A Journey in Listening -the three chord song

If you're back from the last blog - A Journey In Listening - then congratulations, that shit is hard. If you've practiced that exercise every day though it would have got easier, not easy, but you'll have made progress and it's time to move on.


An interval is simply a distance, a space if you like, between two notes. With a slide you can play notes that are very close together, on a fretted guitar without a slide the smallest distance between two notes is one fret. That's the interval you've been practicing from the last blog. It's important to be able to recognise notes that are different distances apart, a process that takes years but will start bringing benefits straight away.


This lesson is about two important intervals, a perfect fourth (two notes 5 frets away) and a perfect fifth (two notes 7 frets away).


The Cadence

Way back in the Baroque era (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi etc.) people didn't talk about chords and chord progressions so much, instead they would write music using cadences. A cadence is simply a shift from one key centre (we could call it a chord), to another. There were a number of different standard cadences, the two main ones were called the Perfect Cadence and the Plagal Cadence.

What's this got to do with intervals? or cigar box guitars? I'm glad you asked......

The word cadence comes from the Latin cadere which means to fall. I mention this because when you hear one you'll know why. A cadence is a typically a harmonic movement that returns to the key centre.


A Cadence sounds like you're falling because your ear is returning to a more comfortable place. 


Grab Your Guitar.

So let's play some. The chord that you make across the the 7th fret is called the V (5) chord because it's the 5th chord in the key. If you have a fretted guitar you can play it in other positions, for now straight across the 7th fret is fine. Play that chord and then play the open chord. Hear how the movement to the open chord is like falling. You'll hear that movement at the end of the blues, it's the basis of your turnarounds. Play it again and again until you recognise it as a falling into the open chord. When you can hear it in your head and predict the sound of the open chord after hearing the V chord then you've got it. See if you can sing the 5 note (7th fret) and then the note on the open string. This movement from the V back to the I is called a Perfect Cadence.

Another important cadence is the Plagal Cadence, sometimes called the Amen Cadence because it was typically used to end a piece of sacred music. This time play the IV chord across the 5th fret and then return back to the open chord. Can you recognise the Ah____men?

And practice.....

  • Play it again
  • Get it in your head
  • Try to predict the sound of the open chord
  • Sing the cadence.


In reverse

Now see if you can hear these cadences in reverse. Firstly play them like you have been, this is called resolving to the I chord. When you've got that sound in your head, say for the Perfect Cadence, try it in reverse, play the I and see if you can predict what the V will sound like. Then do the same for the Plagal Cadence, play it a number of times, get it in your head and then play the I and try to predict the sound of the IV.


  • Play the Perfect Cadence (V-I)
  • Get it in your head
  • Play it in reverse (I-V)
  • Get it in your head
  • Play the I and try to predict the sound of the V chord
  • Sing the note on the open string and then the note on the 7th fret.


  • Play the Plagal Cadence (IV - I)
  • Get it in your head
  • Play it in reverse (I-IV)
  • Get it in your head
  • Play the I and try to predict the sound of the IV chord
  • Sing the note on the open string and then the note on the 5th fret.


The three chords

So by studying these two cadences you've learned the functions of the three important chords, the I (sometimes called the tonic), the IV (the subdominant) and the V (the dominant). They are the three chords that make up hundreds of great songs including Midnight Special, Folsom Prison Blues, Little Red Rooster, I could go on forever. When you can recognise these chord movements you'll be able to play any of these songs in any key on any guitar you pickup.


The Blues

The classic use of these cadences in the 20th century is the 12 bar blues sequence. That's where we're heading next.