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April, 2013

"Composing Tools For Your Songwriting Toolbox Part 2: Chords"

by Webmaster

"A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians." — Frank Zappa

"Measure For Measure" by David Alzofon's columns in American Songwriter inspired this column. It includes 'Easy' is Just a Four-Letter Word in the March / April 2012 issue, The Truth About Those Three Chords in the May / June 2012 issue, Unchained Melody in the July / August 2012 issue, Sex, Drugs and Dopamine in the September / October 2012 issue and The Sound of Music in the January / February 2013 issue.

Most songwriting books, classes, workshops, etc. concentrate on lyrics. Alzofon's series of articles is the best description of how to write music that I have found. All quotations that are not specifically attributed to someone else come from David Alzofon's columns. Indented portions are paraphrases of Alzofon's words.

"Music is the soul of language." — Max Heindel

In addition to the material in Alzofon's articles, I have included some basic music theory and other tips I've learned from various music and songwriting books, workshops, teachers, and my good friend B. J. Suter.

"...I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius." — H. P. Lovecraft

I appreciated the advice Alzofon learned from his boss:

    • Stay playful. Jef [Raskin] often said he would never work at a place he could not play.
    • Cultivate your musical imagination. Put your guitar down and listen inward.
    • Learn to juggle one musical element at a time.

He suggests we divide difficult tasks, like writing a song, into small, easy ones.

    1. Break the song down into rhythmic phrases
    2. Add appropriate chords to the phrases
    3. Put a melody to the chords

I wrote a series of three columns using these tasks. Last month's column concentrates on rhythic phrasing. This month's column concentrates on chords. Next month's column concentrates on melody.

"How come you can hear a chord, and then another chord, and then your heart breaks open?" — Anne Lamott

Once you've got your lyrics in 2-measure phrases, you need to set each 2-measure phrase to chords. And these chords create "a cycle of tension and release."

Music is written in keys. That key is a scale, usually seven ascending notes of specific intervals. The eighth note is the same as the first note, but an octive higher in pitch. There are actually twelve notes in an octave. In a C major scale, the other five notes are sharps and/or flats (the black keys on a piano). The natural notes in the scale don't include the various sharps / flats. The C major scale is the simplest, most commonly used scale that has no accidentals in its "natural" state. In the key of C, the natural notes are 1. C (do), 2. D (re), 3. E (mi), 4. F (fa) , 5. G (so), 6. A (la), 7. B (ti). "Accidentals" (sharps / flats) are added to the C major scale for tunes that have a jazz, swing, or blues feel.

"You don't like playing scales? Practice them until you love them." — Andres Segovia

There are intervals between notes in a scale that vary. A the interval between C and C# is a half-step. The interval between 1. C and 2.d D is a whole-step (two half steps). The interval between 2. D and 3. E is a whole-step. The interval between 3. E and 4. F is a half-step (no black key on the piano), between 4. F and 5. G a whole-step, between 5. G and 6. A a whole step, between 6. A and 7. B a whole-step, and between 7. B and 8. C a half-step. If you start on any note and use this pattern of intervals, you will have a basic major scale. (We won't cover modes or minor scales here.)

"There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major." — Sergei Prokofiev

A basic chord in a key is built using any natural note of the scale as the root of the chord. A triad (three notes) is created using the root note, and the third and fifth natual notes of scale couting up from the root note. So a chord built with a root note of C, in the C major scale, would have C, E, and G in it. A chord built with a root note of E, in the C major scale, would have E, G, and B.

Because of the specific intervals, a chord will have a major (happy) feel or a minor (sad) feel. The usual interval between the first note and the second note in the chord is four notes, including sharps / flats. In the key of C, the actual notes, starting from C are: 1. C# (aka Db), 2. D, 3. D# (aka Eb), 4. E.

In the key of C, the interval between the E and G, the second and third notes in the chord, starting from E, is only three notes: 1. F, 2. F# (aka Gb), 3. G.

"...the dial tone is ... actually a combination of two frequencies. This is important—as Leonard Bernstein said, an isolated note is simply 'floating in space.' Paired with another, it takes on meaning and emotional resonance. In this case, the two frequencies form an approximate major third — a sound generally associated with contentment." — William Weir

If you change the interval between the first and second note of the chord, it also changes the interval between the second and third note of the chord. Using only three notes to get from C to the next note in the chord gets E-flat, and requires four notes to get from E-flat to G. That changes the chord from major to minor.

"Minor chords are a major source of joy." — Jim Ratts of Runaway Express Runaway Express: Bands, Singers, Songwriters / Composers, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Cowboy Poets

The six basic chords for any major key start on any of the first six notes of the scale, three of which are major and three of which are minor. The chord that starts on the 6th note of the scale is called the relative minor. It has the most number of notes in it that are in the tonic chord and has the most comfortable sound—we're used to hearing it more often.

"Progressive Delights — That's what playing the bass has brought me. Don't know who but a couple of bass players could talk about being 'delighted' by a chord progression. The thrill of discovery lives in the relative minor. Who'd a thunk it?" — Bob Dolan

Chords change their sound when the voicing changes, that is when the lowest note in the chord is not the root note of the chord. This results in pitch changes to the chord, as well. The various positions for a single chord up the neck of an instrument, result in different sounds for the same chord. In addition, other notes, including the sharps and flats that aren't in the natural scale, can be added to a chord to create different sounds. Adding the sixth note to a major chord adds a minor feel. Adding a seventh note to a chord adds tension and gives it a bluesy feel.

"I was content to play first position chords, but this guy I used to play music with said, 'Well, you bought the whole neck...'" — Mark McKeever

The tonic chord is built on the first note of the scale. It is the "ultimate chord of release" whether you are in a major scale or a minor scale. The dominant seventh chord is built on the fifth note of the scale and has a 7th note (counting from the fifth note up to the next fifth note, which turns out to be the 4th note of the scale) in it. It is the "ultimate tension chord." You can write a song that goes back and forth between these two chords, getting the ultimate tension and release. It has been done. But it can get boring. There is even a bluegrass standard that uses only one chord. However, songs with chord changes usually are more interesting.

"The perfect bluegrass song has one chord, is about Kentucky, and contains the word 'lonesome'." — Aaron Woking

There are 4 other chords in the scale which are farther from the release than the tonic chord. They are built on the second, third, fouth and sixth notes of the scale. In a major scale, those built on the second, third and sixth notes are minor chords which contrasts in mood with the tonic and dominant seventh chords.

"It’s amazing how much cooler it gets when you change one note in a chord." — Sean Watkins

Alzofon arranged "the chords in C from near to far. The father to the right a chord is, the farther it is from the tonic C ('m' means 'minor'): C (tonic) — G7 (or G) — Dm — F — Am — Em ... Jump from C to any chord on the right, and then work your way back to the left, stopping at any of the chords in between."

You don't have to limit yourself to the chords listed there. Change what is usually a major chord to a minor, or a minor chord to a major and see if you like the result. Add a 2nd, 6th or 7th note to the chord and see what happens. Does it add or reduce tension? Does it give it a different flavor that is more suitable to the emotion of the song?

"E flat diminished 9th. The E flat — it's doable. But the diminished 9th — It's a man's chord. You could lose a finger." — from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

For each 2-measure phrase, use 2 chords for each measure: the first chord starts on the first beat of your measure phrase, and the second chord starts on the third beat of your measure. You can repeat chords so a full measure could use just one chord. Each 2-measure phrase could contain four chords, three chords or two chords. Phrases that end with a tonic chord are "answers, because they feel ... complete." Other phrases are "questions, because they seem incomplete."

"Country music is three chords and the truth." — Harlan Howard

Consider your lyrics when you select your chords. Prosody means that the music matches the lyrics. So if your lyrics are happy, you might want to stay with the major chords in the scale: the tonic, the dominant seventh, and the fourth, the chord based on the fourth note of the scale. If your lyrics are sad, full of longing, dark, dramatic, you might want to use the minor chords. Listen to how each chord sounds in the scale, and with each of the other chords around it, to see if it fits the mood of your lyrical phrase.

In addition, you might consider the form of your song when you select your chords. It is recommended that each verse has the same chord structure as every other verse, that the chorus start on a different chord and have a different chord progression than the verse, and that a bridge, if there is one, starts on a different chord, and has a different chord progression than either the verses or the chorus.

"Change the tuning and then try playing a familiar chord fingering—and listen to whatever happens. You may stumble on an unexpectedly cool sound you would never have found intentionally." — Jeffrey Pepper Rogers

Not every song will use every "tool" that you learn from various songwriting books, classes, and articles. But it's great to have a full tool box and know what to use, when to use it, and why.

"It's just the more you do it the better you get, or at least that's how I feel in my case. I think it's a combination of confidence and just having done it this long and just learning. I'm always learning. I'm still honing my craft." — Lucinda Williams

Next month's column concentrates on the melody.

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