If you analysed all the tracks that enter the Billboard Top 5 in a single year, you’d find that the majority have between 2 and 6 chords. Those with a love for the sort of sophisticated harmonic progressions found in the great American songbook might sneer at this paucity of invention but then they’re not the ones streaming or downloading these songs.
Fact is, the listener doesn’t care how many chords there are in a song and probably has only the faintest idea what a chord actually is. They will know, however, when something sounds right or not.
If you search online for ‘songs with just two chords’ you’ll be provided with lists of songs for beginners. But are two-chord songs necessarily simplistic? History proves otherwise. Some of the most popular songs of all time happily rock back and forwards between two chords.
Here are some classic examples:
Horse With No Name – America (Em D6)
Achy Breaky Heart – Billy Ray Cyrus (C G)
505 – Arctic Monkeys (Am Bm)
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (D E)
Born In The U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen (B E)
Paperback Writer – The Beatles (G7 C)
Working Class Hero – John Lennon (Am G)
Dreams – Fleetwood Mac (F G)
And here’s one I produced myself as a quick sketch to demonstrate rocking backwards and forwards between two chords – in this case, Am7 and Dm7. You can put all sorts of stuff on top and develop this piece in any direction you like.
So, two-chord songs aren’t just for musicians who only know two chords. They’re just songs that happen to be constructed this way. In the end, the amount of variability in the chord progression is no indication of quality.