Triumphant Return to Four Chords: Mutemath, “Typical” (2007)

Part 1

What does four mean, other than mathematically?  The wise old Pythagoreans saw four as justice and the earth.[1] More obviously, four is the sum of our travel decisions here on the earthly plane:  east or west plus north or south.  In checking off the four quadrants or compass points or corners of our house we make a complete tour of our perimeter, which is expansively reassuring.  A good four-chord hook in a song is an experience like that (as long the chord changes go both up and down).[2]  You feel like you’re master of all you survey.

But the experience can be overdone.  Think of the 50s four-chord norm of I-vi-IV-V, like in “Runaround Sue” (1961), still handy as a doo-wop template but fundamentally boring.[3]  The 60s touchstone of “Just Like Me,” I-bVII-IV-V, threatened to become equally standard.[4]  (One great 60s alternative that still sounds fresh to me is bIII-bVII-i-IV in “Somebody To Love.”)[5]  In 1974, “Pretzel Logic’s” chorus gave us the Steely Dan gift of eight chords for the price of four in the rich layerings of V9-Imaj9-IV9-bVIImaj9.[6] A late 70s New Wave landmark, the I-V-vi-III of “Just What I Needed” repeated the cool major-III choice of “I Want to Hold  Your Hand”;[7]  in 1979 the Police went somber (yet brisk) with the i-bVI-bVII-iv of “Message In A Bottle,” emphasizing the seconds rather than the thirds of the chords to keep us in major-minor suspense;[8] “Dreamworld” defined political vigilance in the late 80s with its alternating I-bVII-ii-IV and I-V-bIII-bVII, while “Good Thing” struck a retro counterpoint of personal absorption with I-III-v-IV;[9] and the I-IV-bIII-bVI of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” defined the 90s landscape of grunge with that moodily depressed yet defiantly upward-spiking bVI,[10] followed by Radiohead charging up their grandeur with a I-III-II-IV in “Just.”[11]

What shall represent the new millennium?  The question didn’t even occur to me till I ran into Mutemath’s “Typical” with its cheery I-bVII-bIII-IV (on a II root).[12]

“Typical” start

I’m happy hearing this over and over not only because of the sweet synthesis of blues and folk harmony in the chord choices but because its rhythmic structure squeezes up the energy every second beat:  that is, you don’t just strum or chop these chords any old way, you go

Doo doo doo do-doo do-doo do-do-do-do
Doo doo doo do-doo do-doo do-do-do-do

with never a terminal

Doo doo doo do-doo do-doooooooo

to kill the buzz.

So it’s not just the chords, it’s how they’re enunciated as well.  “Just Like Me” is great because of the changing hesitations in its patterns of chord strikes, from

just like me…………………. to say……to you

[The upper line represents how a horrible programmed synthesizer part would fill in all the beats with chords, so you can appreciate the contrast]

“Just Like Me” 1


I – I – I………..VII-VII……IV-IV-IV……..V-V
just like me…………………It’s just like………me

“Just Like Me” 2

Want to hear the “Typical” hook again, with words this time?

“Typical” chorus


I’d like to give a special citation for niftiest four-chord hook to French Kicks for their quick but evocative little sequence at the beginning of “Down Now” (2002), recurring at 1:06 and 2:11.[13]

I’m reading it as a bVImaj7-I-bVII-bIII (a C major 7th, an E, a D, and a G in the key of E). The root notes go down stepwise from C (the tonic or 1st note of Cmaj7) to B (the 5th of E) to A (the 5th of D) to G (the tonic of G). Because the C major 7th has two notes in common with G, the first and fourth chords feel like bookends–producing a horizontal bracketing effect at the same time that we complete the vertical descent of the root notes.

I firmly believe the hook was written with the root notes I just named–because that’s how I pieced the chords together on my piano, and the pattern is very attractive–but there’s another nifty twist in one of the notes springing free from the pattern: the bass does not play a B-root for the E chord but instead goes up to a high jazzy F sharp, turning the E chord into an E 9th.

[1] Of great interest to the Pythagoreans, but probably irrelevant in rock music criticism, is the fact that four is pregnant with ten:  1+2+3+4=10.

[2] If the changes are all upward, like i-bIII-IV-bVI  in “House Of The Rising Sun,” or downward, like i-bVII-bVI-V in “Hit The Road Jack,” the feeling is of going up or down a stairway rather than making a round.  [On chord symbols, see notes 3 and 4.]

[3] These Roman numerals correspond to notes in the scale of the song’s key, uppercase for major chords and lowercase for minor.  “Runaround Sue” is in the key of D, so I is D, vi is B minor, IV is G, and V is A.  It’s a template for, say, the satirical “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?” by The Mothers of Invention (1968). –On the relative frequency of rock chord progressions in different decades, see Trevor de Clercq and David Temperley, “A Corpus Analysis of Rock Harmony,” Popular Music 30/1 (2011), pp. 63-64.

[4] bVII means the flatted seventh note of the scale.  In “Just Like Me,” in the key of C, the chords are C, B-flat, F, and G.

[5] Key:  F-sharp minor.  Chords:  A, E, F-sharp minor, B.

[6] In a major seventh or ninth (Imaj9), the added seventh note isn’t flatted; it’s just a half-step below the tonic, pushing up toward it. Key:  A.  Chords: E9 (E with a D added), Amaj9 (A with an E added), D9 (D with a C added), Gmaj9 (G with a D added).

[7] Key:  E.  Actually three chord patterns are used:  E, B, C-sharp minor, and G-sharp in the verse, alternating with E, B, C-sharp minor, and A when the verse structure is extended later, and E, B, A, and C-sharp minor in the chorus.

[8] Key: C-sharp minor. Chords: C-sharp, A, B, F-sharp (playing the seconds in each rather than the thirds).

[9] “Dreamworld” key:  E.  Chord patterns:  E, D, F-sharp minor, A; E, B, G, D. “Good Thing” key: D. Chords: D, F, A minor, G.

[10] Key:  F (neither major nor minor).  Chords:  F (neither major nor minor), B-flat, A-flat, D-flat.

[11] Key: C. Chords: C, E-flat, D, F.

[12] Key:  E-flat.  Chords:  E-flat, D-flat, G-flat, A-flat (with an F root to suggest an F-minor-seventh chord).

[13] Don’t miss the delightfully skronky D sharp note (the leading tone of the key of E) joining the chords in the last recurrence at 2:10.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Chord Arguments, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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