A young male protagonist encounters a mysterious stranger who introduces a supernatural world. Our hero makes friends and enemies, and falls in love. Just when you think they’re not going to make it, they discover the power to succeed was inside them all along. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider Man, The Matrix. Central to all these stories is Campbell's “Hero’s Journey” narrative. This isn't plagiarism - Booker claims there have only ever been seven basic plots in existence. Kurt Vonnegut claimed it was eight with his master’s thesis “The Shapes of Stories”, though a research project at the University of Vermont found six types of story emerged when using AI to categorize 2,000 works of fiction. It makes sense that we’d only find a few types of stories interesting. The vast majority of potential stories that could be told, probably shouldn’t – watching grass grow might be dramatic to the grass, and rare in the universe, but not to us. Our brains evolve slowly, so it stands to reason there has to be a finite number of viable stories to tell.
Most storytelling before the invention of mass media was done in song form. Songs are easier for us to remember, so when we had to rely on memory alone, this was the dominant format for our stories. As with stories, there are a limited amount of songs that light up our neurons too. There are 4,017 possible chords, but with just 4 of them you can play most of the greatest hits from the last few decades. Songs as diverse as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, and “With or Without You” by U2, all use the same four chords: E, B, C# minor and A. Our brains have been hooked on this repetitive chord progression at least since Pachelbel’s Canon at the turn of the 18th Century. They create lots of ‘consonant’ frequency ratios, making this sequence more noticeable and memorable, and setting up an urge to ‘return home’ with the fourth chord – to hear the sequence again. In other words, of all the possible chords, this sequence is the most optimized for memetic survival. Before the ‘Four-Chord Song’ there was the ‘Three-Chord Trick’, essentially the same chords minus the minor, used so pervasively in rock-and-roll, country music and blues song that songwriter Harlan Howard quipped all you needed to write popular music was “three chords and the truth”.
Storytelling was our fundamental evolutionary survival trait, according to Boyd. The obvious benefit of being able to tell a story, is the ability to warn others of danger, explain the meaning of important events, or teach each other beneficial new skills. Beyond that, storytelling is what helped us band together to form tribes, cities, civilisations. A early Star Wars may have featured Shamans instead of Jedi. Prehistoric Robert Plant probably sang about Stairways to Heaven around a campfire. Ancient Steve Jobs may have called the Pyramids ‘insanely great’ on launch day in 2490 BC. So can we really blame modern day Jobs for ripping off Xerox, Zeppelin for stealing Spirit’s ‘Taurus’, George Lucas for borrowing from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? If ‘Everything is a Remix’, it's likely your idea has been done before. As Bernbach says, “The originality of an idea depends on the obscurity of sources.”
Axis of Awesome - 4 Four Chord Song, 40 Songs, Same Chords
Everything is a Remix
Four Chords and the Truth
Harry Potter and Star Wars - Aaron Woodall
How Many Possible Chords Are There In Music?
Nothing new under the sun
Nothing New Under The Sun…
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The Seven Basic Plots
These four chords are at the heart of every pop song
Uncle Bernbach, Twitter
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