Understanding a foundation of music.

“One chord is fine, two chords and you’re pushing it, three chords and you’re into Jazz.” – Lou Reed

Chords and chord changes are one of the dominant auditory features in our modern music making.  

The ability to distinguish when a chord change occurs, and how chord changes are grouped, layers a new and fascinating level to the art of listening.  To practice this, we are going to listen to songs which use only one chord, only two chords, only three chords, and a song which uses many more.  Four songs to open another channel of music appreciation within ourselves.

It is important that the four songs we choose are as similar as possible, so that our ears can more easily be drawn to the differences occuring in the chord changes.  Luckily for us, the Beatles were masters of songwriting and can fulfill all our requirements while sounding great.  

Lets start with a brief overview of what chords are, and what chord-changes create.

The concept of home.

When we talk about chords, what we are really referring to are structural frameworks which give us a general understanding of the harmony during that particular part of the music.  

Though that sounds a little complex, it’s as simple as the concept of home.  

Let’s look at the Beatles.

In all of their songs, there is always one note in each song, called the tonic, which is the note of absolute resolution, upon which every other note is measured.  When you hear it, it sounds nice and cozy and complete – like coming home. Whether any other note sounds tense or not depends on that note’s relation to the tonic.

So – what is a chord?

A chord is a sort of expansion of a note, so to speak. We take any note – the tonic of a song, for instance – and build a group of notes around it that sound particularly harmonious. Now, instead of expressing our tonic of C with a single C-note, we can express it with a C-chord.

When you pluck, say, a C-string, you’re actually hearing a whole bunch of sound-waves of different frequencies. The loudest and most prominent is the frequency the note is named for – so, with a C-string, the loudest might be about 262 Hz, which is what we call ‘middle C’ (it’s the octave in the middle of a piano keyboard). Some of the frequencies coming from that C-string will be C in higher octaves. And some of the frequencies will be the main frequencies of other notes.

A chord is created by taking the first few frequencies of a note that aren’t octaves, and making them louder.

Let’s look deeper into our hypothetical C-string to make this clearer.

If you pluck a string tuned to middle C, the loudest frequency will be 262 Hz: C in the ‘middle’ octave. The next loudest frequency will be C again, one octave higher. The next loudest will be a pitch of G. The next loudest will be C again, in a higher octave. After that, a pitch of E.

So to create a simple C-chord, we combine the notes C, E, and G. Voila!

Songs from chords.

Most songs use at least two chords, but many classics are built on just a single chord.  

The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one such example of a song with one chord.  

Listen to the constant drone in the sitar, which always remains in a relaxed sonority- this is what it sounds like to stay on one chord.

Hearing the changes.

Next – a two-chord song!

To hear chord changes, it’s a good idea to listen to the lowest sound possible, like the bass.  By listening closely to the lowest instrument, you are more likely to hear when the chord changes.   

“Eleanor Rigby” is a Beatles tune which bounces around between two chords.  

Can you hear the two chords?  Can you hear that one sounds more ‘home-y,’ or resolved, than the other?

The ‘3-chord song’…

The ‘3-chord song’ is a phenomenon of music making.  It’s the kernel of every other song structure in western music, and when utilized well, has an air of absolute perfection.  
Don’t worry about keeping track of the chords while listening, just see if you can keep an awareness of the chords as they roll by.

…and beyond!

Finally, of course we need a song with many chords to show the great difference that chord repatition, or the lack therof has on the sound of a song.

Again, the Beatles do not disappoint.  

To represent the many chorded song, here is “Martha My Dear,” which has a nice hearty handful of chords.  

Could you hear the different chord-changes in these songs?

Did one chord sound more resolved or ‘home-y’ to you in each song?

Join the discussion in the comments!

Angela Cross

Author Angela Cross is a vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She’s also a passionate and ever-curious soul – learn more about Angela at her artist page!

And if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out her latest album, Songs from the Girl.

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