Back in 2017, Ed Sheeran went viral when a video of him being interviewed featured the star claiming to be able to play “every song in the pop chart right now” over the same four chords.
While his claim didn’t quite stack up - his attempt to play Listen by Beyonce, for example, wasn’t exactly convincing - the clip did demonstrate how popular chord progressions are used by songwriters time and time again, and now John Mayer has given a similar music theory lesson at a gig in Seattle.
“Now this chord progression is a very traditional chord progression,” he begins. “It’s just so nice… it’s in a lot of songs”
The one he’s talking about - Am-D-G-C (or occasionally Em), otherwise known as the ii-V-I-IV progression - is indeed a pop music staple, and Mayer goes on to make this clear by performing the first verse and chorus of Harry Styles’ As It Was, followed by a cover of a-Ha’s Take On Me, using the same chords each time.
And, to make it clear that he’s not immune to the progression’s charms, he also reels off a bit of his own 2018 single, New Light, which also fits nicely into the ii-V-I-IV box.
Of course, the fact that pop songwriters are repeatedly drawn to the same simple four-chord progressions isn’t exactly news, but at least you know what, if you find yourself writing a song that sounds a bit like one you’ve heard before, you’re in pretty good company.