Measure For Measure: The Truth About Those Three Chords

“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... Sign In to Keep Reading

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