Are All Pop Songs the Same?

By Abigail Hummel

Sophomore, Biology major

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with the radio. Yes, it’s an endless source of new music. But oh, man, how quickly that new music gets old, not only from the constant airplay, but also from how easily those songs get stuck in your head. Seriously. I was still humming “Call Me Maybe” for weeks after I got tired of it. It’s just so catchy!

Some, like DJ Earworm, have taken it upon themselves to make sure that pop music never gets old…by making it into something new. At the end of every year, Earworm releases his annual “United State of Pop,” a mashup of the top 25 Billboard hits of the given year. And it is always fantastic. Check out “United State of Pop 2013 (Living the Fantasy)” for his most recent incarnation of editing genius.

Earworm claims that his mashups speak less to the lyrical and melodic similarity of pop songs today, and more to the amazing technology that allows him to remix a verse consisting entirely of four different artists singing about throwing their hands up. But Earworm’s mashups do beg the question:

Is there something inherent about the way pop songs are made that makes them…well, popular?

Sam Hendley, 20-year-old sophomore physics major and cello performance minor, believes that “the relative simplicity and realization of musical expectations” are the main factors that contribute to the catchiness of pop songs. “It generally follows a well-established musical form,” Hendley says. “We know how a song is going to flow. We know when to expect a ‘drop’ if there is one, we know when the chorus is going to kick in, and most importantly, we know what to expect in the big picture.”

Take for instance the I-V-vi-IV chord progression. If you learn these four chords, in any key, on any instrument, you’ll automatically be the coolest kid at any party you attend, guaranteed. That’s because these four chords are found in countless pop songs of all generations, from the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to Frozen’s “Let It Go.” Don’t believe me? Check out this list of songs containing the I-V-vi-IV progression. Seriously. The list spans decades and genres, but the majority of the songs on the list are at least recognizable, if not downright popular.

So what’s so irresistible about this particular chord progression? Maybe the wiring in our brain allows us to process these notes faster than other sounds, the same way our visual cortexes can interpret images featuring the Golden Ratio faster than other images.

Or maybe it’s not all about the melodies. Maybe pop songs make it because of their simple, easy-to-understand lyrics. Let’s take a look at the #1 Billboard hit for the week of February 10, 2014 – Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”

I knew you were

You were gonna come to me

And here you are […]

Make me your Aphrodite

Make me your one and only

Now compare that to the #1 Billboard hit for the corresponding week 50 years earlier, in 1964 – the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Oh please, say to me

You’ll let me be your man

And please, say to me

You’ll let me hold your hand […]

I wanna hold your hand

Even 50 years apart, these songs have pretty much the same idea, right? Boy meets girl, boy wants girl, boy’s feelings are reciprocated by girl, everyone sings about their joy. It’s fun, it’s happy, it’s unambiguous. And maybe, as a society, that’s what we crave: a break from the perplexing and complex, a return to the straightforward and simple.

So are all pop songs the same? The simple answer is no. But if they are similar, it’s only because their form suits their function: an escape from the mediocrity of our daily routines and a celebration of the simple joys that make life worth living.

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