Two Chord Songs (How To Write Your Own)

Two Chord Songs (How To Write Your Own)

Two chord songs take some skill if you plan on trying to write one yourself. Similar to a one-chord song, you need to add interest in either the lyrics, vocal melody, rhythm or overall arrangement and song dynamics.

I chose 4 different two chord songs with different chord progressions and analyzed the vocal melody and overall song characteristics. So grab your guitar and notepad and get ready to learn how to write a two-chord song.

 

Two chord songs: Chord combinations options

Mostly every two-chord song can be analyzed by the relationship between the two chords of the song.

Here are examples of the most common chord “progressions” using C major as the tonic chord and expressing both chords in Roman Numerals and the Nashville Numbering System:

  1. C > Dm = I-ii = 1-2
  2. C > F = I-IV = 1-4
  3. C > G = I-V = 1-5
  4. C > Bb = I-♭VII = 1-b7

Those are the 4 most common two-chord combinations though you could come up with others, as the iii-I in the song Something in the Way by Nirvana (see below).

And you don’t have to use only major or minor triads. You could play 7ths (maj7, 7, m7), adds (6, add 9, m add9), or any other chord type you want. Whatever you want. Let’s get into the 4 songs.

 

First Two Chord Song: Fire On the Mountain (1-♭7 or I-♭VII)

Fire on the Mountain is a song by the Grateful Dead an is sung by Jerry Gacia. The chords in this song are B major and A major and the sheet music is notated as the key of B major, so that’s a 1 chord to ♭7 chord progression.

However, That doesn’t make sense since there is no A chord in B major plus the augmented 4h is sung over the A chord. The augmented 4th over A major is only found in E major, so the progression would be V to IV. Regardless, you would want to play B Mixolydian if you want to solo over the song.

The vocal melody is not very impressive for this two-chord song, but it’s the Dead!

It’s in cut time with a slight reggae beat. The verse section is 2 measures of B followed by 2 measures of A for a total of 24 bars.

 

Fire on the Mountain (Verse)

The sheet music below is just the first 8 bars of the verse as the middle 8 bars are nearly identical.

Two chord songs: Fire on the Mountain by the Grateful Dead

The only notes over the B chord are the major 3rd, perfect 4th, and perfect 5th – kind of sus4 melody. Jerry sings the perfect 5th, augmented 4th and major 3rd over the A chord.

I believe that is a motif variation known as a reverse or reversal. It’s basically 3-4-5 over the B then 5-#4-3 over the A. If you do not understand intervals, then read my Music Intervals article. Basically, Jerry is singing the M3, P4, and P5 of B over the B chord. He reverses that pattern over the A chord.

Here are the last 8 measures of the verse, with a slight variation:

Fire on the Mountain end of verse

Here Jerry adds a G# over both the B (major 6th) and A (major 7th) chords. It really seems like this song should be notated as the key of E major with the chords being the V > IV. The A major is being treated like a Lydian chord from E major.

 

Fire on the Mountain (chorus)

Then there is the chorus with the only lyrics being “Fire…Fire on the mountain” sung 4 times for a total of 16 bars. There is nothing but the D# over the B chord, but he returns to the #4-5-3 from the verse over the A chord.

Fire on the Mountain chorus

This and the Doors song below have the simplest vocal melodies of the 4 songs in this article. But the Dead make thing song groovin’ with the 2/2 time, the reggae beat and with slight melodic variations thru out the verse.

 

What makes this song work?

Regardless if you like the Dead or not, the use of Cut time (2/2) further emphasizes the “two” thing of the song. The reversal of the 3rd > 4th > 5th to 5th > 4th > 2nd is another example of two. But the simplicity of the chorus works as well.

The song Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley has a repeated chorus. I would assume Bob wrote it because of a political thing going on in Jamaica at the time. So his chorus is a rallying cry – a mantra. You get the same effect with the chorus in this song – a simple repeated phrase that just works.

 

Something in the Way (iii-I or i-♭VI)

Here is an example of using dynamics to separate the verse from the chorus. This song is notated as the key of D♭ with the 2 chords of F5 & D♭5. So that is a iii to I chord progression but I could see it as minor 1 to flat 6 major.

I think you could play Fm7 to D♭maj7 given the notes in the vocal melody. There are ♭7 notes before the F5 and the chorus has a ♭3 before the same chord. You also see the major 7th C before the D♭5 chord.

 

Verse section

Here is the music for the first 8 bars of the verse with a repeat sign. There are some slight variations given different syllable counts, but these meares are indicative of the verse section.

Two Chord Songs: Something in the Way by Nirvana

The F5 melody notes are ♭7 > root in each measure, but the melody over the D♭5 chord is interesting. The root of the F chord carries over as the major 3rd over the D♭5 but with 2 variations of the notes that follow.

The first variation is the major 7th C over the D♭5 chord but the second time it’s the major 2nd to root note. And the verse is just Kurt singing accompanied by n acoustic guitar.

 

Chorus section

Something in the Way chorus

Here is where all the instruments come in with an increase in dynamics and a melody with higher pitch notes – really nice! Over the F5 chord, you get a movement of the 4 > 5 > ♭6 and the flat 6 holds as the root over the D♭5 chord in the next measure. Then the beautiful droney sounds of Kurt humming the to perfect 5th of each chord for a full measure.

The 5th measure is where I think you could play an Fm or Fm7 with the change in the melody of G > A♭ here the A♭ hangs on as the perfect 5h for the D♭5 chord into it’s major 3rd F. Simple but nice and effective.

Also to note, the G is the ♭5 for D♭ so a little bluesy addition to the melody.

 

What makes this song work?

This is a perfect example of dynamics. The verse section is jus Kurt singing and strumming a guitar, but the verse section increases in volume and introduces all the other instruments. There is an interesting change in the music without changing the chords.

Once again, the melody is rather simple but various chord tones are being sung and even carry over from one measure to the next chord.

Once I noticed the major 7th in relation to the D♭5 chord and the minor 3rd for the F5 chord, I tried playing Fm and Fm7 > D♭maj7. It sounds good. Even better, you could drop that a half-step and play Em / Em7 > Cmaj7 / Cmaj9 for an open chord version.

 

Break on Through (I-ii or V-vi)

This song is definitely one of The Doors’ biggest hits. The vocal melody is really basic and simple. What makes this song crackle with energy are the great lyrics, the driving fast rock tempo, and Ray Manzarek’s killer bass and keyboards.

The chords are D and Em with a 4/4 time signature in G major, so I guess that makes it a V-vi chord progression but you could look at it as I to ii.

There are a lot of changes in this song and the various ‘sections” or parts move quickly in the first parts of the song. It goes something like this:

Verse > Change1 > Chorus/Refrain

Ywo chord songs: Break on Through by the Doors

The first two lines of lyrics re B > B♭ and then D > C# > B – it’s almost E blues more than G major. The B♭ being the ♭5 for E and the C# as the 13 but both are over the D chord.

Then the 1st “change” is just the D chord for 2 measures and the melody notes are only the notes D and B – B is the featured note in the first 7 measures.

The chorus, I believe, is just the Em chord over “Break on through to the other side…” and the vocal melody are notes from the E minor pentatonic scale. It may be Em to D again but it’s hard to hear if that works with all the instrumentation going on over that. I think either Em or EM > D work.

Break on Through Chorus

The vocal melody for the 2nd section or change is just an E note over the line “Everybody loves my baby“, while the last change is just a G note over “She get high” although Jim does scream into higher-pitched notes – classic Morrison!

 

What makes this song great?

Oh boy, ahhh – everything! Every member of the band sounds great, Jim Morrison’s vocals with the fast tempo driving rock beat. The song is great and it’s a classic.

I like the change to just the D chord an increase in dynamics and performance by the other musicians right before Jim starts “screaming” the chorus/refrain. You should listen to the song and see what you think.

 

Mannish Boy (I-IV)

This song has been in so many movies and TV shows. It’s is a classic! It’s blues in A in 12/8 time with a triplet blues shuffle. The first 3 sets of triplets are the A chord with the D chord coming in on the last triplet.

The first set of music below is Muddy just singing by himself although the guitar player matches his vocals. I also show the basic chordal pattern that is being played in the last measure with the repeat symbols.

By the way, I only transcribed the first 1:29 of the song. With all those rests and dotted notes, it was very time-consuming.

Basically, he is singing notes from the A minor pentatonic scale. I stopped right before the measure where he first sings the phrase “mannish boy”.

Two Chord Songs: Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters

I’m telling you, that bluesy triplet rhythm and the A-D-C-D riff on the last triplet is amazing! Good luck trying to top that.

The next piece of music shows the measures where he is singing a lot of vibrato and note bending. He had talent as a singer.

If you know how to read the rhythmic parts to standard notation, then you may notice some timing mistakes. I tried to get the guitar part to match his vocals as closely as possible, especially his vibrato but I’m not the best at notating exact rhythm.

Mannish Boy verse

 

What makes this song great?

Everything. The intro solo singing is interesting. Then the band comes in with that great blues shuffle. Then Muddy basically does blues “rapping” throughout the entire song. Fantastic!

 

Techniques and tips for writing a two-chord song

Here is a summary of the techniques used in the songs above along with other techniques to think about. Similar to one chord songs, you are going to need something else that makes your song interesting.

Some of the things to think about are in-your-face powerful beats and rhythms, a well constructed vocal melody, and/or well-crafted pars for the other instruments. Harmony alone is just not enough to sustain interest. Let’s look at some specifics aspects of your two-chord song.

Rhythm & Tempo

You could play slow bluesy triplets as in Mannish Boy, or have the fast driving pace as in Break on Through, I do like the choice of 2/2 in Fire on the Mountain given it is a 2-chord song and the reggae feel helps as well. You could also “speed” up for the change by increasing your strum patterns, like 1/8th note strums changing to 1/16ths.

Chords

You could play different versions/inversions of your two chords. The only song above that may do that is Break on Through, but there is a lot going on in that fast=paced song so it’s hard to tell. One trick could be to play the chords in the chorus section at a higher position, maybe even an octave higher.

Another option is to reverse the order of the 2 chords for the chorus/bridge section. That would mean you would have to hold onto the 2nd chord as the 1st chord for the new section.

Or copy the position of the 2nd chord, D major, in Mannish Boy and play the 2nd chord only on the last beat of the measure for the 1st chord.

Vocals & Melody

There is an interesting back and forth motion with two-chord songs. You can use that to create a vocal melody over your first section and then change that melody over the chorus/bridge section. I think the reverse motif thing in Fire on the Mountain but I really like Kurt Cobain’s melody in Something in the Way.

Kurt’s melody is relatively simple but he has some nice note choices in his melody. I would love to know if he worked it out on guitar first or if it came naturally to him.

Dynamics

You could add variety through dynamics by getting loud for the chorus section then back to low volume for the verses. Something in the Way is a perfect example of that.

The Doors song is flat out in your face and loud, and the Muddy Waters tune is the same throughout with the exception of the intro. The Dead tune is more laid back but it doesn’t have any noticeable volume changes either.

And you could reverse that as well. You could have the verse louder and “busier” than the chorus if that fits the overall tone of your song.

 

Final Thoughts

Learning how to write great one and two-chord songs will only help you pay attention to the other aspects of your song. You don’t want to just play a bunch of chords without taking into account all the other aspects of a song. Hopefully, you got plenty of ideas from this article to get you started writing two-chord songs.

 

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