Tuesday, September 22, 2009

N.C. = no chord

We'll be looking at chords in painstaking detail in the months to come. But first, a quick reminder: you can make music without chords. You can write parts of songs, or even entire songs, without chords.

In written music, the songwriter writes N.C. (no chord) where the chord symbol would go, as an indicator that the chord instruments should take a break. This can happen for several different musical reasons:
  • A melodic riff has taken over.
  • A breakdown, with a simplified beat continuing but most instruments dropping out.
  • A brief rest, with all instruments dropping out for dramatic punctuation.
  • An a capella (vocals only) section, where all instruments drop out to focus full attention on the vocal line.
  • A contrapuntal section of music: two or more interweaving melody lines, but no chords.
Consider using N.C. when you want to depict aloneless, emptiness, or simplicity; when you have musical ideas that just don't fit into chords; and when you want to evoke a traditional or tribal musical style. You can also use N.C. to put the spotlight on a new melodic theme; let it play once by itself before sharing the stage with the chord instruments.

Here are a few examples of songs that make artful use of N.C. in a minimalistic In each case, you can hear that adding chords would ruin the effect.
  • Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun" powerfully relates the stark emotions of a traumatic experience
  • Queen's "We Will Rock You" uses a primitive beat and a pentatonic melody to create a memorable singalong
  • the first minute of Yes's "Tales from Topographic Oceans": vocal tone-painting evokes the emerging light of the dawn
Do you know other instructive examples of songs without chords? Please post them in the comments.

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