The 4-Chords Progression That Borderlines Plagiarism

We all know there are certain chord progressions that sound undeniably good to our ears. Most of the top songs of all time use the same Major 4-chord progression, namely G,D,Em,C.

Of course you can play them in a different ‘key’ (i.e. C,G,Am,F) which makes ’em sound slightly less similar, and while you’re at it, throw in different tempos and instruments, which goes to say that yes, you can still manage to make a whole bunch of songs sound different, even though they share the same chords.

Don’t believe me? Watch this video.

Ok so clearly they’re useful chords. Are there any others? Of course… Another 4-chord progression worth mentioning is the Minor 4-chord progression, namely Em,C,G,D. Transposing to another key like A-minor for example, would give you Am,F,C,G – suffice to say that it’s got the same power of awesomeness, only it’s slightly more emotional, and as such is a banker for use in movies. Don’t believe me? Have a listen to the tracks in these videos, which are so alike it’s scary…

First up – the song from Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, called “The Bridge Of Khazad Dum” by Howard Shore – you know, when Gandalf falls after shouting, “You shall not pass!”. Anyway, it’s used in this trailer for the upcoming Superman: Man Of Steel film. It’s in F Sharp Minor – F#m,C#,G#,D# (Basically one key up from the Em,C,G,D progression).

Ok, so that was awesome. Amazing stuff really, and makes this film seem like it’s going to be insanely epic. Now bearing in mind that that was made in 2003, let’s have a listen to a soundtrack made in 2007 for a movie called “Sunshine”. This track is called, “The Surface Of The Sun” by John Murphy. It’s in the good old E-minor key – Em,C,G,D.

Sound familiar? Of course. A little too familiar actually, such that it kinda boarders on plagiarism – except that there’s a woman’s voice in the first one and this one’s a key lower… That makes it different right? That’s debatable I guess.

Clearly John Murphy enjoys those chords. Why? Well in another movie he scores called “Kick Ass” he basically uses the same track with slight variation in the way of a guitar and the key is D-Minor this time – Dm,A#,F,C.

Then we get this epic track called, “The City Surf”, written by Jamin Winans from his movie, “Ink”, popularized by the movie, “The Grey”. Another amazing song, written in – you guessed it – E-Minor, with the same 4-chord progression.

Now at this juncture you might ask what the point of all this is, suffice to say that I’m simply illustrating how fine a line we’re able to cross when it comes to song composing. If you play the guitar, you’ll know that it’s got 12 ‘frets’ or keys, which means that if you decided to play Em,C,G,D, you could play it at 12 different pitches without it being technically identical (even though for all intents and purposes it is). Coupling that with all the different instruments out there, the different speeds (tempo) at which we can play, and the use of a “lead” voice, or instrument, composers can get away with a kind of plagiarism.

To be fair of course, there are only so many chord-progressions that actually sound nice to the ear. And yet, that’s why I respect composers like Hans Zimmer so much. I always know when a score has been written by Hans – it’s undoubtedly pleasing on the ear, and just has a Hans Zimmer trademark sound to it – but the chords he uses and overlaps, are so much more complex than a 4-chord progression. I’m sure he uses the 4-chord progression, or at least has used it in his career, but either way, none of his songs sound like anyone else’s in my opinion, and that’s why I respect the guy.

BUT, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if we skate a line of similarity, so long as the music does what it’s supposed to – that is to move the audience in a manner intended by the director.

So in conclusion, if you’re an aspiring musician, and want to write a cool track – I’d suggest trying something using any variant of G,D,Em,C… And when you’ve written that famous one hit wonder, you can thank me with a Ferrari or something ;)

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  • jeffikus

    And for those us who are too lazy to transpose on the fly or can’t remember their chord progressions…you can use these ;-)

    I’m sure there’s an iphone/android app for this, but I just can’t find it. Alternatively

  • Frank Schorr

    Very nice article.

    • Andy

      Thanks Frank, glad you like.

  • Patrick Cruser

    man of steel soundtrack is Hans…