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Writing pop music is easy, once you know all the tricks. You better believe every musician from Maroon 5 to The Beatles uses them. Take a look at our pop music breakdown and see exactly what makes the top 40 hits so hot.

Chris Martin playing guitar pop music on stage
Chris Martin from Coldplay (Photo by Chiaki Nozu/WireImage)

1-4-5 Chord Progression in Pop Music

If you think all music nowadays sounds the same, you’re not wrong. There are hardly any musicians today who haven’t been accused of copying someone else. Ed Sheeran, in particular, has gotten a lot of heat for plagiarism. First for “Photograph” and then for copying Marvin Gaye. But copying music isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening for decades.

Ed Sheeran playing guitar pop music on stage
Ed Sheeran playing guitar live

Most pop songs use the 1-4-5 chord progression. What this means is they repeat the same four chords in a certain key. For instance, the key of G includes eight notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#(sharp), and G. The trick in the 1-4-5 chord progression is to play the same four notes. G, which is 1, C is 4, D is 5, and back to G. If it sounds confusing, here’s a visual breakdown.

If the similarities between the songs in that video seem like coincidence, there’s more proof. The musical comedy group, Axis of Awesome, combined some of the most successful pop songs over the past 40 years into one medley. The secret? They all use the 1-4-5 chord progression.

Circle of Fifths Breakdown

graph depicting circle of fifths
Circle of Fifths pop music breakdown

Now that you know how the chords work, here’s how you create an aesthetically pleasing sound. Music was actually first broken down by Greek philosopher, Pythagoras. You’ll remember him from math class as the guy who came up with the pythagorean theorem. Or as I remember him, the reason I almost failed geometry.

Pythagoras arranged each music chord into a circle known as the circle of fifths. Every chord has five notes in between it. For example, to get from C to G, you get C D E F G. G to D would be G A B C D. For a quick breakdown of the circle of fifths, check out this video below.

To write a catchy song, pick a spot on the circle of fifths and move your way down. To catch listeners off guard, fluctuate between two distant keys. A most notable example of this is Beyonce’s “Love on Top“. Whenever Beyonce repeats her chorus at the end of the song, the key jumps from D flat to D major, then E flat to E major. This creates a sense of excitement that you might not catch at first, but your ears certainly do.

Most Popular Keys In Pop Music

graph breaking down the most popular keys of all music on Spotify
Keys of all music on Spotify, pop music breakdown

Finally, in order to be the truly number one hit, you have to pick the right key. Dave Carlton, co-author of Hooktheory, broke down the most common chords in 1300 songs and ranked their popularity. According to his research and Spotify, the most common keys in pop music are C and G.

Why are C and G so popular? Both these chords are considered “happy” sounds and since they are right next to each other on the circle of fifths, switching between them is simple. Musicians gravitate towards these chords because they are easy to compose with and they sound pleasing to our ears.

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What songs are composed in C and G? Not surprisingly, a lot of Taylor Swift songs. This isn’t to undercut her success. Just to shine light on why her songs are so popular.

So, how can you write a pop song that really stands out? Use less common chords. In both Carlton and Spotify’s research, F-sharp showed up at the bottom of their lists.

Michael Jackson in Beat It pop music video
Michael Jackson, “Beat It”

“Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Beat It”, and “All Star” by Smashmouth are all songs written in F-sharp. They may not be the most popular songs, but no doubt you’ve heard of them. They should be commended for not taking the easy way out. I bet you never thought you’d hear anyone say that about Smashmouth before.

The bottom line is, if you really want to create original music, you have to strike different chords. Writing music is hard and it’s supposed to be hard. That’s no reason not to be innovative.

What do you think of our pop music breakdown? Leave us a note down in the comments.