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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? 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. 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). 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. 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.

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    Or put the other way around: complex chords in Country would risk being considered a bug, rather than a feature. 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

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  • 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. 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 morto
    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. 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. 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.

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  • 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. Mar 4 '16 at 0:50
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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).

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    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 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.

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    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. Feb 26 '19 at 19:38
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Country music (aka Country and Western) features...

Let me stop you right there. The "Country" chart was originally the "Hillbilly" chart. "Western" was "Western Swing". We forget that between the 20s and the 50s, Jazz was the Popular (Pop) music, and the Western Swing genre is as influenced by Duke Ellington as it was by Roy Rogers. Seventh chord galore.

The charts connected the genres and we now consider them joined, but it's a bit like saying that Rockabilly is part of Metal.

Now...

Why do country music writers and composers avoid the more complex chords such as the ones used in other genres?

Genre is audience, and audience expectation. Music is functional. It fulfills a role.

What is the role of Country music? It's dance music and it's story music. Would harmonic complexity help it tell the stories of heartbreak or nostalgia or whatever better? Would it help people, 8 to 80, get up and dance?

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It depends on what one calls country music. What I heard today I don't really consider country. I call it everything but. I remember the old days of country music, mostly because I am old enough to have been there. Back then, country wasn't a genre. It was a way of life and music was part of our way of life. Bluegrass was indeed born out of Appalachian Mountain music. Country music of the deep South was a totally different influence. Southern Country or Old Timey music as we called it,was a convergence of Appalachian Mountain music, Southern Gospel with a more than slight influence by Sacred Heart Music. Back then the focus on vocal harmonies more than on instruments. Music was less often planned than simply materialization. When I was learning to play guitar, I would go out on a Saturday morning and put a couple of watermelons in the spring. I would get my guitar and sit under an Weeping Willow and start practicing. Most times someone would stop and holler out," You gonna be here a while?".

By the time evening rolled around there might be 50 people there and tables of food.

Our Country rarely featured a banjo, but you could just about swing in any direction and hit a Mandolin Player.

I learned "Flat Picking sitting under that Willow from my cousins and neighbors.

Chord structures were often very complex. If you can imagine a yardfull of folks few of which owned a TV, a car or even a radio, then you can imagine how much they enjoyed showing off. Us younger folks (I was about 10 at the time, nearly 60 years ago, always had our favorites that we prayed we would be able to emulate some day. I will never forget the first time I clipped a capo on my guitar. I was nearly laughed out of my own yard. They didn't call them cheaters for nothing. In that time and in that crowd, if you couldn't pick without cheating, you better practice or get used to being made fun of.

I miss those wonderful days.Not just the music ,but the way of life. Today, they call anything Country. But if it ain't Country, it just ain't.

I hear a lot of fantastic musicians, but I ain't heard anything country in years.

I agree somewhat with the original post.Chord structure sets the style. You can play anything you want to add call it what you want, but you can't make it something it ain't.

I guess everyone has an opinion and of course this is just mine.

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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'll attempt a scientific answer which might partially explain this, but I should also say up front that I believe there is a large social/cultural component to this which is explained well in the other answers.

There have been a number of studies (see below) which asked people to rank particular dyads (two notes together) and triads (three notes - commonly known as a chord) in terms of consonance and dissonance. (See Kameoka and Kuriyagawa, 1969; Hutchinson and Knopoff, 1978, 1979; Cook and Fujisawa, 2006; Johnson-Laird et al., 2012)

A couple of things arise from those studies. Major chords are almost always at the top of a ranked preference list for consonance, with minor chords coming in slightly lower. Another point is that the results differ between musicians and non-musicians with the latter being more tolerant of some kinds of dissonance or chord alterations.

Alongside these studies, the study of what makes a chord consonant or disonant has been studied since the ancient greeks. Even the great mathematician Leonard Euler wrote a lot on this in 1739. Of all of these theories that I've looked at, I find the recent work by Frieder Stolzenberg to be the most convincing, in particular the paper "Harmony Perception by Periodicity Detection". That paper contains details of the studies on chord preference and also has good references to the other work in this area.

The details of Stolzenberg's work aren't too important here but the point I want to emphasis is that we, as humans, seem to respond to some chords differently and that we naturally gravitate to those which are more periodic. This is backed up by a plausible neurological model on how our perception of harmony works. That suggests that harmony isn't a 100% cultural phenomenon.

How does that relate to country? Here's where I have to hypothesise a little bit because I'm not aware of any studies that address this directly. My impression is that the transmission and popularity of a country music song relied mainly on being passed from player to player initially and then, later, on its ability to make an impression on the first listen when broadcast by radio. The audiences would probably have mainly been without musical training. Given our general preference for consonant, major chords exists this suggests that songs which used a simpler set of chords would be more transmissible.

If you look at something like jazz, it seems plausible that the harmonic complexity of that music developed over time. This might be related to the way it was originally intended for dancing. Dancers wouldn't judge a song by the harmony alone, which gave the musicians (with their more developed palette of consonance and dissonance) more room to stretch out and embelish the harmony.

As an example, if you count Western Swing as country (which I do) you can hear that the harmony is slightly more complex than typical "cowboy songs" of the era (lots of 6ths and 9ths, some blues scales). This might be because Bob Wills and similar acts were known for dancing primarily before then gained wide appeal via radio.

As I said, this can only ever be a partial answer due to the complexity of what makes up a given music genre. I hope that this offers a direction on why a genre might prefer simple chords though.

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When I started to play with open country jam sessions, playing major chord songs, I could hear, in the overall sound major 7th, major six, sus etc chords. It was caused, either by the melody and or by a RIFF played by wn instrument.

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  • This suggests that more complex harmonies do show up in Country music, but doesn't address the original question. Can you elaborate? Are you suggesting that the premise of the original question is wrong?
    – Aaron
    Sep 11 '20 at 4:46
  • Welcome to Stack Exchange. Thanks for your contribution. I do appreciate your perspective. I will try to be more attuned to how the voicings and notes played by supporting instruments influences the overall feel of the music. I suppose in some cases leaving out a particular instrument in an arrangement could noticeably change the perceived tonality of the piece. Please note that your comment would be a better fit in the comments section immediately below the question as opposed to an "answer". Feel free to expand on your comment to make it more suitable as an answer. Sep 11 '20 at 17:46

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