Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Quartal 90s vs. the Tertian Present

We live in an age of historical eclecticism in music.  In terms of production values and composition in our pop and alternative rock, stylistic influence from any decade is welcomed and celebrated.  That is...any decade except the 90s.

Just like when I was in middle school and the 80s were thought of as ridiculously uncool (the gated snare, the chorussed guitar, the vocals drenched in reverb...used to make us cringe, didn't it?), so now the 90s flavor causes the cringing.

As a music producer and songwriter, this is important for me because my most impressionable years were in the 90s.  My first dance with a girl was in 1998 so some of those songs and sounds have a very special place in my heart.  The problem is, the impressionable generation of today wants nothing to do with it so I had better keep that special place in my heart locked tight, right?

In the studio we have discussed:  How do we avoid the 90s?  What is the binding tie from that decade by which we can identify that dangerous flavor?

I won't attempt to provide a definitive answer, but let's see what we get just from looking at instrumentation and how it affects chord-writing.

The sound of 1980s pop is characterized by ubiquitous use of synthesizers, electronic drums, and heavy processing on guitars and vocals.  Because of the afore-mentioned disdain of the rising generation for the previous decade, in the early 90s there was a shift away from synthesizers and back to the acoustic guitar.

For those of you who play guitar and are near my age, you must remember these riffs here:

Two factors are strongly at work here:
1) Beginner guitarists will favor open strings in their songwriting because, well, it's easier.
2) The open strings of a guitar are tuned mostly in fourths

So, we ended up with a plethora of songs based on common tones/drones in fourths.  Strong examples include Matchbox Twenty's "3 AM" and Green Day's "Good Riddance."  Beginner guitarists loved this stuff because it was very easy to feel like you invented it.  "Hey!  If I keep these two fingers here and move the others around...Look how many new chords I've discovered!"  At the risk of overgeneralizing, I submit that the sound of 90s alternative is largely quartal in nature.

Now, let's jump forward to the 2000s.  Thanks to bands like Coldplay and also the natural tendency of young artists to shy away from whatever was happening ten years ago, songwriters predominantly moved back to the keyboard to write their riffs.  Here's "Clocks:"

Beginner pianists will favor triads, as triads are far more idiomatic than the chord progression of, say, "Wonderwall."  Thus, once again, I'm going to overgeneralize and submit that the 00s were predominantly tertian in terms of pop composition.

Jump forward to today.  We're still definitely riding the wave of synthesizer-heavy, piano-centric 80s revival that we were riding in the 00s.  But 1993 was twenty years ago, not ten.  Will acoustic guitar become the focus once again?  We're already seeing a folk revival in the success of bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers.  It is true that folk guitar embraces triads and avoids the suspensions of 90s guitar-writing.  However, I think it quite probable that within the next ten years pop chord-writing may just become a little more quartal once again.


  1. Holy crap, I've had a comparable theory in my head about a 30 year cycle of music but I never knew why it worked that way. This was an awesome blog post.

  2. I've felt the 90s coming back in my bones. With groups like One Direction all of a sudden being popular again and songs like "Cough Syrup" by Young the Giant, and even denim shirts and jackets making their way back into GAP, American Eagle, and H & M. I'm sure skinny jeans will go out of style soon but hopefully Jnco jeans below the butt won't come back in style.

  3. So that's why I love "Cough Syrup" so much!