Talkin’ ‘Bout Pop Music

Is there a natural order to pleasure?

Are we creatures of habit?

Can mathematics help explain the pleasure (and pain) we gain from music?

What can we learn from pop music about engagement?

Big questions to start this week’s blog, inspired by a video from “The Axis of Awesome”, which points out that the structure of many successful pop songs comes down to 4 chords, the 1st, 5th, 6th and 4th, or what I call “The Pachelbel Canon Effect”.  Take a look at this awesome video – yes, I used the word awesome and I am over 27! 🙂

The video illustrates what I call “The Physics of Pleasure”.  The various intervals between the chords are known to create a sense of repose or resolution.  It’s what musicians call cadences and there are a number of these in common used.  If you want to write a pop song, you would do well to set the piece within one of the more familiar cadences to increase your chances of success.

Peter Warhol

Business and music parallels

  1. There are identifiable but mostly invisible patterns of music that engender a pleasurable response in a majority of people.  What are the identifiable but invisible patterns of behaviour that produce the same sensations in business?
  2. In terms of innovation in business, if you are introducing the unfamiliar to people, one way to lesson the perceived ‘shock of the new’ is to build the innovation on the safe scaffolding of the familiar.  Product designers have known this for years.
  3. Before anyone runs away with the idea that all you need is a formula to run a successful business, of course there are exceptions to every rule.  In music “Bohemian Rhapsody” breaks just about every rule that we’ve discussed, although the verse does use the 1st, 6th, 2nd and 5th – a near relative of the cadence we discuss here.  And, of course, what is popular is culturally conditioned.  For example Indian music has different conventions, which we explored previously in ‘Sex, Raga and Rock’n’Roll’.

And finally

To ram home the point about the four chords, listen to Brian Eno’s sublime piece of ambient music “The Big Ship” from Another Green Day. Then follow it up with U2’s “With Or Without You” from The Joshua Tree.  It’s he same four chords, albeit in a different key to suit Bono’s voice – incidentally, U2’s song and the album were produced by Brian Eno! 🙂  Was there some subliminal influencing going on here?

To finish, here’s the title of this blog – another highly successful trio of chords, the 1st, 7th and 4th, which spawned “I can’t explain” by The Who and many more:


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via  His latest book “The Music of Business” is available direct or in the usual places by clicking the relevant link in the slideshare presentation below:


6 responses to “Talkin’ ‘Bout Pop Music

  1. I reckon, humbly, that audiences engage with/enjoy music when the performer puts all their feeling into what they are playing. This makes the music they are playing a direct expression of themselves, which makes them more open as a group/individual, and therefore create love from the audience. I reckon a customer/consumer in business does a similar thing when they buy a product that works and does “what it says on the tin.” If a company does this repeadedly, by producing products that are consistently high quality, then the consumer becomes engaged with the brand. I don’t reckon it’s any higgery-pockery from marketing departments or PRs. Trust, basically. The hardest thing for anyone or company to earn, but possibly a company’s highest intangible asset.


  2. Now I know this is off-point, but — I think it’s interesting. I was raised on classical music, and also studied it. We all know it’s based on rather strict forms and structures, and yet manages to be beautiful and moving. There’s your math, perhaps. I once heard a program on public radio talking about baroque music, and how it’s overlooked. People disregard it, was the theory. But I take a different view — baroque music is something that is so soothing, because it’s comfortble and familiar to all. When you hear it, you’re immediately at ease. And completely aside, you should have seen my “oh-so-cool” grown son’s face when I informed him that Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale is based on Air on a G.String, then played it for him.


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