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

Charting A Song: How To Write What You Hear

Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.
Two of my favorite cookbooks: How To Grill by Steven Raichlen (2001), and The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 12th edition.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time for us to be thinking about what we’ll prepare for the feast. The list of favorite dishes has grown over the years, and some are now not just expected, they are highly anticipated (sometimes with threats involved if we don’t make them…) Though they will be made from different ingredients in different kitchens with different types of expertise applied, they all have their place of honor on our Thanksgiving table.

So here’s my analogy for this week: figuring out how to play a song is like sitting down to the feast. Where do I begin? Is there anything new here I don’t want to miss? And will there be enough food to go around? (This last one is never a problem at our house.)

Starting Your Song Chart

To chart the song you want to learn, that is, to write it down as you listen, start by drawing a forward slash for each beat you hear. Group them in however many beats you hear in a repeating fashion. Are you hearing 3 beats in each measure, or 4, or maybe 6? Write 4 measures this way for each line of the song, then leave another space between the big sections of the song.

And by the way, if you’ve never tried charting a song, let me encourage you to go for it. You’ll experience new understanding and enjoyment of songs you’ve heard, with new appreciation for the artistry behind them. With practice, you’ll get better and better at it. It will take some focused time, but yes, you can learn how to do it!

Components in 4s

The components of a song, particularly a pop song, are predictable. Rare are the exceptions. Now a composer can create whatever she wants, she has that freedom. But if she wants her song to be heard and embraced by her audience, she will have to stay within normal boundaries most of the time. We expect it.

Each song has (are you ready?) a beginning, a middle, and an end (not rocket science). And we feel the most natural connection with a song when its smallest components are based on the number 4. 2s, 3s and 6s are frequently used as well, but 4 is the default. Historically, 4 beats in each measure is even referred to as “common time”. 4 beats to a measure, 4 sub-divisions to each beat (sixteenth notes), 4 measures per sung phrase, 4 phrases in a verse.

We like 4. So as we start to listen critically to a song, that is what we’ll expect. Try tapping your foot on each beat in the song, and see if it doesn’t reflect the number 4 in some way.

Though the sections within the song will each be built in 4s, the composer might play with timing somewhat. Just for variety, a measure with only 2 beats might be inserted somewhere to make lyrics or the melody flow better. Or, in order to keep energy ramping up, the start of one section may actually overlap with the last measure or two of the previous section. Like the end of a chorus going into an instrumental, for example. As the vocalist is singing the last word of the chorus, the instrumental begins, ignoring the fact that the chorus still had two measures to go. Makes you feel like the instrumental couldn’t wait to get started.

The Beginning

The song’s intro that provides the first impression, maybe a preview of what will follow. Here we’ll find the key, the tempo, and the mood. Soon, as the lyrics begin in the first verse, we get a peek under the hood at the content of the song. The groove, if it is not already in motion, starts here.

The verse may present the problem to be solved or the circumstance to be celebrated or grieved. It introduces the characters in the play and the direction the vocalist wants to go in the song. Might be a story, an intense emotion, or a situation.

The first line of the verse should draw the listener into the second line, the second into the third, and so on. Short or long, at the end of the verse, the listener is intrigued. Not committed yet, but curious.

The Middle

A segment less often included but quite effective might be placed right after the verse. It has been labeled in recent years, the “Pre-Chorus”. It’s job is to build more tension and more expectation that will be brought to fruition in the Chorus itself. Usually this will be just a couple of phrases, leaving you hanging.

Finally, after all this preparation, we get to the Chorus. The song title is probably in here, along with the hook (the phrase you just have to sing along with). It will answer the question or flesh out what was hinted at earlier. Now it is very clear why the composer wrote this song. The Chorus will typically sound bigger and fuller, with additional instruments and vocals, even an orchestra to add to the layers of sound.

After you’ve listened through the Verse and the Chorus, what you’ll hear next is probably another verse. It will be similar to the first verse, but now with more emotion, more detail, more angst. That takes us into the next Pre-Chorus and Chorus, followed by an instrumental section that helps the listener to emotionally breathe. A Bridge, which is really another verse, might follow that, with its own variations in the chord pattern and lyric cadence. It leads us right into… you guessed it… another Chorus or two.

The End

The last Chorus might get louder at the end, or it might calm down, returning us once again to the reality of our lives. A short instrumental may follow, wrapping up the song. Or it might leave you hanging. The cheap way (in my humble opinion) to end a song is to fade the recording out. Maybe they want to give the impression the party will just go on and on. Or maybe the artist and producer just couldn’t agree on an ending.

Filling In The Blanks

Now that you’ve got all the beats and measures plotted out, it’s time to go back and fill in the chords. Some of my earlier posts on how to figure out the key, on naming intervals, and on how emotion can be crafted within the song may be helpful. Again, with practice and time you can get pretty good at this. And it is my hope that you do!

What has your experience been when you’ve tried to chart a song? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about song charting, rhythm, music theory and next-step musicianship to [email protected]. And if you’d like to keep up to date with CaseTunes, sign up to receive updates and weekly posts in your email inbox!

© 2014 Steve Case