Posted by: kubiakl | May 12, 2010

A Few Chords

Yes, it’s a little silly and the point has been made many times over.  But Axis Of Awesome’s live illustration of it is still pretty funny:

So many songs have the same chord progressions (or at least the same intervals between the chords), and this makes sense – when you get right down to it, there aren’t that many chords around.

I thought about this at the ZZ Top show when I remembered a line from an interview with Billy Gibbons.  He said the secret to their success was never adding a fourth chord.  Any fan of blues music knows what he means – most blues songs are based around a three-chord progression called the I-IV-V.

I remember the day the meaning of that finally dawned on me while I was driving down a long road listening to Muddy Waters.  It suddenly made sense:  if you started on an E chord, that made it “I”.  Hold up your index finger and say it with me… “one”.  Now go up the list of notes, raising a finger each time.  When you have four fingers up, you’re at “A”.  So from an E chord, you would switch to an A.  Go one more note up and you get “B”.  That’s your fifth.  E-A-B, I-IV-V.  Nothing to it.

And that’s what is so fascinating to me about the music I listen to – when you dissect it, it’s very basic.  But the impact it has is complex and hard to explain.  The end product is greater than the sum of its parts.

During some of my darker moments I wonder if songwriting is even worth it.  Since most chord progressions are so similar and there are only so many ways to make a string of words coherent, it’s hard to write a song without being a little derivative.  Think about all the times a musician has sued another for infringement.  But then I remember that it’s a fun thing to do, plus there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a song.

And when that happens, those few chords become part of your happiness.  There aren’t too many things that compare.



  1. Excellent illustration.

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