makes the song–well, the ending of it, anyway.
I’m not claiming this choice made it #1, there’s plenty of other reasons to pin that to, even just sticking to the music (and ignoring the let’s face it creepy stalker lyrics). But this subtle, unnoticed and unremarked change gives it something extra, something important. The heightened significance of the subdominant is critical here as well–but that’s a whole ‘nother post. Probably a couple of dozen. My examples for those all concentrate on the Three Most Important Chords In Pop Music, too. When you write your own songs (buy a guitar, get a sheet of paper, **write your songs**, etc), remember these: I, vi, IV. In G, that’s G, E minor, and C. Easier than Country & Western, even. And way more interesting.