Measure For Measure: The Truth About Those Three Chords

Written by May 3rd, 2012 at 7:00 am

“All you need to write a country song is three chords and the truth.”Harlan Howard

As a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Harlan knew his chords. But his often-quoted formula glosses over a couple of key questions: Which three chords, and when do you use them?

This column will offer a few answers and continue to build the four-layer songwriting cake we began in the March/April issue by combining chords and rhythm.

The study of harmony can take a lifetime, but the deeper you go, the more you realize that it all revolves around one thing: a cycle of tension and release.

In the key of C, for example, the ultimate chord of release is C major (or C minor in the key of C minor). Music theorists call the home chord in a key – such as “C” here – the tonic chord. The tonic chord is always built on the first degree of the scale. The ultimate tension chord in a key is the dominant 7th, which is built on the fifth degree of the scale. In the key of C, the fifth scale degree is G (count C-D-E-F-G). Thus the dominant 7th chord is G7. The “7th” is an added chord tone seven steps above the bottom tone. In G7, this is F (G-A-B-C-D-E-F).

The tonic and dominant form a dynamic duo, like Tracy and Hepburn or Bogart and Bacall. Try playing C-G7-C-G7-C. Feel the flow of tension. When you play G7, tension rises, like filling your lungs with air. When you play C, tension releases, like when you exhale. Playing C-G7-C-G7-C keeps us moving forward in time, like breathing.

But music does not live by tonic and dominant alone. Fortunately we have four other chords to break the monotony. In the key of C, these are D minor, E minor, F major, and A minor (the “B” chord can be skipped).

I like to call these four getaway chords because they take us farther from the tonic than the strongly committed dominant. In a major key, three of them are minor, which offers a contrasting mood to the major tonic. Once we’re away from the tonic, we can have fun working our way back again.

First, let’s arrange all the chords in C from near to far. The farther to the right a chord is, the farther it is from the tonic C (“m” means “minor”):

C (tonic) – G7 (or G) – Dm – F – Am – Em

Now here are the rules for creating your own chord progressions (chord series): Jump from C to any chord on the right, and then work your way back to the left, stopping at any of the chords in between. For example, many a hit has been based on the C-F-G-C progression (“Twist And Shout,” “La Bamba”). Much of jazz comes down to Dm7-G7-C (Dm7 is D minor with an added 7th). Slow dance at a ’50s prom? Try C-Am-F-G-C.

To mute the drama, skip G7 on the way back. For example, C-Em-C sounds mysterious. C-Am-C sounds edgy. C-F-C sounds gentle. C-Em-F-C is a nice variation. And certain reversals are popular, too, such as C7-G7-F7-C7 (the blues), or C-G-Dm7 (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”). These progressions rein in the homeward momentum of the dominant, exerting a thoughtful, braking effect.

Here’s how to design two-measure chord progressions. To keep it simple, we only allow two chords per measure (on beats 1 and 3). This is the way most songs are built. Repeated chords are OK. Our choices are tonic (T), dominant (D), or getaway (G). These are just a few ideas:

1) |  T > T  |  D > D  |  Example: |  C > C  |  G > G7  |

2) |  T > G  |  G > D  |  Example: |  C > Am  |  Dm > G7  |

3) |  D > D  |  T > T  |  Example: |  G > G  |  C > C  |

4) |  T > G  |  D > D  |  Example: |  C > Am  |  G > G7  |

We call phrases that end with a tonic chord answers, because they feel more or less complete (Ex. 3). Phrases that end with any other chord are called questions, because they seem incomplete (Exs. 1, 2, 4). Musical compositions are created with chains of questions and answers, but more of this later.

After settling on your chords, add emotion by improvising a groove.

“But most songs have more chords than that!” True, but we kept it three-chord simple to get a practical insight into harmony. If you can use Harlan’s formula, you can write a good song. The truth? It’s out there.

We’ll save those other chords for a future column. First, get to know the harmonic distance chart. Give the above exercise a good workout. Ideally, you want to be able to imagine a question or an answer phrase before you play it on your instrument. Here are charts for seven other keys:

1) E (tonic) – B7 (or B) – F#m – A – C#m – G#m (farthest from tonic)

2) A – E7 (or E) – Bm – D – F#m – C#m

3) D – A7 (or A) – Em – G – Bm – F#m

4) G – D7 (or D) – Am – C – Em – Bm

5) F – C7 (or C) – Gm – Bb – Dm – Am

6) Em – B7 (or B or Bm) – F# half-diminished 7 – Am – C – G

7) Am – E7 (or E or Em) – B half-diminished 7 – Dm – F – C

To dig deeper into harmony, check out How Music Really Works, by Wayne Chase (howmusicreallyworks.com), The Functions Of Chords For Pop, Jazz, And Modern Styles, by Peter Sessions (pandrpress.com), The Songwriter’s Workshop – Harmony (Jimmy Kachulis), or my book, Compose Yourself (see Amazon.com).

Two layers of the songwriting cake are now in play. In order to add the third layer, melody, you must practice the first two often over the next couple of months. Keep an eye on AmericanSongwriter.com for supplemental video lessons, and see you next column.

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