When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…

green triangleHow many songs can you play with just 3 chords?

Probably quite a few. I was half-listening to the radio in the car when I heard Robert Palmer’s “Bad Case Of Lovin’ You” come on. (Doctor, doctor, give me the news, I’ve got a …bad case of lovin’ you.) Really catchy. Fun song.

It’s also a simply constructed song. 3 chords total in the whole thing. Actually, I may have heard a 4th chord in there during the bridge, but I think it only happened once.

So how can you have a song that is satisfying to listen to but only has three chords? Is that really enough? And how often does that happen?

Well, it happens a lot. Here are some you may have heard:

  • All About That Bass (Meghan Trainor)
  • All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
  • Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Barry)
  • Louie, Louie (The Kingsmen)
  • One Of Those Nights (Tim McGraw)
  • She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain (traditional)
  • Steamroller (James Taylor)
  • Sweet Home Alabama (Lynard Skynard)
  • This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)

…just to name a few.

It Takes Three, Do The Math

Here’s what’s going on.

Just like your smartphone needs at least 3 cell towers in order for the GPS to figure out exactly where you are (the process of triangulation), it takes 3 chords to inescapably lead the ear toward 1 of them as the focal point, the key center. You’ve got to have at least 3.

If the song is entirely built on a single chord, your ear finds no tonal contrast and no perspective. All it knows is the single chord, and unless the rhythms, dynamics and textures are really interesting, the song will be Boring. Capital B.

And if the song is built using only two chords, you won’t be able to determine which one is the key center between the two. Through other means maybe, like having one chord last longer than the other, or putting one on the strong beats and the other on weaker beats. But tonally speaking, the chords will have equal weight.

So it takes three. Think about basic geometry (and this is about as far as my mathematical prowess goes): how many points does it take to give us perspective, to cause us to see a form? A single point is only a point, and it has nothing to do with anything. With two points, I can create a line segment. But I still don’t have perspective. Which side of the line segment am I on? I don’t know with only two points.

But with three points, I can draw a triangle. Now I can say I’m on this side or that side of the form. I now have perspective.

Three Facets Of The Songs You Listen To

In music theory terms, the three chords that form the basis of a key are the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant. These are the chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th of the scale, and it’s true of both major and minor keys.

Without getting into the actual mechanics of why this is true (I will in the future), think of these three chords as each having their own feel, their own point of view.

The I chord (built from the 1st of the scale) is the tonic chord, and it is the focal point of the entire song. It’s all about the I chord. No matter how much you play or don’t play that chord, it’s still the main subject of the conversation. And it’s the only chord you can play that will make the song sound finished at the end.

The IV chord (built from the 4th, go figure) is the sub-dominant chord, and it is away from the key center, wanting to go somewhere but it doesn’t know where. It is a waiting chord. Waiting to resolve. All dressed up with nowhere to go.

The V chord (you guessed it, built from the 5th) is the dominant chord, and it is also away from the key center. But because of the way it’s built, it has an inherent tension that needs to be satisfied. It is an expectant chord, it knows exactly where it wants to go: back to the I chord.

Dressing It Up With Other Options

Even when the chords are not I, IV and V, often substitutions can be made. Using relative minors and secondary minors, chord patterns become much more interesting while still absolutely tied to the tonic/sub-dominant/dominant triangle.

Embellish the chords with additional scale tones (6ths, 7ths, 9ths, etc.) and you get more and more color. And you’re still tied to the triangle.

What’s Next For You?

Start listening for the tonal triangle everywhere you hear music. Listen for three different feels from the chords. Look for the triangle in the songs you play. When you start recognizing it, it will get easier and easier to spot.

And all my rambling will make perfect sense.

How many songs can you play with three chords? Can you hear the triangle?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory and next-step musicianship to [email protected]

© 2015 Steve Case