One of the things most current hit songs have in common, other than non-stop melody lines, are simple chords. If you listen to the songs on the charts now, most have only a few chords – and almost all those chords are triads.
At the moment (June, 2017), it’s even rare to hear chords with 6ths or 7ths, not to mention higher extensions such as 9th and 11ths. And forget about #9s and b9s (sharp 9s and flat 9s). These kind of lusher, more complex harmonies will pop up occasionally in R&B songs going for a retro/Stevie Wonder vibe, but that’s about it.
Max Martin songs sometimes use suspended chords, such as Db/Eb (a Db chord played over an Eb bass) in Pre-Choruses, like in Justin Timberlake’s ’Can’t Stop The Feeling’; it gives a ‘70s Michael Jackson feel.
But other than a few scattered exceptions, current hit songs are very stripped down harmonically. I’m not saying it’s bad or good; that’s just the way it is right now (though the pendulum will swing again- people eventually need to hear ‘new’ stuff… even if it’s old). The focus is on the melody, off the harmony.
In his current single ‘That’s What I Like’ (listen below), Bruno Mars and his seven co-writers/producers break this simple-chord mold. He’s throwing in almost every quality of chord in the popular song book… in a stunning arrangement/production that sounds totally contemporary. It’s quite a feat, and it certainly helps make his song stand out.
I transcribed the chords and I’ll post them here; I encourage you to play along. It’s a lot of fun, even if it takes you (like me) some time to figure out how to play all the chords. Due to the limitations of these fonts, I can’t show you where in the bar the chords change – you’ll have to listen and figure that out! But the chords are all here:
||: Db/Eb | Db/Ab Absus4 | Fminor7 | Fminor7/Bb Bb7 |
| Db/Eb | Db/Ab Absus4 | Fminor7 | Fminor7/Bb Bb7 |
| Db/Eb Fminor7 | Abminor7 Gbmajor7 | Db/Eb Fminor7 | Bbminor Ab F7#9 |
| Db/Eb | Db/Ab Absus4 | Fminor7 | Fminor7/Bb |
| Db/Eb | Db/Ab Absus4 | Fminor7 | Bbminor Ab Gb Fminor 7 :||
| Gbmajor7 Ebminor9 | Fminor7 Bb7 | Gbmajor7 Ebminor9 | Fminor7 Abminor7 Db7 |
| Gb F7 | F Eb/G F/A Ab/Bb Bbminor | Db/Eb F7#9 | Bbminor Ab F7#9 |
Give up some extra credit for that Bridge, which not only changes key (again, pretty unusual these days), but gives Mars a chance to throw down some strong gospel-style singing over a pretty wild chord progression.
There’s a lot of fantastic stuff going on in mainstream pop music these days, but if you’re ears are inclined to colorful harmonies… it’s kind of a desert out on the charts. So Bruno Mars’ song may be a chordal oasis for your ears.
Even if you’re not paying attention to the harmonies (though you’ll feel them), there’s plenty of other awesome stuff going on in this recording. I’ll look into some of that other stuff next week.
Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:
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