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Rock and Roll features power chords. Funk features 9th and 13th chords. Blues features 7th chords. Jazz features all kinds of strange diminished and augmented and suspended and flat 5th and other unusual chords.

Country music (aka Country and Western) features mostly very basic major chords with an occasional minor chord thrown in to spice things up. Very rarely do I see Country songs that include any exotic or unusual chords other than embellishing a D major chord by adding or subtracting a finger to play a Dsus4 or Dsus2. And I do occasionally see a 7th chord thrown in as a passing chord - but not so often.

Why do country music writers and composers avoid the more complex chords such as the ones used in other genres? Certainly Brad Paisley or Keith Urban could play any chord they wanted to. Is there something inherent in the fabric of Country music that falls apart if you deviate outside the basic major and minor chords?

Are there good examples of country artists/writers/composers who regularly deviate from this "norm"? Or at least a few songs that squarely fall into the accepted definition of the "Country" music genre that feature more complex chords?

Before anybody goes there - the band America - is a Rock band formed in England according to Wikipedia - although some of their lyrics might cross over into what we expect in a "Country" song.

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    Aren't power chords less complex than major and minor chords, in that they have no thirds? – Todd Wilcox Mar 3 '16 at 19:23
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    Looking through several online lyric & chord pages for country songs reveals a whole bunch of dominant 7th chords. I would say pop, delta/chicago blues, rock, metal, and punk (at least) have similar or even more simple chords than country. Sure funk and jazz and folk might use more complicated chords more often, but I don't see country as an outlier in chord complexity. – Todd Wilcox Mar 3 '16 at 19:51
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    Country rarely uses minor chords. Country, Folk and Bluegrass use major chords and sometimes a minor. Why fix what's not broken? It is the sound the originators preferred. If you want more complex harmony, try Western Swing. – r lo Mar 3 '16 at 19:56
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    @ToddWilcox I only mentioned power chords prominence in Rock to illustrate that certain genres "feature" certain type chords. Country features mostly major chords (and usually in first position). – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '16 at 0:47
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    This question feels a bit like saying why does country music sound like country music. A lot of country music is quite anthemic with the stress very much on the vocal melody. Complex harmonies can distract from that, sometimes in a good way but it still changes the character. – Dave Halsall Mar 4 '16 at 11:04
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You could also ask “why do artists outside of the country genre use complex chords instead of the simpler harmonies of country music?” The complex harmonies are not necessarily better.

In the country genre, there is a culture where an artist will make a song, and millions of everyday people who may not have had access to musical schooling can get themselves a guitar and learn to play and sing that song. If you know a few chords and have a capo and can sing a little bit, the reason you may love country music may be because you can play some or all of the songs yourself. That is a really beautiful tradition that also exists in some other genres like Blues.

Many country artists come right out of that tradition — they didn’t have musical schooling, they just got a cheap guitar and taught themselves how to play country. Then they starting writing songs with that same basic musical toolkit, adding to that culture, telling their own stories.

So the focus in Country (and Blues) is on the storytelling, performance, and playability by a broad audience rather than the orchestration and arrangement. An analogy might be black and white photography, where you are deliberately putting aside color to focus more intensely on composition, texture, mood, lighting, subject.

In other genres it can be the opposite. In Jazz and Concert music, for example, there is an academic exploration of what is possible that is prioritized over making your songs playable by the everyday person. The photography analogy there might be not only using color film, but making video, making motion graphics, pushing the technical envelope.

In short, the simple harmonies of Country are a feature, not a bug.

  • Or put the other way around: complex chords in Country would risk being considered a bug, rather than a feature. – leftaroundabout Mar 6 '16 at 11:48
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One of the important roots of country music is the folk music brought to the Appalachians by European (particularly Irish) immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th century, with influences from African music (the banjo being the most obvious one) and the parallel development of congregational church music (the development of which was itself influenced by some of the same traditions). None of these are noted for the use of highly complex harmonies or harmonic developments.

Musicians in these developing communities would also in many cases not have been professionals, but family members getting together and performing, which requires a straightforward, commonly-understood system of achieving 'harmony that works'.

Although this early American traditional music included ballads and dances, It also seems that when the music started to be published and broadcast, it was the 'good-time' music - the dances - that was most marketable, and these were mostly oriented around major tonality. This led to what we think of as 'Country music' being associated most associated with the major key and scale in particular (although of course there are many minor-key country songs, these still don't make up a high percentage).

A large part of the marketability of Country music is still based around its perceived authenticity and connection with the traditions of working and farming communities. For that reason, music that deviates a long way from these roots tends not to be labelled simply as 'Country'. A lot of Southern Rock, for example, has identifiably country elements, but is seen as separate. Outlaw Country also tends to include a wider range of influences, including more of the older ballad-style music, blues, and folk.

Sources : Appalachian Traditional Music - A Short History & Country Music - Piero Scaruffi

  • Your premise of Country music's connection with the traditions of working and farming communities is spot on. But I would say that the Appalachian music that originated prior to recording capability - (passed from family to family and generation to generation) falls more into the Folk music genre. And "traditional" country music seemed to favor sad drown your sorrows in Jack/cry in your beer songs - which is all I ever heard on country radio in the 70's (which is why I turned the dial if I had control over it). But I'm going to give you a plus 1 for your efforts in research. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '16 at 22:15
  • @RockinCowboy I'm definitely not an expert and I appreciated your question as an opportunity to do read a little! I was trying to imagine what 'country music' was when the marketing mould for it was set... was thinking of the Grand Ole Opry, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the fiddle tunes my Irish violin teacher used to teach me. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '16 at 22:25
  • I connected with Country when I began writing songs in 2008 and they all seemed to come out "Country". When I tuned in to more recent country I discovered that it had evolved into what I used to consider "rock n roll" from the 70's. Now there are two camps among country fans. Those who prefer the more traditional country of the Grand Ole Opry and those who prefer new artist like Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line and one of my favorites The Zac Brown Band. After I started playing some of the newer country I kept getting request for older stuff. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '16 at 22:36
  • I do love that Country, new and old, is easy to learn to play because the guitar arrangements are relatively simple compared to Pop or Jazz. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '16 at 22:38
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I think it is hard to answer a question like this in any other way than with an opinion, even if it is based on some experience.

When I look at a general cross section of country bands, there are, in many cases, a lot more players on the stage. Fiddles, lap steel, lead and rhythm guitar, bass, piano, etc. This typically means that you need to leave larger holes in what you play for others to fill in the gaps. Maybe you're jamming on a G major and the fiddle player is hitting the F# to make it sound as a Major 7th.

So while you might look up a chord chart for a simple tune and see a bunch simple chords, that is likely just the "meat" of the song, odds are good that when that artist takes the stage, he is playing with a host of other musicians adding notes to the harmony that turn those simple chords into much more complex harmonies.

I could likely go on with other reason why I might choose simple chords to write a country tune, but for the most part it comes down to artistic expression.

As r lo mentions above, Western Swing is full of harmony you might expect to hear coming from a Jazz group.

  • If you go to Nashville, (the rightfully self proclaimed Country Music capital of the world), you will see many Country artist playing all over town as a solo guitar act or a two guitar duo. They still seem to be playing the basic major chords on most songs. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '16 at 0:50
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Because that's the style of what we call "Country Music". The "3-chord trick" plus maybe a few more. There's no "why" beyond that simple fact. If a songwriter wrote more complex harmonies or a player started slipping in jazz substitutions you'd say "That doesn't sound like Country!"

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I'd say it's for the same reason that pop music is like that: sticking to triads creates a mood of straightforward, pure, clear emotion. This comes right down from Celtic music--would you enjoy Danny Boy or Auld Lang Syne any more with a bunch of sly jazz upper partials? (Well, it's been done, but even jazz guys often stick closer to triads when they're playing that material.)

That being said, if you go outside of modern commercial country, you do start to find more interesting chords. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings use all kinds of strange intervals and even outside tones. Willie Nelson is famous for his jazzy chords. Chet Atkins and Les Paul did all kinds of neat stuff. Major 6 chords are considered a hallmark of classic country (try an open E chord with a C# on the B string and tell me that doesn't sound country).

  • Also check out Tony Rice's beautifully angular take on Wayfaring Stranger for some very tasty chords in a country/bluegrass setting. – Alex Mar 6 '16 at 7:58
  • I like that E with the C# on the B string. I think I could probably work that into the next Country song I write. And thanks for the links. Plus 1 – Rockin Cowboy Mar 6 '16 at 9:29
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The quote has been attributed to many, but country music is "three chords and the truth." Harlan Howard said it first.

The musicianship in country has typically taken a backseat to lyrical songwriting and telling the truth through words- at least the truth as the songwriter sees it. The depth of the song is usually- note the word usually- in the lyrics, not the music.

  • It might improve your answer if you clarify what you mean by "musicianship", since the proverbially superb musicianship of Nashville session players features prominently on such a large number of country records. – Ed Plunkett Feb 26 at 19:38

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