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

How To Find The Key By Just Listening

Everything balances on I
Everything balances on the I chord

It happened again.

We were in rehearsal for our Sunday services, and our final song needed an intro. The chords on the chart correctly read: C G Em D, and I heard someone exclaim, “this is the one in C, right?”

Uh-oh, I thought. We may have a problem.

The song is in G. But they didn’t know that.

Now our songs often do start on the I chord, that is, the chord with the same name as the key. It’s built from the 1st, or the root, of the major scale. But songs don’t have to start there. The key center might be anywhere in the pattern.

And knowing what key the song is in is pretty important for our music team members to know.

Determining the Key

So how can you tell what key a song is in? If you can’t read music and you don’t know what a key signature is (and the key signature is a signpost, not a reason or a definition, by the way), what should you do? How can you just listen to a song and figure it out?

Well, the short answer is, you just have to know what to listen for. And it will take some practice. But you can learn to do it!

Here’s how it works.

The Key Center

Every song in our culture revolves around a key center. Well, most songs. There are some pieces of music that are atonal, meaning they don’t follow quite the same harmonic rules as just about all the rest. Let me pull a number out of the air: I would guess these make up less than 1% of the music we hear.

Right now I’m not talking about atonal music, but rather the everyday kind of music you’ll encounter everywhere you go: songs you’ll hear on the radio, TV commercials and themes, symphonic pieces, blues, jazz, top 40, country. Each song has a very specific harmonic structure, and the structure is based around the key center.

The key center is the chord that brings everything into balance. The melody and all the other chords are to varying degrees removed from this chord. They will each sound like something else needs to happen next, like they are waiting for something.  But the key center is the fulcrum, the nucleus that everything else revolves around.  It is, as I mentioned, the chord built from the 1st of the major scale, so we’ll call it the I chord (roman numerals mean chords, not single tones).

The Only Chord That Makes The Song Sound Finished

You’ll hear the I chord as being the only chord you could potentially end the song on and have it sound finished and complete. Try it with some of the recordings you own. Start playing a song, then when you think you’ve found the I chord, hit pause. Does the song sound like it should end on that chord? Try it again and again until you’re pretty sure you’ve found it.

balancing scaled 1This works for songs in major keys and minor keys, fast songs and slow songs, rock songs, country songs, polkas and reggae. Even rap for the most part. There will be a chord that everything seems to revolve around, the other chords moving out from it then back toward it. But when you play that chord, the I chord, things come into stable repose.

The placement of the chords within the rhythmic framework of the song will also affect your perception of the key center, though not the actual function of it. For example, the downbeat of a song is naturally the strongest point in time as you play any progression. You very easily, almost automatically, want that spot to be filled by the I chord. So when the song for my team didn’t start on I, it was a confusing moment for one of the team members.

Okay, I guess we’ve got some theory to cover in our next rehearsal!

So the song might start on the I chord, or it might not. The composer may choose to end the song on the I chord, or she may not. But the fact that the I chord is the key center does not rely on its position in the song. It gains its strength from its position in the scale.

There are mechanical reasons for this, of course. We’ll cover the mechanics in another post soon. For now, let’s just say that the I chord is simply the only chord you can end the song on and have it sound finished. Try the exercise above, then let me know how you did!

Can you pick out the I chord when you’re listening to your favorite songs or artists, or even when you hear the Muzak at the mall?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship and practical music theory to me at [email protected].

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© 2014 Steve Case