The songwriter’s toolbox part 3: Tour gives success

By | April 6, 2021

Press image Maroon 5

There’s something about the number seven. The seven days of the week, the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas … and as we stated in the first article of the Songwriter’s toolbox, we also have seven tones to choose from if we stick to the major scale. But not enough. We also find seven chords that belong to the key. You simply let each note in the major scale form the basic note for each chord, whose other two notes (ters and quintet) are taken from the same scale.

In the case of C major, the chords C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and so on become a little more secret Bm7-5. With these so-called diatonic chords, you get extremely far when it comes to harmonizing (adding chords to) a melody in C major. They will all sound more or less “good”. Had the key been E major, we would have had according to the same principle: E, F # m, G # m, A, B, C # m and D # m7-5.

Harlan Howard’s recipe for a good song: “Three chords and the truth”.

Today we will get acquainted with the first six which are the most common. They all have a different “function” in relation to the chord that is built on the root note, that is, the basic chord. This is what is called a tonic, is the chord you feel “at home” in, and is what a song often begins and ends with.

Three chords and the truth
Country singer Harlan Howard said that all you need is “three chords and the truth” and three chords certainly go a long way for most of all blues and rock’n’roll songs. Also for countless songs and singer / songwriter songs. Yes, to punk for that matter too.

The three famous chords you usually refer to are C, F and G in C major which correspond to E, A and B in E major and A, D and E in A major and so on. That is, the chords that are built on the basis of the first, fourth and fifth tones of the scale, which in terms of functional analysis become tonic (T), subdominant (S) and dominant (D). These “educated” words may scare some who are allergic to theory, but I promise – there is nothing to be afraid of.

All three are major chords and the tonic feels “at home” and from the other two you long for home. Especially from the dominant who really leads and strives back to the tonic. This is also why it is so popular that the last chord before the chorus is a dominant one.

The other three chords Dm, Em and Am are minor chords and are based on the second, third and sixth notes of the scale. Each of these is “related” to each of the three main triangles. They are so-called parallel chords. A major chord finds its parallel chord two scale tones (a semitone and a whole note, ie three semitones) down. The parallel chord to C is consequently Am while Dm and Em are parallel to F and G. respectively. By being related is meant that they sound quite similar. Much because they have two tones in common with each other. They are therefore often interchangeable with each other.

Functional analysis, step analysis and the Nashville method
That the functions are the same regardless of key is the finesse of talking about T, S, D instead – that is, the first, fourth and fifth chord. It is these positions in the scale that are also taken into account when performing a step analysis and then Roman numerals are used. This is so as not to confuse them with the number of the notes. C, F, G becomes I, IV, V and Dm, Em, Am becomes II, III, VI.

In the studio turn in Nashville, people also like to use this method, albeit with ordinary numbers. The advantage is that nothing changes on the chord chart you have in front of you, even if, for example, the singer wants to change the key. You just “move up” (or down) but the ratios between the chords are the same. A bit like moving around a capo on the guitar.

At home in Sweden, however, I have not yet come across anyone who talks about chords in numbers. Nor does it feel so “rock’n’roll” to stand in the rehearsal room and say: “-We are trying to start the chorus on the tonic parallel. Then we go via the dominant to the subdominant parallel and then back to the tonic parallel. ” That was probably not how Thåström said when he tested 800º with Gurra och Fjodor in Ebba Grön. Because it usually ends up that you mention the chords by name (if even that). But there is a lot to be gained from getting to know and getting into the backbone of how the chords relate to each other. For the sake of simplicity, however, in the rest of the article I will transpose all examples to the key in C major and simply write the name of the chords.

The 50s tour
A tour is a kind of “loop” where a certain chord sequence is repeated throughout all or parts of the song. They are usually based on four chords and four chords of course go even further than three. Actually insanely long. Therefore, we now add the fourth most common chord – the tonic parallel Am.

Songwriters Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller (right) wrote the song Stand By Me. Here they go through the song Jailhouse Rock with Elvis.

The mother of all tours is the one who formed the framework for a lot of songs during the Doo Wop period, ie the late 50’s and early 60’s until the Beatles and pop breakthrough in 1963. We can call it the “50’s tour” and it usually be among the first to learn to play the piano. It consists of C – Am – F – G and you recognize it from classic songs like Stand By Me, Diana and Be My Baby. A very common variant of this round is the one where F is replaced by the slightly softer parallel chord Dm as for example in Oh, Carol.

The music history went on but the tour survived. In the 70’s, Dolly Parton used it in I Will Always Love You, Gram Parsons in Love Hurts and Elton John in Crocodile Rock and so on. It worked in the 80’s for Springsteen in Hungry Heart (the variant with Dm), for The Bangles in Eternal Flame, for The Police in Every Breath You Take and for Orup in Regn Hos Mig. So there it has continued to our days in all possible styles, from Jesus of Suburbia with Green Day to Baby with Justin Bieber. The C – Am – F – G tour is thus far from declared dead and we will probably hear many more songs in the future with this chord sequence.

Four chord song
A modern equivalent of the same four chords – but in a different order – is the aforementioned chord sequence C – G – Am – F. You have probably seen the live clip with the song 4 Chords with the humor group The Axis of Awesome (30 million views on YouTube!). There it becomes clearer than ever how fantastically many melodies can be done over the same four chords. We’re taken on a journey from Let it Be (Beatles out early as usual) to I’m Yours and Poker Face via a bunch of lord wrestling hits: You’re Beautiful, Right Here Waiting, No-One, Don’t Stop Believin ‘, Can You Feel The Love Tonight, With Or Without You, She will be loved, Torn, When I Come Around, 21 Guns, Under the bridge, Complicated, Take On Me, Someone Like You, Paradise, Perfect and so on.

A variant that also occurs a lot in 4 Chords is the one that goes in minor and has the same chord sequence but starts on Am. One Of Us with Joan Osborne is a well-known example as is If I Were a Boy. Eagle-Eye Cherry built their entire monster hit Save Tonight on Am – F – C – G. It is a good example of when you take the roundabout to its peak. You use that song throughout without deviations. Iggy Pop did almost the same thing twenty years earlier in The Passenger (though there they play E instead of G every other time).

Note that the key in A minor is parallel to C major. What this means in practice is that they both contain the same scale tones, only that the A minor scale starts with A instead of C (and like the C major scale contains only white keys on the piano). It also means that the six most common chords become the same, even if it is then Am that is tonic. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if a song goes in Am or C. A common trick is to let the verse go mainly in Am and then offer a lift in the chorus with the ascent to the more hopeful major parallel C.

A new musical constant
English musicologist Joe Bennett made an analysis of 2012’s ten most played songs in the UK. The songs were Domino, Somebody That I Used to Know, Next to Me, Moves Like Jagger, Titanium, Dance with Me Tonight, Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You), We Found Love, Call Me Maybe and Payphone.

Four chords is still a recipe that works. The song Moves like Jagger by Maroon 5 is one in a series of many very successful examples.

He found many common denominators between them. All were love songs, a bunch of them went at 128 bpm and so on. But the most interesting thing and why I bring this up was that everyone (!) Uses different four-chord loops over 2, 4 or 8 bars. Half of them throughout the song. In his analysis, he writes that he is fascinated by this occurrence of four-chord rounds that are more obvious than ever. That one can say that in a certain type of mainstream song, four-chord tours – just like choruses, breakdowns and intro – have almost become a kind of “form part”, a musical constant, and he adds that he does not get bored of the tour itself in sig.

The phenomenon of four-chord tour songs is much more common today than in the 60’s and perhaps part of the explanation lies in the fact that many songwriters work with the computer as their main tool in songwriting, which in turn invites a loop thinking.

For or against?
Hope you did not get too dizzy after this tour among tours. Now it’s up to you what you do with this information. Feel free to try to pick out four chords from the six most common in the key yourself and then put them in a sequence that feels right (over the appropriate number of bars) and then let them go round, round, round. This tool in your toolbox may be just what you need to inspire you to a good verse or a strong chorus or – as we have seen in many cases – maybe a whole song.

Or you belong to those who, unlike the masses, have rotted on these tours and think it feels too cliché. Maybe it does not fit in your genre, even though we have seen that the range is enormous in tempo, genre and sound. Or you are one who prefers more complicated sounds. In that case, of course, it’s beautiful. But one thing I dare to promise. Many will happily continue to be inspired by these simple basic chords, recycle familiar rounds and in some successful cases they will – in combination with “right” text, melody, performance and production – give a real spin on the career.



  • The four most common chords are I, IV, V, VI which in C major becomes C, F, G, Am • The dominant G “longs” back to the tonic and is effective before a chorus

  • The verse in Am and the chorus in the parallel key in C major give an automatic lift

  • Two common rounds are C – Am – F – G (C – Am – Dm – G) and C – G – Am – F (Am – F – C – G)

  • A tour can be used in all or parts of the song


The major scale is built on the basis of any basic tone. The other scale tones are found by going up in whole and semitone steps: whole-whole-half, whole-whole-whole-half. There will be a total of eight notes, but the last is the basic note again one octave up (from the Latin octave, “eighth”).

Full tone = two half tones (skip one tone)

Half pitch = the distance (interval) to the nearest tone.


About the writer David Myhr
@David Myhr is a songwriter and artist and has released the albums Soundshine (2012) and Lucky Day (2018). He has a past in the pop band The Merrymakers and has written songs for the Japanese market, music for a lot of commercial jingles and some film music. On a daily basis, he works as a university lecturer and teaches e.g. songwriting at the Academy of Music in Piteå but also teaches at KMH and SMI. David, who is a Beatles connoisseur on a large scale, works in a classic songwriting tradition.
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Parts of the series

The article was originally published 2014-08-21 07:19