These songs from decades past show us that, really, more is less. Let’s explore the magic of the bVII-I progression and how two chords can make a song.
In “Sometimes, one chord is all you need,” we discussed how much variety you can squeeze out of just one chord when writing a song. So let’s double the bet and look at some two-chord songs. In the end, we’ll find that, ironically, certain two-chord songs can sound more like a one-chord song than many one-chord songs do.
While there are maybe two dozen well-known songs that feature just a single chord, there are thousands of two-chord songs. As I mentioned in the one-chord post, one of the most important aspects in music is tension and release, and simply adding a second chord often gives you all the tension and release you need. (As Lou Reed famously declared: “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”)
Most two-chord songs feature a I chord (let’s say C) and either a V or a IV (G and F, respectively). Why? Because the V-I and IV-I cadences are two of the most powerful cadences in music. You find these progressions everywhere in folk, rock, and reggae. Some classic songs in this vein are:
- Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” (B, E)
- Hank Williams, “Jambalaya” (C, G)
- Traffic / Joe Cocker, “Feeling Alright” (C, F)
- The Vaselines / Nirvana “Molly’s Lips” (C, G)
- Bob Marley, “Lively Up Yourself,” (D, G)
The specific two-chord progression we’ll explore here, however, is the I-bVII-I (e.g. C-Bb-C). As I mentioned at the top of this article, what I find so interesting about the bVII-I progression is how it works to relentlessly emphasize the I chord, to the point that it obliterates everything around it. It’s a case of how more can be wonderfully less.
A first example, from 1966, is the great “E too D” by the Small Faces, who clearly realized a great progression when they found it.
Another song from the mid/late ’60s with the I-bVII-I progression is “Black to Comm” by the MC5.
The chords are just E-D-E, although the bVII almost loses its harmonic function, so it feels more like E-and-E-and-E…. It’s relentless.
A decade later came “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide.
To call this a two-chord song is stretching things a bit since I don’t think Martin Rev is actually playing chords as much as two notes, an Eb and an F. But the effect is the same: an endless push to the I, in this case, F.
Compare these songs to tracks we featured in the last post, like Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” or Junior Walker’s “Shotgun.” Both of those are true one-chord songs, but they feel more harmonically free.
It’s not just a punk thing, either, by the way. Here’s a spacey example: “How Does it Feel?” by Spacemen 3, a band that was heavily influenced by Suicide (they even have a song named “Suicide”) and The MC5 (Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” is essentially a remake of “Black to Comm”).
It’s interesting how simply changing one thing — the order or emphasis in which you play the chords, or changing the tonic to a minor — totally alters the feel of this progression.
For example, compare and contrast the previous songs with “Fire on the Mountain” by the Grateful Dead and “Jane Says” by Janes Addiction.
On the surface, these two songs are very similar to each other. They both use two major chords that are a major second apart (“Fire” goes B-A-B-A etc., and “Jane” goes G-A-G-A, etc.), and they both spend equal time on each chord. However, I would argue that simply by beginning on B and going down to A, “Fire” is clearly in B, whereas “Jane,” which moves in the opposite direction (G to A) doesn’t feel like it’s clearly in either G or A. It also doesn’t help that Perry Farrell is singing notes that don’t fit in either chord. (It almost feels like he’s singing in D).
Both “Fire” and “Jane” are quite different from our previous examples. Even though “Fire” feels like a I-bVII-I progression, it has a different feel to it than, say, “E too D.” Because equal time is spent on each chord, and because each chord is hit on the downbeat, that flat-seventh chord feels more like a substitute for a dominant V chord. In other words, the progression feels like B-A-B-A, as opposed to B-and-B-and-B.
Changing the tonic to a minor (i-bVII-i) makes a dramatic difference as well, giving the song a restless, rootless feeling, not unlike “Jane Says.” Check out “Pushin’ Too Hard” by the Seeds (Bm-A).
… and “Break On Through” by the Doors (Em-D)
With both songs, it’s unclear which chord is our tonic, which is exhilarating and perfectly complements the theme of the lyrics.
I’ll leave you with probably my favorite song ever, which also happens to be a two-chord song (although I like to think of it as a song with one-and-a-half chords since the bass stays the same). Give it up for the Beatles.
Scott McCormick is a musician and the author of the Mr. Pants series of graphic novels for kids. His new audiobook, Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World, has been described as “drunk history for middle-grade kids” and is available on Audible. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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