The magic of three notes

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 12:30pm

There is nothing more comforting than a triad of notes, hanging in the air. It seems perfect, like the combination of three fingers pressing three keys was always meant to be. The root note rounds out a floating base, the second, a filler, the third, a cherry on top.

In pop music, the natural ease of triads comes easy and quick. If you listen to anything currently on the top 40 radio charts, I bet you that there is an obvious triad of notes hiding somewhere in the chorus. Even more specifically, The Chainsmokers have really run with this basic musical theory into the seemingly never-ending sunset, and I will never get “baby pull me closer in the back seat of your Rover” out of my head. It’s not by choice, trust me. The human brain just loves the sound of threes, no matter how cliché they may be in music ― it’s truly the original earworm.

My interest, however, is not with The Chainsmokers — it is in the breakdown and power of those chords the band has built a pop empire upon. The EDM duo is not alone in this hack of the music industry’s machine: Sia has written the majority of her songs in less than 15 minutes, so did Amy Winehouse, and for the love of God, listen to the pre-Revolver Beatles once and a while and try to find a progression that you couldn’t make up just sitting at the piano for fun. Instrumental aficionados and beginners alike are familiar with the range that understanding chords can give you alone, without any real idea of the notes that are inside of them. They just sound good, like you’ve discovered something completely new and perfect despite their age-old history.

And in that natural feel comes the magic of chords. The frustration of learning a new instrument is soon offset by the excitement of creating something with your own hands, something that sounds fantastic and offers you a new realm of possibilities. They’re an accessible way to start playing, and a comfortable ending point for those who don’t want to go down the long and winding path that is music theory. I personally wouldn’t consider myself a virtuoso, but I learned piano and guitar through chords and can survive on that alone. Some of the most talented songwriters followed basic chord progressions, eschewing complex melodies for the innate beauty of simplicity. There’s a reason Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is often one of the first songs that people learning guitar pick up: G, D, A minor and C are all three-pronged chords, an easy starting place from which to learn more.

The ubiquity of triadic chords in popular music does not devalue them. In fact, their commonality makes them an even more important skill in the process of learning an instrument. They’re the base that jam sessions are born out of, that songwriting begins with, that campfire singing picks up from. When you learn the basics, you open a whole world to explore, one that most other people are familiar with. With the first chord you figure out, your fingers shaking over the three strings, the three keys, the three notes in the air, you finally have the ability to connect with all of the music that’s ever been written. It seems dramatic, but it’s true. Chords are the framework of every song structure, the floor on which a melody dances. If you can sing, all you need is a handful of notes and you’re golden. Especially three.