What Makes One-Chord Songs Work?

By Erin Barra, Spire Contributor | January 16, 2019

one chord song

Believe it or not, some of the world’s most popular songs predominantly rely on a single chord. Songs like “Single Ladies” by Beyonce and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone manage to get their point across and keep us listening without relying on harmonic movement to pitch in on the work.

What did the composers do that made these such timeless songs sans harmony? Let’s take a look.

Hanging on a chord

Most songs that only have a single chord on them are using the one chord, or tonic chord of any given modality, as the single chord. This use of the tonic makes things feel grounded and provides the framework for how the melodies and phrasing are perceived and digested by a listener.

Well known examples of this are “Single Ladies” by Beyonce, “Bang Bang” by Jessie J, “Papa was a Rolling Stone” by the Temptations, “Exodus” by Bob Marley, “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson, “Everyday People” by Sly and The Family Stone, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.

In the case of “Single Ladies,” there is a harmonization of the chorus motif with a few chords at the end of each chorus, but beyond that, you could even go as far as saying that this song is the “no chord” song. Go take a listen and notice how the melodies are laying on top of what is a bed made mostly of rhythm. With the last iteration of “if you like it then you better put a ring on it” comes the ii chord and the V chord, ending in an Authentic cadence of V-I, which in contrast to what’s come before feels huge. When it lands back in the Verse, you’re given the illusion of the tonic, and you feel like you’ve arrived back at home base.

Got melody?

One thing that all of these songs have in common, besides the use of a single chord, is great melodies. In the absence of one or more elements, the remaining parts of a song get exposed in a way they otherwise wouldn’t, so these melodies had to be extra good in order to carry the tune.

When it comes to great melody pop writing, it often comes down to melodic development inside of single sections and melodic contrast between song sections. Inside of a single section, it’s a good idea to stick to a single motif and either repeat it a number of times or create slight variations of it through techniques like sequencing, extension, and truncation to name a few.

The opening “Oh—” section in “Single Ladies” consists of the same motif repeated verbatim. The second section, which is the first verse, consists of a single motif that gets repeated twice in the first bar and then is extended in the second bar by flipping the motif back around.

There’s a significant contrast between these two sections, mostly in the length of the phrases and where those phrases are placed in the measures. The opening has a pickup that drops onto the downbeat, creating a wave-like motion across the duration of two measures. In the verse, we’re starting right on the downbeat with shorter phrases, which create a sense of forward motion or acceleration.

The moral of the story here is that you need strong and simple melodies that your listener can latch onto in the absence of harmonic structure, as well as strong contrast between sections so your listener doesn’t get lost as to which part of the song they’re in.

That sounds familiar

Certain genres lend themselves to single chord iterations, specifically for those that are culturally rooted in some sort of groove. For instance, lots of funk music is written above a single chord for the verses, and then when you “take it to the bridge” you also take it to the IV chord. Lots of funk centers around the tonic and has more to do with a pocket, or feel, than anything else. In 12-bar blues, eight out of twelve chords are the tonic chord. There’s a strong sense of home throughout, which makes the V-IV turnaround at the end feel especially momentous.     

In a more contemporary sense, lots of songs have verse sections, which only contain a single chord, helping to create contrast and a sense of propulsion when harmonic movement is introduced in the chorus. A great example of this done effectively is “Hanging by a Moment” by Lifehouse. Throughout the verse sections, we’re pinned down by a cello playing the tonic notes while the guitar riff plays a repeated pattern above. The lyrics are “desperate for changing,” and the arrangement of this section supports that notion. The protagonist is “hanging by a moment”—a moment that happens when the chorus section smacks us in the face with the vi and V chords.  

Give it a try!

Writing a one-chord song is like writing with a hand tied behind your back. One of the advantages of doing this from a craft perspective is that it will make you focus on the other tools at your disposal, which is your melody writing, your lyric writing, and the interplay of rhythms and arrangement. It will expose weaknesses and strengths in those areas and can be a guide as to where your craft needs further development.  

Take it as a challenge, but as also as an opportunity to grow and develop. As songwriters, we often find ourselves entering the songwriting processes through the same portal, or our hands will fall into the same places on our instrument. Here’s a chance to switch things up and see what happens. If it works for Beyoncé and The Beatles, then it can work for us too!