Seat-of-the-Pants-Music-Theory: What are the three chords most commonly used in a key?
At the simplest level, I view music as a sequence of notes (called the melody) played or sung in the context of a particular sequence of chords. If you use the wrong melody notes for the song you want to play, it just won’t work. Think how it would sound if you sang the words to Mary Had a Little Lamb to the melody for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Just doesn’t make sense, does it?
The same is true for the chord sequence used as context for the melody. If the chords aren’t the right ones and in the right order, the song won’t sound like the song it’s supposed to be.
For those of you with some musical experience, you have probably already discovered that a simple song in the key of G will probably use G chords, C chords, and D chords. Other chords may be used but the most common ones in the key of G will be G, C, and D. The best reason I can offer as to why these are the three chords most commonly used is that those particular chords just sound good to the human ear.
Let’s use a simple, three chord, key of G version of Amazing Grace as our work in progress. The key of G chord sequence for Amazing Grace follows:
CHORD G G C G
LYRIC A maz ing grace how sweet the sound
CHORD G G D D
LYRIC That saved a wretch like me…………………………
CHORD G G C G
LYRIC I once was lost but now am found
CHORD G D G G
LYRIC Was blind but now I see………………………….
To summarize, the chord sequence for Amazing Grace in the key of G is as follows:
G G C G
G G D D
G G C G
G D G G
OK, so you’ve learned the chord sequence for Amazing Grace in G and now head out to a jam session. But it turns out your jam partners want to play it in A! Now what? What chords do you play in A?
To understand how to use scales to predict what chords to use in A, let’s first number the G scale tones:
G A B C D E F# G
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
I have marked the G, the C, and the D scale tones and their corresponding numbers 1, 4, and 5 in red text. The chord sequence for Amazing Grace can now be presented in numbers where 1 refers to a G chord, 4 to a C chord, and 5 to a D chord:
1 1 4 1
1 1 5 5
1 1 4 1
1 5 1 1
Now to convert the chord sequence to the key of A. First, recall the A scale. Then assign numbers to the tones of that scale.
A B C# D E F# G# A
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Now substitute letters from the A scale for the number sequence for Amazing Grace: 1 becomes A, 4 becomes D, and 5 becomes E.
A A D A
A A E E
A A D A
A E A A
And, voila’, you have transposed from the key of G to the key of A!
In summary, the most commonly used chords in a particular key will be the ones built on the 1st, the 4th, and the 5th tone of its scale. Literally hundreds of songs from a wide range of styles can be played using just these three chords. Take a look at this partial list of three chord songs:
|All the Good Times are Past and Gone||bluegrass|
|Bad Moon Rising||Credence Clearwater|
|Blowing in the Wind||Peter, Paul & Mary|
|Blue Moon of Kentucky||bluegrass|
|Blue Ridge Cabin Home||bluegrass|
|Blue Suede Shoes||Carl Perkins|
|Bury Me Beneath the Willow||bluegrass|
|Cabin Home on the Hill||bluegrass|
|Cecelia||Simon & Garfunkle|
|Columbus Stockade Blues||bluegrass|
|Doing My Time||bluegrass|
|Drink Up and Go Home||bluegrass|
|Gone Gone Gone||bluegrass|
|Good Hearted Woman||Waylon & Willie|
|Great Balls of Fire||Jerry Lee Lewis|
|Head Over Heels||bluegrass|
|Hey, Hey Good Lookin’||Hank Williams|
|Honey, You don’t Know My Mind||bluegrass|
|Honky Tonk Woman||Rolling Stone|
|How Mountain Gals Can Love||bluegrass|
|I Just Think I’ll Stay Around||bluegrass|
|I Saw Her Standing There||Beatles|
|I Saw the Light||bluegrass|
|I Wonder Where You Are Tonight||bluegrass|
|If I Should Wander Back Tonight||bluegrass|
|I’ll Go Steppin’, too||bluegrass|
|I’ll Never Love Anybody but You||bluegrass|
|I’ll Never Shed Another Tear||bluegrass|
|I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry||Hank Williams|
|Johnny B Goode||Chuck Berry|
|King of the Road||Roger Miller|
|Kum Ba Yah||traditional|
|Lay Down Sally||Eric Clapton|
|Leaving on a Jet Plane||Peter, Paul & Mary|
|Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies||Willie Nelson|
|Me and Bobby McGee||Janis Joplin|
|Momma Don’t Dance||Loggins and Messina|
|Old Time Rock & Roll||Bob Seger|
|Rock Aroung the Clock||Bill Haley & the Comets|
|Roll Out the Barrel||Traditional Polka|
|She’ll be Coming Round the Mtn||traditional|
|Surfin’ USA||Beach Boys|
|Teach Your Children||Crosby Stills Nash & Young|
|Teardrops on my Guitar||Taylor Swift|
|Twist and Shout||Beatles|
|When the Saints Go Marching In||traditional|
|Will the Circle Be Unbroken||bluegrass|
|You Are My Sunshine||traditional|
|Your Cheating Heart||Hank Williams|
Now for the bad news… none of this discussion tells you in what order to play the chords for a particular song nor for how many beats to play a particular chord. Arrggg! I’m sorry to say I don’t think it is possible to understand those concepts from just talk. I think it will require some experimentation with your instrument. This experimentation is one aspect of ear-training.
As part of your experimentation, play the 1, the 4, and the 5 chords of a key on your instrument. Listen to how the sound of each chord relates to the sound of the other chords. Then start applying those sounds to a particular song. Take for example the first couple of lines of ‘You Are My Sunshine’. This particular tune starts on the ‘1’ chord. In the key of G that means we start on a G chord. Play a G chord on you instrument and sing these two lines. Is there is a chord change anywhere during either line (hint: there is). What word are you singing when the chord changes? (If you said ‘hap’ in the second line, you got it!).
You are my sun shine my on ly sun shine
You make me hap py when skies are grey
So what chord will you use at ‘hap’? You have a 50-50 chance of guessing right. You know you started with a ‘1’ (G) chord. You also know we are talking about 3 chord songs. If the chord changed (and it did) it has to be to either the ‘4’ (C) chord or the ‘5’ (D) chord, doesn’t it?
Try singing these two lines and play chords in the background. Start with a G chord. When you get to ‘hap’ try playing a D chord. Does it sound right? Do it again and try a C chord on ‘hap’. Does that sound right?
If you want some help with this project, we can set up a lesson or two to ease your path towards understanding all this. You can either call 513-607-1874 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a meeting. We can meet at either the Mt. Healthy studio or the Oxford studio. Although I haven’t tried it before, it is also possible we might have this discussion via Skype. We can give it a shot anyway.
Thanks for following my Seat-of-the-Pants-Music-Theory blog. Stay tuned for future posts with some instrument specific suggestions about how to use scales and chords to embellish a melody.