Hooks and Worms #1

Call Me Maurice

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I know that I implied that earworms are unpleasant things which get trapped in one’s head.  Sometimes, however (at least for a while), earworms can amuse, comfort or entertain (Jane was just mentioning that she’s had a Thomas Tallis melody stuck in her head recently… but she doesn’t mind). On a somewhat different plane, I’ve heard Steve Miller’s The Joker both externally and inside my head countless times.  But I still smile when I reflect on the lyrics… particularly when I get to “some people call me Maurice ’cause I speak of the pompitous of love“.  Like so many others, I’ve wondered about the meaning of the word.  Although there has been speculation about its origins, pompitous belongs to the same wonderful world as frabjous or chortled (cf. Jabberwocky).  They are all nonce words and, although pompitous may never find its way into a proper dictionary (as Carroll’s creations did), it’s still good for a giggle or two.  Play it yet again, Steve…

And that bring’s me to…

the ongoing subject of hooks.  Certainly a song’s lyrics can be the hook that draws in a listener… but more of that in a later post.  Today I want to speak to simple [repeated] chord patterns which help to make a song “catchy”.  Blues music has its own basic three-chord formula (but do throw in some 7ths)… and Steve Miller uses the same chords (I, IV and V) to build his The Joker.  But let’s listen to the quintessential three-chord (A, D and G5) song (with indecipherable lyrics).  When The Kingsmen recorded Louie Louie in one take in 1963 they neither particularly liked the recording nor did they expect it to reach #2 in the coming weeks (let alone gain its subsequent iconic status eg. Rolling Stone included it [#5] as one of 40 Songs That Changed the World in 2007) .

And… if three chords (repeated over and over) were good enough for The Kingsmen in 1963, they were certainly good enough for The McCoys a year later.  Hang on…

But, actually, what got me thinking about this was…

the recent passing of Ben E. King (September 28, 1938 – April 30, 2015).  His signature hit, Stand by Me, has the distinction of being a top 10 hit both in 1961 and 1986.  It has a lot going for it… and one of the things is its repeated chord structure (I, VI, IV, V).  At the time, the pattern was hardly novel… it was standard fare in doo wop music ie. In the Still of the Night.

But combine those chords with King’s voice and heartfelt lyrics, and you get…

Fast forward two decades.  Do artists still employ repeated four-chord patterns?

Exhibit A

The album: The River.  The single (Bruce Springsteen‘s first top ten entry): Hungry Heart.  The year: 1980.

Listen for the repeated four-chord pattern.

Exhibit B

Six years after Springsteen’s hit, Madonna decides that four chords are all that’s needed to achieve similar results.  And she’s right… True Blue reaches #3 in the U.S. (and #1 in Canada)!

These are but smatterings of [repeated] three- and four-chord hits which have appeared over the years in popular music… chordal hooks unto themselves and the possible source of infectious earworms.