Three chords are all you need
June 29, 2013
Think about the songs you grew up with, the ones you sang around a campfire or in the car on long trips, at a birthday party or a funeral.
Without knowing which songs came to mind for you, I can say with some certainty that most of them can be played using three musical chords.
This is important if, like me, you have spent many hours playing the guitar by ear at impromptu gatherings of human beings.
It’s all a matter of math really. A musical key is a collection of eight notes. The key of C, for instance, consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C. The first and last Cs are an octave apart. Musicians assign numbers to the notes in this gathering of notes which is called a scale. In the key of C the numbers are C-1, D-2, E-3, F-4, G-5, A-6, B-7 and back to C which is 1 again.
A chord is nothing more than a group of notes separated by specific intervals, all of which are played at the same time.
The chords that begin with notes 1, 4 and 5 in the scale are the backbone of almost any music in that key. In C, C is the one chord, F is the four chord and G is the five chord. There are some fancy names for those chords, but we don’t need to worry about them.
To be sure a skilled musician can embellish and add some other chords for effect. But most songs, from silly diddies to haunting ballads, cluster around the remarkably resilient three chord pattern.
I began thinking about this when I heard a song in a convenience store. The clerks were listening to it, too, and some of them were singing along under their breath. It was a simple three chord song that captivated them.
So also it is with writing.
Sometimes I believe writers think their role is to embellish a story, to play it so that their performance becomes the focus, not the song.
But the song is the thing, the story is the thing. It is the song that elevates and transports the human spirit, the story that creates the ecstasy in readers’ minds. Three chords provide the foundation for heartbreak and jubilance; spare sentences drape concepts too deep to fathom.
It gives me comfort to know that so much of what people cherish and enjoy is simple and common, capable of being played with three chords. Somehow it reinforces in me the interconnected of humans, the irreducible nature of things of beauty, things where awe abides.
Writing should be the same, three chords against the silence.