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The Three Magic Chords in Pop Music

I’d like to play a few seconds of a song for you. You probably haven’t heard this before, but I have a feeling that you’re going to like it.

Pretty catchy, huh? Even if you’re not a jazz fan, I’ll bet that you want to hear more of it. In fact, some of you may want to know the title and artist so that you can buy the song on iTunes or explore more of this artist’s music. The reason that it’s instantly appealing is that it uses the three magic chords – the ones that practically guarantee a universal popularity for any pop song. Those chords are: 1-4-5.

The credit for this observation goes to my high school friend, Derek. He is a talented musician who plays several instruments and he has a much better musical ear than I do. A couple of years ago, he told me about the pervasiveness of the 1-4-5 chord sequence, and its variations. He then offered to send me some examples of these 1-4-5 songs. I was astounded by how many there were – I had no idea that this chord sequence was used so often in popular music. Over the next few months we compiled this list, although most of the contributions were his. Derek can recognize and recite a chord progression instantly, upon hearing only a few seconds of a song. I’m getting better at identifying chord progressions, but my ability still isn’t intuitive, like his.


Don’t Chords Have Letters ?

They do, and those letters represent the notes that are being played (usually this is the lowest note in the chord, but not always). The numbers represent the place within the scale. You probably remember singing “Do Re Mi” in elementary school – now simply assign each one a number to represent its place in the scale, like this:

do  re  mi  fa  so  la  ti  do
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8

If we were playing in the key of C, then the notes and their numbers would be as follows:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
do  re  mi  fa  so  la  ti  do
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8

Therefore, if a song uses the 1-4-5 chord progression, and it’s written in C, the chords would be: C, F, G. Music students will probably know the 1, 4 and 5 chords as the tonic, subdominant and dominant, respectively.


1-4-5 For Beginners – Some Easily-Identifiable Examples

145 Chord Chart v2

Martin Short, as his SCTV character Irving Cohen, would often say to the bandleader during his talk show appearances “Give me a C – a bouncy C!“. If you combine the 1-4-5 chord sequence with a high-energy, up-tempo song, then you have the ingredients for an infectious, chart-topping hit. Here are a few song examples featuring a prominent 1-4-5 chord progression. Even if you’re not a musician, you should be able to identify the intervals:

Grease Soundtrack – Summer Nights


Trini Lopez – La Bamba


The Rascals – Good Lovin’


The Rolling Stones – Get Off My Cloud


The McCoys – Hang On Sloopy


The Beatles – Twist & Shout


Jay & The Americans – Let’s Lock the Door


These chords are the musical equivalent of the goose that lays the golden eggs. When played (in any order) they produce songs so catchy, that mass popularity is almost guaranteed. Bands everywhere are keenly aware of this, and for decades they have been cranking out song after song with the 1-4-5 chord progression. I’m sure this is a coincidence, but in 1984, The Cars released a single called Magic – guess which three magic chords it contains?

Derek and I (mostly Derek) have compiled this partial list. Keep in mind that the list is just the beginning. There are many other examples, but at some point we had to stop compiling the song list and start writing this blog post.

Sheet Music, Mixing Board


1-4-5 Chord Progressions In Pop & Rock Songs

AC/DC – Back In Black
April Wine – Say Hello
The Archies – Sugar Sugar
Arrow / Buster Poindexter – Hot Hot Hot
Asia – Heat Of The Moment
Bachman Turner Overdrive – You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Bad Company – Can’t Get Enough
Bad Company – Feel Like Making Love
Bad Company – Shooting Star
The Beach Boys – Don’t Worry Baby
The Beatles – Lovely Rita
Betty Everett – It’s In His Kiss
Billy Idol – Dancing With Myself
Blink 182 – All The Small Things

Blondie – The Tide Is High
Blue Rodeo – How Long
Bob Dylan – It Ain’t Me Babe (chorus)

Bobby Fuller Four – I Fought The Law
Boston – More Than A Feeling (chorus)
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run
Bryan Adams – Take Me Back
Buddy Holly – Maybe Baby
Buddy Holly – Not Fade Away
The Cars – You Might Think
Cat Stevens – Moonshadow
CCR – Bad Moon Rising
CCR – Up Around The Bend
Chicago – Make Me Smile (chorus)
Clarance Carter – Strokin’
The Clash – Should I Stay Or Should I Go
The Cranberries – Dreams
Def Leppard – Pour Some Sugar On Me
Dielsel – Sausalito Summer Night
Doug & The Slugs – Making It Work
The Eagles – Take It Easy
Elton John / April Wine – Bad Side Of The Moon
Elvis Presley – Burnin’ Love
Eric Carmen – Hungry Eyes
Fleetwood Mac – Second-Hand News
Free – All Right Now
Green Day – Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)
Guess Who – Hang On To Your Life
Guns ‘n Roses – Used To Love Her
The Hollies – Pay You back With Interest
Hootie & The Blowfish – Hold My Hand
Janis Joplin – Piece Of My Heart
J. Geils Band – Centerfold
J. Geils Band – Freeze Frame
J. Geils Band – I Do
Joe Cocker – When The Night Comes
John Denver – Leaving On A Jet Plane
John Mellencamp – I Need A Lover
John Mellencamp – R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (plus a 5-1-4 intro)
Katrina & The Waves – Walking On Sunshine
The Kings – This Beat Goes On / Switching To Glide
The Kingsmen – Louie Louie
KISS – Rock & Roll All Night (chorus)
The Monks – Johnny B. Rotten
Nazareth – Morning Dew

Neil Diamond – Cherry Cherry (plus a 5-1-4 intro)
Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline (chorus)
Neil Sedaka – Bad Blood
Neil Young – Only Love Can Break Your Heart
No Doubt – Underneath It All
Ohio Express – Beg, Borrow & Steal
OMC – How Bizarre
Pat Benatar – Shadows Of the Night (chorus)
The Payolas (& Carole Pope) – Never Said I Loved You
The Pointer Sisters – Jump
Queen – Fat-Bottomed Girls
The Raes – Que Sera Sera
The Ramones – Baby I Love You
The Ramones – Beat On The Brat
The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
The Ramones – I Wanna Be Sedated
The Ramones – I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend
The Ramones – Judy Is A Punk
The Ramones – Rockaway Beach
The Ramones – Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
The Ramones – Spiderman
The Ramones – Susie Is A Headbanger (1-4-5-4-1, 1-4-5)
The Ramones – Teenage Lobotomy
R.E.M. – Stand
The Rolling Stones – Shattered (1-4-5, bridge is 5-4-1)

The Romantics – What I Like About You (plus a 5-1-4 intro)
Ronnie Hawkins – Hey Bo Diddley
Roxette – It Must Have Been Love (beginning & end of verses)
Rush – La Villa Strangiato
Rush – The Big Money
Steppenwolf – Rock Me
Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
Steve Miller – The Joker
Supertramp – Give A Little Bit
Teenage Head – Let’s Shake
Teenage Head – Teenage Beer-Drinking Party
Thelma Houston – Don’t Leave Me This Way
Tom Petty – Don’t Come Around Here No More
Tom Petty – Free Fallin’
Tommy James / Joan Jett – Crimson & Clover
The Travelling Willburys – The End Of The Line
Trio – Da Da Da
Triumph – Magic Power
The Troggs – Wild Thing
Van Halen – Jump
Whitesnake – Here I Go Again (chorus)
The Who – Athena
The Who – Don’t Let Go The Coat
The Who – Sister Disco
The Who – Summertime Blues
The Who – The Kids Are Alright


The 5-4-1 Chord Progression

While the 1-4-5 sequence is by far the most common, these three chords in just about any order will still produce catchy songs. Here are a few examples of classic rock songs that use these chords in the reverse order.

AC/DC – Thunderstruck
Bachman Turner Overdrive – Takin’ Care Of Business

The Beatles – Get Back
The Beatles – Polythene Pam
The Commodores – Machine Gun
Chris Isaak – Wicked Games
The Eagles, Steve Young – Seven Bridges Road
Fatboy Slim – Praise You
Foreigner – Hot Blooded (verses)
Herman’s Hermits – I’m Into Something Good (chorus)
Huey Lewis & The News – I Want A New Drug
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama
Lynyrd Skynyrd – Tuesday’s Gone
Melissa Etheridge – Bring Me Some Water
Madonna – Borderline
Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters
Rod Stewart – Maggie May
Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil
Rush – Limelight
Smashing Pumpkins – Today
Spek – I’m A Hippie
Steppenwolf – Magic Carpet Ride
Three Dog Night – Shambala
The Who – I Can’t Explain
The Who – Who Are You


The 4-5-1- Chord Progression

Ambrosia – How Much I Feel
Donna Summer – Hot Stuff
The Doors – Light My Fire (chorus)
James Taylor – How Sweet It Is
Jimmy Buffett – Margaritaville (chorus)


The 4-1-5 Chord Progression

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Down On the Corner
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Midnite Special (4-1-5-1)
Dan Baird – I Love You Period (4-1-5-1)
Goddo – Pretty Bad Boy (chorus: 4-1-5-1)
J. Geils Band – Love Stinks (chorus: 4-1-5-1)
Janis Joplin – Me & Bobby McGee

Jimmy Buffet – Changes In Latitudes (verses)
Live – Lightning Crashes
The Rascals – People Got To Be Free
Tony Orlando & Dawn – Candida
Tony Orlando & Dawn – Knock Three Times


The 1-5-4 Chord Progression

Ace – How Long (chorus)
April Wine – Rock & Roll Is A Vicious Game
Barney Bentall – Something To Live For (intro & verses)
The Black Crowes – She Talks To Angels
Bruce Springsteen – Jungleland (1-5-4-5)
Bryan Adams – Lonely Nights
The Cars – Bye Bye Love
Cat Stevens – Wild World (chorus)
Cheap Trick – Dream Police
Deep Blue Something – Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Don Henley – Boys Of Summer
John Mellencamp – I Need A Lover
Joni Mitchell – Raised On Robbery
Marvin Gaye – I heard It Through The Grapevine (verses)
Matchbox 20 – Push (1-5-4-5)
Maxine Nightingale – Right Back Where We Started From (chorus)
Max Webster – Lip Service (chorus)
Neil Young – Down By The River (chorus)
Neil Young – Helpless
The Northern Pikes – Kiss Me You Fool (verses: 1-5-4-1)
The Ramones – 53rd & 3rd
The Tragically Hip – Music At Work
Third Eye Blind – How It’s Going To Be
Third Eye Blind – Semi-Charmed Life
U2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (chorus)
The Who – Athena

The Who – Squeeze Box


The 1-4-5-1 Chord Progression

Hank Williams – Your Cheatin’ Heart (verse) (C7-F-G7-C)
Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel (verse) (C-F7-G7-C)
Roger Miller – King Of The Road (verse) (C-F-G-C)
Bob Dylan – Just Like A Woman (verse) (C-F-G-C)
Paul Simon – Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard (verse) (C-F-G-C)
The Beatles – Got To Get You Into My Life (chorus) (C-F-G-C)
REO Speedwagon – Take It On The Run (verse) (C-F-G-C)
Weezer – The Sweater Song (G-C-D-C)


Other Combinations

The Crystals – Then He Kissed Me (1-5-1, 1-5-1, 4-1, 1-4)
The Northern Pikes – She Ain’t Pretty (1-4-1-5-1)


Use In Traditional Songs

You may be surprised to learn that this chord progression (and its variations) appear in many traditional songs. here are a few examples;

Happy Birthday
Jingle Bells (verse) (C-F-G-C)

Auld Lang Syne
Little Brown Jug (verse) (C-F-G-C)
This Land Is Your Land (4-1-5-1)



There you have it. These chords represent the magic musical ingredient, just like the Colonel’s secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. If you want your song to be catchy and popular, then simply build it around these chords.

By the way, that 1-4-5 song sample at the beginning of this post was a 1965 song by The Ramsay Lewis Trio – it’s their jazzy version of Hang On Sloopy, recorded live at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California.




The Police Intro Montage

Stewart Copeland

Many songs by The Police begin with a short drum or cymbal riff, or even a single drum beat. How well do you know your Police music? Would you be able to identify a tune simply by hearing one of Stewart Copeland’s percussive intros? This montage is a little more challenging because not all of these samples are from their hits – some are the proverbial “deep cuts”.

This entire montage contains short percussion intros from Police songs. As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. How many songs you can identify?

The Police Intro Montage: 


The Police Intro Montage (with silence between the samples):



The Laugh Montage

Laughing Singers

Here’s another slightly quirky music montage for you: songs that contain laughter. The most famous example (non included in this montage) is Elvis Presley’s live performance of Are You Lonesome Tonight, in which he ad libs a line (“Do you gaze at your bald head, and wish you had hair?“), and then laughs so hard that he can barely continue singing. Other than that, laughter – especially isolated laughter – within songs not very common, which is why this took a while to compile.

This montage contains ten isolated laugh samples. The first samples are very easy, but they become progressive harder… As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. How many songs you can identify?

The Laugh Montage: 


The Laugh Montage (with silence between the samples):




The Cymbal Montage


The cymbal is a staple of the modern drum kit, and almost all pop and rock drummers use them liberally. However, relatively few songs include isolated cymbals (or related items, such as hi-hats, crotales or gongs). How distinctive is this sound? Would you be able to identify a song title and artist by listening to only a second or two of an isolated cymbal?

This montage contains ten cymbal snippets, and the songs are all from the 1970s and 1980s. As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. How many songs you can identify?

The Cymbal Montage: 


The Cymbal Montage (with silence between the samples):



Percussive Mimicry

From time to time, pop and rock bands need to include a specific, non-musical sound in their songs – generally something that will complement the lyrics. While they could simply ask their audio engineer to overlay a sound effect in the studio, many bands will often call upon their drummers to use their drum kit, or any other instruments as well as objects they may have – castanets, bells or even wooden blocks – in a creative way in order to mimic that sound.

Over the past few months, I’ve been listening for examples of this creative use of percussion instruments. The more I heard, the more impressed I became with versatility of the modern drummer. This is what I’ve compiled so far – I’ll be adding to this list as I discover more examples of percussive mimicry. If I’ve missed anything noteworthy, please let me know in the comments.


Band: Bananarama
Song: Shy Boy
Effect: Heartbeat
Lyrics: “I never missed a heartbeat [SFX], sitting in the back seat.”
MM:SS: 00:25

Shy Boy AC-2


Band: The Beatles
Song: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
Effect: A hammer being struck on someone’s head.
Lyrics: “Bang [SFX] Bang [SFX] Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon her head”
MM:SS: 00:48
Comments: I couldn’t find the original Abbey Road version of this song on YouTube. This was the closest-sounding version I could find.



Band: The Beatles
Song: A Day In The Life
Effect: A car crash.
Lyrics: “He blew his mind out in a car [SFX], he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.”
MM:SS: 00:44
Comments: A drum fill mimics a car crash, or (as I interpret it) a car rolling over several times, before coming to a stop with its freshly-deceased occupant inside.



Band: Doug & the Slugs
Song: Too Bad
Effect: Gunshot.
Lyrics: “A 45… goodbye! [SFX] I used with no hesitation.”
MM:SS: 02:32
Comments: In the official video, Doug Bennett is despondent over a failed relationship and shoots himself in the head. As he crumples to the ground, his love interest merely rolls her eyes. Miraculously, Doug survives with just a little bit of stage blood on his forehead.

Too Bad AC-2


Band: Duran Duran
Song: Is There Something I Should Know?
Effect: Jungle drums.
Lyrics: “People stare and cross the road from me, and jungle drums [SFX] they all clear the way for me. Can you read my mind, can you see in the snow?”
MM:SS: 01:52
Comments: I wasn’t sure if I should even include this example, because it’s essentially a drum imitating another type of drum. Yes, this mimicry is a bit of a stretch…

Duran AC-2


Band: Huey Lewis & The News
Song: The Heart Of Rock & Roll
Effect: Heartbeat.
MM:SS: 00:02

Sports AC-2


Band: The Knack
Song: Your Number Or Your Name
Effect: Subway train wheels.
Lyrics: “Caught a glimpse in the subway, but you weren’t going my way. You were lost in the rumble of the train [SFX].”
MM:SS: 00:57

Knack AC-2


Band: Paper Lace
Song: The Night Chicago Died
Effect: Clock ticking.
Lyrics: “And there was no sound at all, but the clock up on the wall [SFX].”
MM:SS: 02:24

Paper Lace AC-2


Band: Rough Trade
Song: High School Confidential
Effect: High heels against the hard floor of a high school hallway.
Lyrics: “You can hear, her stilettos click [SFX]. I want her so much, I feel sick.”
MM:SS: 00:45

Rough Trade AC-2


Band: Styx
Song: Don’t Sit On the Plexiglass Toilet
Effect: The sharp staccato sound of a toilet seat smacking against the base of a toilet.
Lyrics: “A boy of five stands close to the toilet, holds the lid up with one hand. Won’t let go the lid for fear that, on his banana it will land [SFX].”
MM:SS: 00:21
Comments: This is a hidden track from their 1973 album, The Serpent Is Rising. It received some airplay during the 1980s, on the Dr. Demento Show.

Styx TSIR AC-2


Band: Tony Orlando & Dawn
Song: Knock Three Times
Effect: A hard object hitting a pipe – presumably the pipes beneath the kitchen sink.
Lyrics: “Oh my sweetness [SFX – foot stomping] means you’ll meet me in the hallway. Twice on the pipes [SFX] means you ain’t gonna show.”
MM:SS: 00:50

Tony Orlando AC-2


Artist: Trini Lopez
Song: If I Had A Hammer
Effect: Bell.
Lyrics: “If I had a bell [SFX], I’d ring it in the morning…”
MM:SS: 00:57

Trini Lopex AC-2



Unintended Lyrical Inspiration: Lenny Kravitz

This post is one in a sporadic series in which I analyze pop song lyrics from a my own unique perspective, and discover inspiration where the musician never intended any. Today I’m going to examine a song by Lenny Kravitz called Always On The Run.

This song – a collaboration between Lenny Kravitz and Saul Hudson (who wrote the music) – opens with a guitar riff that’s reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, followed by lyrics that that consist of well-intentioned maternal advice. Here is a line from the first verse (at 0:52 in the video) that in my opinion, rises above the rest: 

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If your reaction to this line is indifference, then I agree that it may not sound particularly meaningful or even important. The first few times that I heard this song, this admonition didn’t do anything for me either. 

So what are we supposed to get out of it? On the surface, this line, when spoken by a parent to a child or teenager, probably means “You can achieve whatever you like in life. You are limited only by your talent and ambition. However, you can also decide to do as little as possible and coast your entire life, without striving to develop your character or a solid work ethic. The choice is yours.”

I’d like to add an additional interpretation: “Once you decide to leave the nest, you are essentially on your own. If you lack ambition and decide to coast though life, no one (other than your immediate family) is going to care if you don’t accomplish anything.”

You’re probably thinking “Come on, that’s just common sense. Everyone knows that they have to make their own mark on the world, and no one is going to care if they are not reaching your potential.” That’s what I thought too, until a decade ago, when society started to change. This change was the emergence of the helicopter parent, and the deleterious effects that their over-nurturing was having on their children.

Garden Hose

When I was a child, we didn’t have helicopter parents, and in hindsight, my friends and I had a fair amount of freedom:

  • There were no cell phones, so we could be playing with the neighbour’s kids all day long, and our parents weren’t the least bit worried.

  • I rode my bicycle up and down my street, and on the road, since our street didn’t have any sidewalks.

  • Starting in Grade 5, I walked to school and back, by myself. This was a 20-25-minute walk, each way.

  • We played road hockey, and if a car was coming someone would simply yell “Car!” and we all stepped aside. I didn’t see this as inherently dangerous.

  • I remember a field trip in Grade 6 that involved orienteering. After a lesson on how to use a compass and read a map, we were sent into the woods (in small groups) to find various markers on trees, and then make our way back to the starting point.

Parents At Job Interviews

Today, many parents not only drive their teenagers to high school, they rarely let their kids out of their sight. While you could argue that this is merely an enhanced form of parental nurturing, I call it coddling, and it doesn’t end when the children grow up and become adults. Some parents are even accompanying their adult children to job interviews, which I think is just bizarre.

What emerges from this overbearing style of parenting, is a set of unrealistic expectations from others and from society. Witness bridezillas and promposals

Helicopter Parents, Pool

If the constant, smothering attention weren’t annoying enough, some helicopter parents believe that their child can do no wrong and often blame or even harass teachers because their child is performing poorly in class.

Imagine growing up surrounded by people who give you participation trophies so that you will never experience disappointment, and who bend over backwards to ensure that you never have to exert yourself. This, to me, is similar to growing up with Secret Service protection. You will eventually feel invincible and believe that no harm will come to you, no matter what decisions you make.

That’s why I believe that many of these kids will enter the workforce with a skewed sense of entitlement. Not all, obviously, but a greater percentage than the previous generation.

That’s why Lenny Kravitz’s song lyrics have acquired a renewed relevance. Once you strike out on your own, it will be up to you to make a name for yourself, which requires paying your dues and working harder than everyone you know. If you don’t succeed, no one will care.

While society owes you nothing, this doesn’t mean that people will be mean to you. In fact, people will likely be kind and sympathetic. For example, if you are at a fast food restaurant and the cashier is a man in his mid-30s or mid-40s, you obviously aren’t going to make fun of him. On the contrary, you may think:

  • He enjoys what he does for a living – so who are we to judge?
  • Maybe this is all he’s capable of doing. We mustn’t criticize.
  • Maybe he needs to work two jobs to support his family or for an unexpected expense.

However, you’re not going to wonder whether this middle-aged McDonald’s cashier is achieving his version of fulfillment or self-actualization in his life. That’s his problem.

Lenny Kravitz GH

“My mama said, ‘You can be big or small.‘ “

If you’re a young adult about to enter the workforce, memorize this line. Better yet, make it your mantra. I hope that you will become an ambitious and accomplished person, and that you’ll make your own positive mark on the world. On the other hand, if you decide to take the path of least resistance in life, no one will care. Your well-meaning helicopter parents created an artificial environment for you, which unfortunately bears no resemblance to the real world that you are about to enter. Lenny Kravitz may not have thought about it in this way, but he has just given you a valuable life lesson.


The Strumming Guitar Montage

Strumming GuitarHave you ever thought about how many rock and pop songs use a strumming acoustic guitar? I did, a few weeks ago, which inspired me to create this music montage. The sound of a strumming acoustic guitar may sound fairly generic, but I’ll bet you’re astute enough to be able to identify the titles and artists of the songs that use them. There are ten well-known pop and rock songs in this music montage, and they span the years 1969-1979.

As usual, there are two versions of the montage. The easy version contains one second of silence between each sample, and the other more challenging version does not. See how many songs you can identify!

The Strumming Acoustic Guitar Montage: 


The Strumming Acoustic Guitar Montage (with silence between the samples):