Four Chords Should Be Enough For Anyone

You might be surprised at how many pop songs are exactly the same. Cat Scratch Fever is the exact same song as Smoke on the Water. Even one of Yeezy’s songs is strikingly similar to a weird 90s French electronic group. Musically, though, there are an incredible number of songs that follow a I-V-vi-IV progression. Let it Be is one of them, as is Beast of Burden. Lady Gaga’s Poker Face is another. Now, finally, we have automated most of the pop songs you know and love. [Sven] has created a small MIDI device that only plays a I-V-vi-IV progression, and it’s everything you could ever imagine.

The idea for this build comes from an Axis of Awesome routine demonstrating the fact that hundreds of pop songs follow the same progression. After the idea, the implementation, like the music all those millennials are listening to, is simple.

The 4chord MIDI is a small board with an old Nokia display, buttons, a single USB port, and an ATMega328 microcontroller. Using MIDI over USB, it plays the I-V-vi-IV progression in any key. It plays in chord mode, arpeggiated mode, or mixed mode at any sensible tempo.

You can check out a video of the 4chord playing several hundred songs simultaneously below.

32 thoughts on “Four Chords Should Be Enough For Anyone

  1. This kind of chord progression similarity happens many times in all music styles, not only in pop music. Music often share the same pattern s and it’s pretty much like Lego: the building blocks are limited, but what you can build with these blocks is unlimited.

    1. The problem is that Pachelbel’s Canon in D does not in fact follow the I-V-vi-IV progression. It’s in fact slightly different, and if you have a decent ear for music, you can hear the dissonance in some of the songs in his routine. But then again, I wouldn’t expect someone who can’t spell “Pachelbel” correctly to know that.

    1. Project creator checking in. I will keep that in mind as one of the new features: instead of playing the vi chord, pressing the button will display hard facts about life on the LCD.

  2. I guess it would be trivial to have each button start a loop of all 4 chords in progression in a different key instead of playing just that one chord… at that point is it just called a MIDI sequencer?

    1. I would probably call it “drunk musician mode” :) modify the push buttons to act as toggle switches along the way and you don’t even have to do anything. Hmm, while that would take away most of the fun (and it’s not flexible enough to be an actual sequencer), it could be useful for example as accompaniment while you’re dabbling some scales on a guitar. I’m afraid you just found a serious use for this.

  3. If you think that’s horrendous, hum briefly “ABCD”, then “Baa-baa Black Sheep”, and then “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to yourself. For extra points, if you know it, whistle a tiny bit of “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”, or Mozart’s remix of the same.

    The CONSPIRACY cannot remain HIDDEN when these dramatic TRUTHS are brought to light!

    (Random capitalization added, b/c that’s what crazy folk do.)

    1. If you EVER find yourself in a situation to DEFEND mankind from an ALIEN invasion, and the only thing separating YOU from accessing the alien control terminal is a voice activated door lock know what to whistle!

      1. lol. its a game on steam called scrap mechanic. its a bit like minecraft but its also got some simulation and has logic gates so you can make logism type systems and connect them to creations. i used them here with the “singing” robot heads. theres a matrix of logic gates that just AND the chord selection and the arpeggio shape while the clock steps through. it can also shift the 3rd and 7th down a halfstep to do minor keys. you can see how i add an extra block to the side on the second chord to make it minor.

  4. Sorry for being pedantic but I believe there’s an error in the 3rd paragraph of this article. The board appears to have 7 buttons (4 on the left, 3 under the LCD) not 4.

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