It seems almost a redundant question, but the meat of it is this:

If one is using the three chord trick, is it stylistically required by rules of theory and phrasing to end the progression on the third chord? While it is pleasing to the ear to complete the phrase and repeat after three chords, will extending the phrase cause major disharmony or dissonance? What concepts of music theory can be cited to support this?

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    I have heard TWO different definitions of "three chord trick." One (the more common one) is any song built around the chords I IV and V. The other (less common) is any cadence of 3 chords played in rapid succession, for example C-G-Am or F-G-Am. La Bamba / Twist and shout comply with both these definitions, AND end on the V (the "third" out of I-IV-V as expressed in the question. But a cadence of the I IV and V chords in succession in ANY of the six possible orders sounds good. Those ending in I sound the most "finished." Please define 3 chord trick a bit more to get the answer you want. Apr 24, 2014 at 20:13

2 Answers 2


No. In fact, ending a passage of music on the third chord (the dominant) is an imperfect cadence or half cadence. As implied by the name, there is a "better sounding" perfect cadence (or authentic cadence), where you end on the first chord (the tonic). To quote Wikipedia:

Because it sounds incomplete or "suspended", a half cadence is considered a weak cadence.


The concept of finality is, of course, subjective; but as for dissonance, that is not present regardless of the order the chords are played. The three chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant) are the main chords of the key and are so often used exactly because they don't clash with each other.

  • so what the original poster means by "three chord trick" is sticking to degree I, IV and V when playing chords to a melody, or it is something more? That was the first time I heard this phrase.
    – ogerard
    Apr 30, 2011 at 22:24
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    @ogerard Basically yes. These three chords are basically the minimum when composing a song, allowing for simplicity without sounding like there's something missing. The number of popular songs that use only three chords is impressive, if not as interesting as the "four chord songs".
    – user28
    Apr 30, 2011 at 22:32

In simple answer to your question - yes, quite often, obviously not always. The progression may well end on the 'third chord' as you call it (normally it's the V), in order to re-start the sequence, usually back at I.

The song itself, though, will not sound like it's finished if that end of sequence chord is left to sound at the end of the song. As Matthew states, that is an imperfect cadence, where the listener expects more - hence it's there at the end of the sequence, but normally, the song will end on the next chord after the V, which will be I - producing a perfect cadence. No prizes for guessing why it's so called, unless it fades out of course, when we'll never know!

Unless- of course - we're talking about the jazz sequence of ii - V - I, which inevitably ends on 'the third chord' as the OP calls it, which is rather different...

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