Saturday, March 16, 2013

Three Chords and the Truth by Dave Isaacs

by Dave Isaacs/Music News Nashville
guitar-player-handsThree chords and the truth. It’s the title of a song and a phrase we hear all the time as the essence of country music. Country has always been about simplicity, directness of message, and memorable stories. That’s still true and probably always will be. But just as “rock” music has become a huge umbrella encompassing more subgenres than you can count, country music has also evolved and multiplied into sub-genres. They may not have a name yet, since we still classify the differences in style more with particular artists or regions – Strait or Aldean, Nashville or Texas – but there’s clearly a wide variety of sounds and styles in country music today. A new generation of country writers and artists grew up on Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and AC/DC. The message, directness, and simplicity still remain, but the sounds of rock and pop are now as much a part of country as the fiddle and steel guitar (which, by the way, are now noticeably absent from many artists’ music).
The fact is that music evolves as it always has. The music industry has also evolved, becoming more deeply entrenched in the “give us what worked last time” mindset. Granted, that’s good business, and hit factories from Sun Records to Motown to the Brill Building writers have proven that point again and again over the years. Yet music still grows and changes, as young musicians find inspiration in more and more places. The effects of the information revolution on music extend far beyond the debates about file sharing, internet revenues, and the devaluation of intellectual property. Think about this: today’s young artists grew up in a world where they had instant access to the entire catalog of recorded music, from Bessie Smith to the Beatles to Beyonce. The days of listening to the Opry through a transistor radio stashed under your pillow are long gone. Modern music makers and consumers live in a far more open market of sounds and ideas than ever before.
One natural consequence of this is fragmentation into subgenres. The resurgence of traditional instruments and string band music in acts like the The Band Perry or Old Crow Medicine Show is a counterpart (and perhaps a reaction) to the heavy rock influences on Jason Aldean or Montgomery Gentry. Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum owe an inescapable debt to Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles have cast a long shadow over Nashville since the heyday of the Desert Rose Band and the vocal groups of the 1990′s. Modern country encompasses all these influences and more.
So given this, it seems like a fair question to ask why so many songwriters still write with the same three- and four-chord patterns over and over. We take so much care with lyric and melody, but some writers somehow don’t see harmony as worthy of the same level of attention. It’s no accident that Lady A’s “Need You Now” was such a monster hit despite its “booty call” subtext. (I asked one of my students once, a seventeen-year-old girl, how she would react to a drunken phone call in the middle of the night from an estranged boyfriend…you can imagine her answer). But the song has a great melody, a piano hook that captures the emotional essence of the song in five notes, and simple but unexpected twists in the chord structure. The shift from the repeated 6 minor – 4 pattern of the verse to the 1 – 3 minor of the chorus is arresting and effective. It’s NOT complicated, just a little different, and much more creative than falling back on yet another rewrite of “Don’t Stop Believin’”. (Which, by the way, does more than the repeated four-chord sequence that we all recognize as the heart of the song. If you’re not sure what I mean, watch this video:
Here’s my point: take a good look at your catalog and notice your chord choices. If you find you’re using the same patterns over and over, it’s probably time to start learning some new ones. First of all, it’s amazing how you can change the emotional affect of a simple melody by substituting one chord for another over the same note. Think of looking through a prism and how the colors change when you turn it. The same thing viewed through a different lens gives it a different appearance.
It’s worth pointing out that the tried-and-true 1-4-5 patterns do work for a reason: 1 is home, 4 is home viewed from another perspective, and 5 is the setup for the resolution back to 1. The numbers here refer to the chords as they relate to the root note’s position in a scale, the foundation concept of the Nashville Number System. (If you don’t own a copy, I urge you to pick up Chas’ Williams’ essential book on the subject, available at But if you want to create something different and less predictable, a wider vocabulary of chords and how they work together should be as much a part of your toolbox as your ability to paint a lyrical picture. That three-minute movie deserves a good soundtrack, and in my opinion the creative use of harmony (chords) is as important a part of the picture as any other element of a song.
So start listening to music with this in mind. Notice when you’re hearing the same patterns over and over. When something bends your ear or draws your attention, ask yourself why. The Beatles were masters of using harmonic twists to underscore the meaning of a lyric, an idea that goes back to the great operatic composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Listen to James Taylor, Carole King, Billy Joel, Elton John… monster hitmakers all, and all with a command of harmony that’s rarely heard in today’s mainstream. You don’t have to push the envelope very far – a small change, a single chord, can have a huge emotional payoff. Go in search of the fabled “lost chord”. Your writing can only benefit from the exploration.

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