Three-chord song

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A three-chord song is a song whose music is built around three chords that are played in a certain sequence. A common type of three-chord song is the simple twelve-bar blues used in blues and rock and roll.


Typically, the three chords used are the chords on the tonic, subdominant, and dominant (scale degrees I, IV and V): in the key of C, these would be the C, F and G chords. Sometimes the V7 chord is used instead of V, for greater tension.

The I (tonic), IV (subdominant) and V (dominant) chords (primary triads) together encompass all seven tones of the tonic's major scale. These three chords are a simple means of covering many melodies without the use of passing notes.

There are tens of thousands of songs written with I, IV and V chords. Almost all country, blues, and early rock and roll songs are three-chord songs. A great many pop songs are also I, IV and V chord songs. The order of the chord progression may be varied; popular chord progression variations using the I, IV and V chords of a scale are:

Beside the I, IV and V chord progression, other widely used 3-chord progressions are: [1]

In the mid-1960s, two of the most popular bands, The Beach Boys and The Beatles, began releasing songs that stretched the scope of rock and roll beyond three-chord songs. Even their earlier hits, such as "The Warmth of the Sun", [2] or "She Loves You", [3] featured chord progressions that were somewhat more complex. This led to a movement away from the country and blues base of rock and roll music, towards what would be termed simply rock music, and eventually resulted in the development of progressive rock and its many derivatives. However, the popularity of the three-chord song has always remained, particularly in punk rock, where the Ramones pioneered the three barre chord approach on their debut album Ramones , although on this album there were songs with five, six or seven chords.


Songwriter Harlan Howard once said "country music is three chords and the truth." [4]

Lou Reed said "One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz." [5] Reed nevertheless wrote many songs with unique or complex chord progressions himself, such as the material on Berlin .

See also

Related Research Articles

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In a musical composition, a chord progression or harmonic progression is a succession of chords. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition from the common practice era of Classical music to the 21st century. Chord progressions are the foundation of Western popular music styles and traditional music. In these genres, chord progressions are the defining feature on which melody and rhythm are built.

A secondary chord is an analytical label for a specific harmonic device that is prevalent in the tonal idiom of Western music beginning in the common practice period: the use of diatonic functions for tonicization.

An augmented triad is a chord, made up of two major thirds. The term augmented triad arises from an augmented triad being considered a major chord whose top note (fifth) is raised. When using popular-music symbols, it is indicated by the symbol "+" or "aug". For example, the augmented triad built on C, written as C+, has pitches C–E–G:

In music, the submediant is the sixth degree of the diatonic scale, the lower mediant—halfway between the tonic and the subdominant. In the movable do solfège system, the submediant note is sung as la in major, as fa in minor. It is occasionally called superdominant, as the degree above the dominant. This is its normal name (sus-dominante) in French.

Function, in music, is the term used to denote the relationship of a chord or a scale degree to a tonal centre. Two main theories of tonal functions exist today:

In music theory, a dominant seventh chord, or major minor seventh chord, is a seventh chord, usually built on the fifth degree of the major scale, and composed of a root, major third, perfect fifth, and minor seventh. Thus it is a major triad together with a minor seventh, denoted by the letter name of the chord root and a superscript "7". An example is the dominant seventh chord built on G, written as G7, having pitches G–B–D–F:

Song structure is the arrangement of a song, and is a part of the songwriting process. It is typically sectional, which uses repeating forms in songs. Common forms include bar form, 32-bar form, verse–chorus form, ternary form, strophic form, and the 12-bar blues. Popular music songs traditionally use the same music for each verse or stanza of lyrics. Pop and traditional forms can be used even with songs that have structural differences in melodies. The most common format in modern popular music is introduction (intro), verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus and outro. In rock music styles, notably heavy metal music, there is usually one or more guitar solos in the song, often found after the middle chorus part. In pop music, there may be a guitar solo, or a solo may be performed by a synthesizer player or sax player.

Chord substitution

In music theory, chord substitution is the technique of using a chord in place of another in a progression of chords, or a chord progression. Much of the European classical repertoire and the vast majority of blues, jazz and rock music songs are based on chord progressions. "A chord substitution occurs when a chord is replaced by another that is made to function like the original. Usually substituted chords possess two pitches in common with the triad that they are replacing."

Andalusian cadence chord progression

The Andalusian cadence is a term adopted from flamenco music for a chord progression comprising four chords descending stepwise—a vi–V–IV–III progression with respect to the major mode or i–VII–VI–V progression with respect to the minor mode. It is otherwise known as the minor descending tetrachord. Traceable back to the Renaissance, its effective sonorities made it one of the most popular progressions in classical music Play .

The sixteen-bar blues can be a variation on the standard twelve-bar blues or on the less common eight-bar blues. Sixteen-bar blues is also used commonly in ragtime music.

The ii–V–I progression is a common cadential chord progression used in a wide variety of music genres, including jazz harmony. It is a succession of chords whose roots descend in fifths from the second degree (supertonic) to the fifth degree (dominant), and finally to the tonic. In a major key, the supertonic triad (ii) is minor, and in a minor key it is diminished. The dominant is, in its normal form, a major triad and commonly a dominant seventh chord. With the addition of chord alterations, substitutions, and extensions, limitless variations exist on this simple formula.

The '50s progression is a chord progression and turnaround used in Western popular music. The progression, represented in Roman numeral analysis, is: I–vi–IV–V. For example, in C major: C–Am–F–G. As the name implies, it was common in the 1950s and early 1960s and is particularly associated with doo-wop.

Predominant chord musical term

In music theory, a predominant chord is any chord which normally resolves to a dominant chord. Examples of predominant chords are the subdominant, supertonic, Neapolitan sixth and German sixth. Other examples are the secondary dominant (V/V) and secondary leading tone chord. Predominant chords may lead to secondary dominants. Predominant chords both expand away from the tonic and lead to the dominant, affirming the dominant's pull to the tonic. Thus they lack the stability of the tonic and the drive towards resolution of the dominant. The predominant harmonic function is part of the fundamental harmonic progression of many classical works. The submediant (vi) may be considered a predominant chord or a tonic substitute.

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy 1966 song written by Joe Zawinul

"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" is a jazz song written by Joe Zawinul in 1966 for Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and his album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at 'The Club'. The song is the title track of the album and became a surprise hit. "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" went to #2 on the Soul chart and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Roman numeral analysis is a type of musical analysis in which chords are represented by Roman numerals. In some cases, Roman numerals denote scale degrees themselves. More commonly, however, they represent the chord whose root note is that scale degree. For instance, III denotes either the third scale degree or, more commonly, the chord built on it. Typically, uppercase Roman numerals are used to represent major chords, while lowercase Roman numerals are used to represent minor chords. However, some music theorists use upper-case Roman numerals for all chords, regardless of chord quality.

The I–V–vi–IV progression is a common chord progression popular across several genres of music. It involves the I, V, vi, and IV chords; for example, in the key of C major, this would be: C–G–Am–F. Inversions include:

Excursions, Op. 20, is the first published solo piano piece by Samuel Barber. Barber himself explains:

These are ‘Excursions’ in small classical forms into regional American idioms. Their rhythmic characteristics, as well as their source in folk material and their scoring, reminiscent of local instruments are easily recognized.

Chord rewrite rules

In music, a rewrite rule is a recursive generative grammar, which creates a chord progression from another.

V–IV–I turnaround

In music, the V–IV–I turnaround, or blues turnaround, is one of several cadential patterns traditionally found in the twelve-bar blues, and commonly found in rock and roll.

The cadence moves from the tonic to dominant, to subdominant, and back to the tonic. "In a blues in A, the turnaround will consist of the chords E7, D7, A7, E7 [V–IV–I–V]." V may be used in the last measure rather than I since, "nearly all blues tunes have more than one chorus (occurrence of the 12-bar progression), the turnaround (last four bars) usually ends on V, which makes us feel like we need to hear I again, thus bringing us around to the top (beginning) of the form again.".


  1. Chord progressions –
  2. Greg Panfile's musicological analysis of "The Warmth of the Sun"
  3. Alan W. Pollack's musicological analysis of "She Loves You"
  4. "Harlan Howard Quotes". BrainyQuote. Retrieved 2017-01-26.
  5. Rhino Records: The Rhino Musical Aptitude Test, 2001