One Chord to Rule Them All

When Bob Marley toured New Zealand for the first and only time in 1979 (he died in 1981), I’d never heard music like it. His visit was so significant that he was a lead item on the nation’s main TV channel’s prime time news. He left a significant impression on our own musical culture, from influencing local chart-topper Herbs in the ’80s, through to the ’90s’ Southside of Bombay, to current reggae darlings Katchafire.

Marley’s reggae music and social-political messages particularly chimed with Māori populations (indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand) who were more than happy to “get up and stand up for their rights” — the tour being coincident with land rights protests and cultural and language restoration struggles at the time.

What I didn’t know then about the beguiling, groovy feel and arrangements of Marley’s band, The Wailers, was that his classic “Get Up Stand Up” is a one-chord wonder. While the bass and other instruments hint at movement around the key, the song wraps around B minor 7 for its entirety.

Yet, all the pieces of a great songwriting puzzle are here: great hooks, an in-the-pocket groove, simple yet authentic lyrics with an extremely strong call to action, clear verses and choruses, all underpinned by one lonely, repetitive chord.

The stripping back of harmonic support to just a single chord is unusual, but by doing so, it makes it easier for the multitude of other elements in the song to really “stand up” and shine. And plenty of other artists outside of the reggae genre have utilized this groovy arranging tool, thwarting the danger of constructing pop songs too formulaically, and proving that you don’t need complexity in a harmonic progression to hint at complex emotional territory.

In fact, it seems that five songs that reached the Billboard Top 5 in 2017 featured only one recognizable chord, so perhaps harmonic minimalism is becoming the norm in pop music after all?

A potential champion in the one-chord ring is The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Sitting on B♭ minor with a prominent hi-hat groove, bass hook, and fantastically varied guitar licks and keyboard arrangements — not to mention handclaps and super-delayed trumpet — it’s an 11-minute soul opus, and I challenge anyone to notice. The baldness of a snare-less drum track, combined with the reduced harmonic support and relentless drive, supports the inherent sadness of the song, yet it waxes and wanes without ever collapsing into melodrama.

Aretha Franklin’s magnificent “Chain of Fools” features a similar motoric groove rumbling forward. Another minor chord, this time C minor 7, underpins this critique of romantic revelation and self-revelation in inimitable fashion. Again, a great rhythmic backdrop and a wicked a cappella breakdown help to maintain our interest the whole way through, leaving space for the Queen of Soul to deliver her message crystal clearly.

There’s an army of American blues artists who have used the one-chord trick too, from Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man” to Bo Diddley with “Who Do You Love.” The idea of droning repetitively to create strong feelings of tension — that “when-whenwhen will it end?” feeling — is paramount in so-called “world music” all across the globe, from India to Africa and everywhere in between. That’s on full display here in Sheila Chandra’s pop-raga British crossover hit, “Ever So Lonely.”

More recent forays into one-chord pop ascendancy (outside of the trap world inhabited by Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.”) have come from Pink’s “Get the Party Started” in 2003, where we’re “back where we started” in B minor. Pink’s song has a lot in common with Bob Marley’s track, if you really listen for how all these elements come together. It’s just not “reggae” — but why? (Share your thoughts on that in the comments if you want!) And F# minor loops and spaces around Flypaper contributor I Am Snow Angel’s uncomfortably direct lyric in her “Losing Face.”

One of pop music’s strengths is that songwriters can (and often do) stretch and/or contract any one of the components of their song as far as they can — and that, of course, includes the chord progression. So, when all else fails, put on a gorilla suit, find C7, and join Harry Nilsson in his one-chord calypso charmer, “Coconut.” Also make sure to pay attention to the polyrhythmic coconut percussion part here. Drink it up!

Lastly, there’s of course the great droning tape-collage masterpiece, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” by the Beatles. This kind of peak harmonic minimalism almost puts the Velvet Underground to shame!

Learn to write stronger songs with a more thorough understanding of the foundational elements of songwriting and chord writing. Get one-on-one help from a professional artistic advisor like Raven for six weeks with The New Songwriter’s Workshop, or our popular harmonic theory double header, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony.

Let us know what you’re working on today! 

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