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How Many Chords Does A Song Need, Anyway?

6:00 am Songwriting

People like to joke about “three-chord songs,” the implication being that a song containing only A, D, and E chords must be too simple-minded to bother thinking about, much less listening to. And what kind of songwriter only knows three chords?

It’s obvious that there are plenty of great songs that have only three chords! But it’s also true that a really sophisticated melody is likely to need a really sophisticated set of chords - and more than three - to go with it. Being kind of simple-minded myself, I sometimes go in the opposite direction: how few chords can I use in a song? For me the answer is always the same: “One.”

I consider it a challenge to craft a song based entirely on a single chord and still have it be interesting and compelling. The objective is to have nobody actually notice that it is only one chord until you point it out. “Oh yeah,” they say. “I guess it is all one chord!”

Keep It Simple, Smarty

Let’s get real, though. Our monochord song is not likely to have a refined, elegant melody reminiscent of Cole Porter. With one chord, you are pretty much talking about a “riff” or “groove” type of song. The secret to holding the listener’s interest is to frequently vary the musical texture. Change the vocal, bring in a new guitar, suddenly add a tambourine, anything. The different textures substitute for the different chord patterns that distinguish the verses and choruses of a “normal” song.

Here’s an example from my own vast oeuvre. Now that I think of it, this same song, called “So Cool” (mp3, lyrics) also demonstrates my other simple-minded idea, which is that lyrics don’t always have to be high-minded and poetic, especially in a single-chord “groove” song!

I remember driving along the road and seeing something (I forget what) that was, I said to myself, “so cool.” As soon as I started thinking “so cool”, the beat and sound of this song popped into my head. I can only assume that divine inspiration lay behind the sudden emergence of lyrics like this:

Well it’s so cool
To be so cool
To be so cool
Yes it’s so cool
To be so cool
To be so cool

(And the rest is even deeper!)

Anyway, you get the idea. If you’re always trying to add chords to your songs to make them interesting, try taking most of them away and see what that does for you!

So Cool (Bendig) (mp3, lyrics)
Mark Bendig: drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, keyboard, vocals
Jack Burgess: bass, electric guitar, lead guitar

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3 Responses
  1. Skye D :

    Date: January 2, 2012 @ 1:55 am

    This is so awesome… Im staring to get the pic after reading this.. Thank u so much

  2. Jay :

    Date: January 21, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

    I love it!
    What you are saying is much what Harvey Reid says in the book/CD “Song Train”…

    He has his “Ode to the E chord” song, among others.

    Songs are really SIMPLE- it’s about feeling and expression, NOT technique so much.

  3. Calvin Ross :

    Date: January 25, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

    Thank you for putting this out there, Mr. Bendig! This reaffirms my own thoughts about simple songs being some of the best. I often begin songs with what might, in a “normal” song, be used later, as a chorus. I also have a lot of songs which have no chorus and simply bounce between a simple two-chord structure (i.e. G to C to G to C, etc.). Once again, thank you for writing this. I found it very helpful and informative!

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