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Vol. 1, No. 1
September 1998

What's inside

The NIMBY song NIMBY stands for Not In My Backyard. This song temporarily* borrows the tune from "Windy."

* (permanently)

Why it all sounds the same
chord notation
What is 1564?
In music theory, we use roman numerals to talk about chords independent of any key signature. While the F - C - d - B-flat sequence is based on the key of F, the corresponding I-V-vi-IV notation can be transposed to another key, such as C major, where it becomes C - G - a - F. I abbreviate I-V-vi-IV to 1564 for brevity.
    This is but the surface of harmony theory and chord progressions. I apologize that I am not providing anything close to thorough information here.
You're stuck in traffic and figure what the hell, let's turn on the local "modern rock" station. Like all the others, it follows a tight playlist, but manages to mix in some older hits with the current top 10. You're in luck: they're starting a 40-minute modern rock marathon! As the minivan in front of you creeps along, you get to hear: "With or Without You", U2; "Good", Better Than Ezra "Soul To Squeeze" and "Under The Bridge", Red Hot Chili Peppers; "When I Come Around" - Green Day; "Glycerine", Bush; "Push", Matchbox 20; "Dammit", Blink 182; "Spiderwebs", No Doubt; and "Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum.
    It sounds like a good mix of songs -- but the sequence numbs you, as if the station had chosen one song and played it 10 times.
    That's exactly what happened.
    All the above songs rely on the same chord progression, called 1564 (see sidebar) to pull the melody along. If you wanted to (with some speed adjustments) you could play all ten concurrently, and they'd mesh. Pull out your piano and try this with the lyrics from No Doubt, Blink 182, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2, provided below.
four lines of 1564 lyrics

Wasn't that fun? You might be starting to realize why many songwriters reach for this old standby, consciously or not; it has the cadences old theorists proclaimed as necessary for a piece of music to have power. The tonic (I) leads naturally to the dominant chord (V), which provides a nice layup to the minor chord (vi); the subdominant (IV) sets you up perfectly for the tonic, so you can repeat the whole thing again. It's now a cliche. New songs with 1564 are without power, because they don't show you anything novel.
    1564 isn't the only chord progression out there. Semisonic's "Closing Time" is yet another 1524, for example. Sarah McLaughlin's "Building a Mystery" is a 6415, really a rotated 1564, and it's not the first time she's sipped from that well. Most pop music, even "alternative" rock, falls into the same patterns. You can make a game out of recognizing the patterns, and showing large groups of seemingly disparate songs to be slight variations on the same theme.
    I'll talk more about this later.

Update: as it turned out, no, I never did. But Axis of Awesome has; check out their 2009 performance in Melbourne for Network Ten.

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