SYMPOSIUM ON FOUR CHORDS
by Matt Smith
“Square” is the oldest, deepest term of derision in rock. To be square is to stay home, to stare at your four walls, to accept confinement; it’s to run straight for the nearest safe place, the nearest corner. To rock is to deviate, to (smoothly) bend, to push against the lines and revel in that small act of rebellion. And yet if the music is to be viscerally engaging and universally accessible—the motivating ideals of rock—it must be not only orderly, but orderly on the humble, limbic scale of the heartbeat and footstep. Thus all rock is compromise—between order and chaos, between rock-solid and rocking the boat, between the stultifying march and the inauthentic leap—and the central problem of rock, we might say, is that of squaring the circle.
How can we define this problem harmonically? Stripped down to its basics, the history of rock harmony is a history of exploration. The world is a limited one, its bounds set more or less by the attention span of the teenaged listener, and an ordered one, following the graticule of simple meter and the diatonic scale; each chord is a fruitful continent, with its own emotional climate and its own colonial burden. What sorts of journeys are possible across this world? Is there any simpler than the one defined by the two-chord I-IV progression? Here we start at home—the solid, uncomplicated home of, say, C major—and step across a line to another place: one that is just as solid, just as pleasant, and yet unmistakably other. It’s an infant accomplishment, but a great and primal one, the mastery of which still gives us a satisfaction that we know as the groove.
Once we’ve made that conquest, we’re ready for something more ambitious: the transatlantic voyage of the three-chord progression, in which there’s not only a here and a there, but also a considerable in-between. Take the I-V-IV-V, which brings us to the same destination as the I-IV, but via the unsettled waters of the dominant chord. Well-traveled as it is, of course, that passage hardly seems treacherous now; one thinks of sappy love songs like Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” songs that take us on the shortest and simplest path to love (the ultimate New World), and back the same way.
But it is trips like this that prepare us for a far greater feat: that of circumnavigation, of leaving by the front door and coming in the back. The fourth chord completes the circuit. Substitute a minor VI for the first IV, as in all those fifties love songs, and the journey suddenly becomes epic. The destination may be the same—Earth Angel’s arms—but the way there is unexpected (and fraught with melancholy, as the minor chord tells us), and the way back finds us changed. Or perhaps we return empty-handed, having sought an unattainable Shangri-La (as in “Blue Moon”).
To speak of circularity is to problematize the very notion of beginnings and ends, of leaving and coming back. Who’s to say we’re to start at the one? Join the journey in medias res—IV-V-I-VIm instead of I-VIm-IV-V—and you get “Walking In Memphis,” a classic song about the epiphanies of travel. The greatest four-chord songs, I would say, are those that embrace this subversion of directionality, this undermining of home, and thereby coax us into a sweet perpetual motion.
For a current example, listen to Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” the chorus in particular (the verse has a one-chord difference, substituting an A for the E in the four-slot).
This progression—D major seventh, B minor, F-sharp major, E major—has been carefully arranged to serve as a sort of Escher staircase, an illusion of endless descent (an illusion encouraged by the chorus’s relentlessly falling melody, and by the rhythmically dislocated lines in the verse). Where is home? We want it to be D, but that yearning major seventh (C-sharp, where the melody starts) keeps us from resolution. At the third chord, F-sharp major offers us an alternative—but it’s a weird, jarring one in context, the chord’s major third (A-sharp) preempting the expected A-natural and keeping us in limbo; the effect is weirder still when its augmented fifth (D) crops up in the accompaniment to the second verse. D major and F-sharp major are uneasy allies, and we feel our allegiances torn between the two; perhaps our real home lies, in some sense, on the road between? Indeed, the whole-step fall to E major that follows comes as a relief, as does the final whole-step fall back to D—though we know now that it’s only a temporary and threadbare shelter.
“The Suburbs” is about the tragic transience of a way of life. It’s an unusual theme for a rock song—or is it? The flux of adolescence, the fickleness of love, the freedoms of the drifter, the sheer vagaries of the late twentieth century: rock discourse is shot through with volatility and ephemerality. It’s an art well suited to a culture of nomads, rolling stones, ancient mariners. Four chords feel so right because of the horizon they conjure forth. In chasing it, we map a humble, bound, and yet inexhaustible world.