Saturday, October 31, 2009

The descending bass line

As we mentioned yesterday, the use of alternate bass notes in rock songs is mostly limited to a few specific formulas. One of these formulas involves the bass line moving up or down the scale, step by step. The bass line is a secondary melody, after all, and you can give it a graceful and intentional shape.

Many chord progressions start on the tonic chord and then let the bass move down the scale. These examples will all sound familiar to your ear:

C G/B Am G
C Em/B F/A G
C G/B Am Em/G F C/E Dm G
C E7/B Am C7/G F A7/E Dm G

When the bass line descends by half-steps, it might sound a little spooky, ominous, or mournful:

C G/B C7/B♭ F/A Fm/A♭ G

You can also start on the tonic and move up the scale:

C Dm7 C/E F

And if we reverse that last sequence of chords, we have a familiar elaboration of the [four] - [one] cadence. You hear this in the Beatles' "Let It Be," for example.

F C/E Dm7 C

Friday, October 30, 2009

The pedal point (or "stuck key")

We haven't talked much about alternate bass notes for chords. Normally the bass note is the same as the chord's root note, but you can specify a different bass when you find a musical need for it.

The bass note follows a slash after the chord name. For example, C/E indicates a C major chord with the note E in the bass.

Any note, whether it's a member of the chord or not, can be specified as an alternate bass note. In theory this opens up a huge range of possibilities -- every single chord has the potential for 11 alternate versions -- but, in practice, alternate bass notes in rock songs are limited to a few conventional formulas.

One of these formulas involves keeping the bass on the same note while the chords move around. This tends to reduce or offset any sense of motion that the chords are creating. Here are a few simple examples:

||: C G/C F/C C :||
||: C Dm/C Em/C F/C :||

Most often, the bass stays fixed in the early part of the verse, so that when the bass later starts moving around freely, the sense of motion is amplified.

The traditional name for this technique is pedal point, and the name refers to the pedals of pipe organs that play the lowest bass notes. An organist could plant one foot on one of the bass notes, while playing moving chords with both hands. (Some adventurous synthesizer players use MIDI versions of these organ pedals, because two hands aren't always enough.)

You could also think of this the "stuck key" technique, because it's as though a synthesizer key has gotten stuck in the down position, so it persists in playing the same note while the rest of the music keeps moving.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tip: Make it different, but the same

The simplest way to make a song catchy is to repeat some element over and over. For example, you can repeat the same chord phrase through the entire song, perhaps with occasional breaks to help give the song some structure.

Some hit songs that use this technique include
  • "Jump" — Van Halen
  • "Kids" — MGMT
  • "Rebel Rebel" — David Bowie
  • "Word Up" — Cameo
And these are just random examples off the top of my head. If you run through any list of top hits, you'll find that many of them are extremely repetitive in one way or another.

But there's an obvious pitfall to relentless repetition: it can become tiresome if it's too obvious. Is it possible to make a song catchy without wearing out the listener?

Here's one idea: Create two different version of the same chord phrase. Use the simpler one in the verse, and the more complex one in the chorus. Or, if it suits your song better, you can do the opposite: use the simpler version in the chorus, and the more complex one in the verse.

For example, if you used this simple chord phrase in the verse:
C - - - | - - - - | F - - - | Dm - G - | could use this more elaborate version in the chorus:
C - - - | Am C G C | F - - - | Dm C/E F G |

(By the way, I just made up this pair of chord phrases, so feel free to steal them and write a song with them.)

These two chord phrases have the same basic outline, similar enough to help wear that instant groove in the listener's memory that makes them want to hear the song again, but the phrases are also different enough on the surface to provide some interest and variation.

One song that uses this technique is "Lost in the Supermarket" by the Clash. (I'm sure there are many others, but that's the only one I can think of right now.)

Another way to use the same chord phrase in verse and chorus and have them still be different is to cast the verse and the chorus in two different keys. Two songs that use this technique are:
  • "Come On Eileen" — Dexy's Midnight Runners
  • "Run Runaway" — Status Quo (actually, this song changes key between the verse and an instrumental theme with the same chords)
Here's one more simple technique that does wonders to keep relentless repetition from seeming oppressive: just come to a stop. Land on the tonic chord (or perhaps some other chord) and just sit there for four or eight bars. When you start repeating the chord phrase again, it will seem fresh and interesting again.

(Of course, there are also many arrangement and production tricks devoted to keeping things interesting in a repetitive song. Maybe there's a music production blog somewhere with that group of tips.)

Please post a comment if you come up with other good examples of songs that use any of these techniques — or if you know any other techniques to keep things interesting while repeating a chord phrase over and over.

Thursday is Unruly Tip Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

10♥ The songwriting game

10♥ Ten of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Ten of Hearts tells us that songwriting doesn't have to be a lonely sport. You can make a friendly competition of it.

Get together with two or more songwriting friends, and agree on a set of criteria for writing a song. Maybe someone will suggest a title, for example. Once you agree on the rules of your game, each one of you goes off and writes a song, and you get back together a week or two later and compare your results. Which song is best? What different approaches did you take? It's always interesting and illuminating to see how other songwriters took the same songwriting challenge as you and came up with something different.

What's that? You say you don't have songwriting friends? Well, it's never too late to make friends! And what could be more natural than finding friends who share your keen interest in rock songwriting? There are songwriters everywhere, and if you ask around you're sure to find a few.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Adding a seventh

So far we've talked mostly about two types of chords, major and minor triads. These chords are build of a root note, a major or minor third, and a perfect fifth. (If you need a reminder of what these musical intervals are, start here.)

These three-note chords predominate in rock songs, but four-note seventh chords are also widely used. To turn a triad into a seventh chord, just add a note a third above the fifth (or a second below the root.)

Remember our six diatonic triads? Let's add a seventh to each of them and take a look at our six diatonic seventh chords. In C major:

There are three minor seventh chords, with the m7 suffix. These are composed of p1 + m3 + p5 + m7.
[six]m7, [two]m7, [three]m7Am7, Dm7, Em7

There are two major seventh chords, with the maj7 suffix. These are composed of p1 + M3 + p5 + M7.
[one]maj7, [four]maj7Cmaj7, Fmaj7

There is one more diatonic seventh chord, with the 7 suffix. This is simply called a seventh chord, and to avoid confusion you can call it a common seventh or dominant seventh chord. And this chord is, of course, [five]7G7

Three m7 chords, two maj7 chords, but only one 7 chord. This chord's uniqueness gives it a special role. It's the only chord we've covered so far that can, all by itself, tell you exactly what key you're in. Because, unless non-diatonic notes are complicating the picture, the keynote of a major key is always a perfect fifth below the root of any 7 chord you hear.

This unique feature of the 7 chord is very handy when you need to change from one key to another. No matter what chords you've wandered through, if you land on a 7 chord, people will probably hear it as [five]7 and mentally adjust to your new key.

There are other possible types of seventh chords if we acknowledge the usually-overlooked [seven]dim triad and allow for chromatic (non-diatonic) notes.

The diminished seventh chord, dim7 or °7, is composed of p1 + m3 + d5 + d7. A d7 (diminished seventh) interval is a half-step smaller than a m7, and is equivalent to what we usually call a M6.

The minor seventh with lowered fifth chord, m7-5, is composed of p1 + m3 + d5 + m7. This is a diminished triad with m7 added.

The minor with major seventh chord, m(maj7), is composed of p1 + m3 + p5 + M7.

The seventh with lower fifth, 7-5, is composed of p1 + M3 + d5 + m7.

The seventh with raised fifth, 7+5, is composed of p1 + M3 + A5 + m7.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sobering Truth: "Happy Birthday" is one of the most successful songs in history

"Happy Birthday" is one of the most successful songs in history. How? It became a part of a standard ritual, the ritual of blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

There are other songs that will never be forgotten, not because they're great songs but because they fit perfectly into certain moments of our lives. The DJ plays "Celebration," by Kool & the Gang, at every single wedding and bar mitzvah reception I attend. "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge, is nearly as pervasive.

"Closing Time" is a newer song that's quickly claimed its own niche. Some bars play it every night; when patrons hear it, they know it's time to leave.

None of these songs is particularly eloquent, but each of them expresses a simple idea that fits perfectly with a particular social occasion.

What are some other common occasions that could use a catchy song? Could you write the perfect song for one of those occasions and perhaps claim your place in history?

Every Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Messing with "Hey Jude"

On Thursday I asked you to review the fadeout of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," which famously features the [seven]♭ chord. The full chord phrase is:
[one] - [seven]♭ - [four] - [one] -

That great singalong chant melody in "Hey Jude" does not include the subtonic 7♭note, so it wasn't the melody that drove the Beatles to use [seven]♭ instead of [five]. And the rest of the song uses [five] and the regular ionian chords. They pointedly switched to mixolydian chords just for the fadeout of "Hey Jude."

Try singing the "Hey Jude" chant with these alternate chords:
[one] - [five] - [four] - [one] -

You'll notice that those alternate chords work just as well with the melody, but they bring a very different feel to the phrase.

It's hard to remember how groundbreaking "Hey Jude" was in a time when rock hits were trimmed to a length of 3:15 or shorter to meet the demands of radio. Since then, lengthy repeating fadeouts have become a staple of rock music, but at the time it took the biggest stars in music to break the mold and give us a 6-minute-long song with a couple minutes of repetitive ecstatic chanting at the end.

I think the Beatles' choice of [seven]♭ instead of [five] for the fade might make the mood a little more mellow, to help you surrender to the trancey groove instead of becoming impatient with the repetition. It's just my theory, and we'll never if "Hey Jude" might have been just as successful with different chords. But sometimes it's just this kind of subtle thing that makes the different between a good song and a great song.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Favorite guest chord #7

We recently reviewed rock music's basic set of chords for a major key. There are six diatonic triads (chords built from the notes of the major scale), plus nine non-diatonic triads.

Yesterday we learned why the diatonic chord build on the seventh note of the scale, [seven]dim, doesn't get invited to the rock and roll party very often.

But there is one of those nine non-diatonic triads that's more widely used than any of the others, and it happens to be the "other seven chord," [seven]♭. In the key of C major, this is the B♭ chord. This chord is borrowed from the key of C minor, where it serves as the major alter ego for the minor [five]m chord.

You can use the [seven]♭ chord as a substitute for the dominant [five] chord. That is, you can take any of the basic three-chord phrases, and play [seven]♭ in place of [five]. The result is a new chord phrases that has the same harmonic functionality as the original, but with a different vibe. It's more earthy and tribal, less European and imperial.

The [seven]♭ is very popular in rock songs, especially in blues-based rock. Traditional blues melodies eschew the regular 7 note in major (the leading tone) in favor of the lowered 7♭ note, (the subtonic). If you don't sing the leading tone, then it's only natural to avoid chords, such as [five] that contain the leading tone. Of course, you can also go with [five]m, but throughout rock history [seven]♭ has been the favorite substitute dominant chord.

What do you get when you take a major scale and lower the 7 note to 7♭? I know that sounds like the setup for a clever joke, but the straight answer is, you get a different scale, the mixolydian scale. Music that uses the mixolydian scale is said to be in the mixolydian mode. (You can read the whole sordid and convoluted history of mixolydian mode at Wikipedia.)

Many rock melodies are written in mixolydian mode, or alternate between mixolydian and regular major (called ionian mode when you want to be precise about it). And that's just a fancy way of saying that rock melodies often use subtonic 7♭instead of leading tone 7.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Forgotten chord #7

There are seven notes in a major or minor scale, but the basketful of chords that we gathered the other day included only six diatonic triads. What happened to that seventh note? Doesn't it get a chord too?

The answer is yes—and no. There is a chord built on the seventh note of the major scale, but it is very rarely used in rock songs. This forgotten chord is:

[seven]° or [seven]dim
in C major: or Bdim

This chord contains the notes 7, 2, and 4 — in C major, the notes B, D, and F. The interval from B to F is a diminished fifth, unlike the perfect fifth found in the other six diatonic triads. And while we love the resonance of the perfect fifth, we squirm at the awkward dissonance of the diminished fifth.

Probably a more important reason for this chord's neglect in rock is that it's just so hard to play on guitar. You have to delicately stop one string from sounding while playing the strings around it. Guitarists are so universally embarrassed about this difficulty that they don't even admit to the existence of the diminished chord. Guitar chord charts universally show the easy-to-play diminished seventh chord when a diminished chord is called for. The diminished seventh chord is an interesting chord in its own right, with a freakish (and useful) four-way symmetry, but it's not the same chord as a diminished chord.

In practice, the diminished chord, when it's used at all, is found in keyboard-oriented songs. The guitar player just sits out that part of the song.

In the minor key, the same points apply to the [two]dim chord. In the key of C minor, this is Ddim, containing the notes D, F, and A♭.

In music theory, the [seven]dim chord is thought of as a stunted version of the [five]7 chord. It's expected to be followed by the [one] chord most of the time.

Though this chord #7 turns out the be the neglected runt of the litter, there is another chord #7 that plays a major role in rock music. If you just lower the B note in Bdim, the note becomes B♭, and the chord becomes B ♭, or [seven]♭, the subtonic chord. This glorious major triad is so important in rock that it deserves its own entire post, which we'll get to soon. In the meantime, listen to the fadeout of "Hey Jude," and practice saying the cool Greek word mixolydian.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A♣ Jam it out

A♣ Ace of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Ace of Clubs reminds us of a time-honored way to write a new song: just come up with something while you're jamming! Improvise with an instrument, while singing out loud, and if you're lucky the beginnings of a new song will emerge.

Nonsense lyrics are fine while you're jamming — the sillier the better. Just keep trying things until something grabs you. At any point the chords, notes, and rhythms could suddenly click into place and emerge as the chorus of your newest song.

Keep the tape recorder running, to make sure your ideas don't slip away before you have a chance to write them down.

For extra fun, jam with your whole band. If a song emerges while the band is jamming together, it's sure to be a strong number for your live shows, because it's an authentic expression of the band's natural style.

Jam-inspired songs often have strong, appealing energy, but they might start out a bit lacking in details. Don't worry — you can add those details as you revise and refine the song. If the spirit is right from the start, everything else can be worked out.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Phrases and cadences

Last week we talked about phrases. A phrase is a short, meaningful unit of music. Symbolically, it's the expression of a single breath. In rock songs, phrases are most often 4 or 8 bars long, although other lengths of phrases are common.

In traditional music theory, a cadence is a musical gesture that marks the end of a phrase. You might think of a cadence as musical punctuation; it helps you understand that the phrase is over.

A cadence is a ritualized sequence of chords. Music theory describes four basic types of cadences:
  • [five] [one] — in C major, G C — a full cadence or authentic cadence
  • [one] [five] — C G — a half cadence (and, really, it could be almost any chord leading to [five])
  • [four] [one] — F C — a plagal cadence (they really didn't respect [four] chords in olden days — even tried to implicate them with the plague)
  • [five] [six]m — G Am — a deceptive cadence
In traditional European music, every phrase had to end with one of these four chord sequences (or some close variation of them). It was practically a law. You could get your composing license revoked if you didn't obey. If that sounds absurd and arbitrary and incredibly limiting, well... it was! But remember:
  • Traditional music was based on melody, not chords. Great melodic inventiveness more than made up for simple, formulaic chord structures.
  • 19th-century composers changed keys very freely as a way of getting some other chords into the music.
Still, by the beginning of the 20th century, composers rebelled, threw off the yoke of these arbitrary rules, and started creating much more richly varied music. And the only reason we still study these antiquated and arbitrary formulas today is... what? Just the fact that most rock songs still follow these rules most of the time.

So if you're putting chords together and feel like you don't know what you're doing, you can always fall back on these four traditional cadences. If you end every phrase with one of them, or some close variation, you can be confident that your chords will make musical sense to the audience.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sobering Truth: You can't always copy other songwriters' tricks

In songwriting, you can copy any idea, any trick, any technique that you hear in a song that you like. Let me be clear: copyright law prohibits copying any specific material from anyone else's song. But you can always copy a technique and express it in a different specific way. If you can separate the good qualities of a song from its specific notes and words, you can re-express them with your own original notes and words.

But, here's the catch: even if your copy is successful, even if you manage to perfectly translate another songwriter's technique into your own song, it still might not work for you.

Here's an example: One singer-songwriter's debut album included a song that was a carefully studied copy of Paul McCartney's style of gentle, acoustic love songs. As a copy, it was brilliant — it was a masterful feat of songwriting, performance, and production. But it still was the weakest track on the album. The style just didn't work for this artist.

Another example: I love the profanity-laden songs of Rancid, but when I put similarly strong language in my own songs, I almost always end up taking it out. I'm not a language prude; it just doesn't work for me the way it does for Rancid.

It sometimes may seem unfair what other songwriter can get away with. A Caribbean band writes a sunny song with a childishly simple melody and scores a big hit; but your similar song merely sounds childish. Bob Dylan rambles nonsensically and it's brilliant poetry, but your own similar efforts just sounds like gibberish. Whatever the specifics, successful songwriter-artists know their strengths and weaknesses and have learned to work with them. You'll need to take them to know yourself and tease out all of your own strengths and weaknesses.

So go ahead and study songs that you love, and learn to copy the songwriter's techniques. Just be aware that mastering the technique is only half the battle. You still have to actually make the technique work for you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A bumper crop of chords

Let's go out to our chord garden and gather all the chords we can find! Well, let's start with all the chords we can use in a major key. (We'll take the key of C major as a specific example, but you can translate these chords into any other major key.)

First we pick up the main three major chords. Let's call these the three primary triads of the key. Triad is a name for a three-note chord, basically a major or minor chord.
[one], [four], and [five] — C, F, and G

Then we add the three primary chords from the relative minor key. But these are the three secondary triads in our major key.
[six]m, [two]m, [three]m — Am, Dm, Em

Now we have six chords in our basket. Together these two trios of triads are the six diatonic triads of our major key. Remember that diatonic means these chords are composed entirely of notes that belong to this key.

The rest of our chords will include at least one note that doesn't belong to the key, a chromatic note or non-diatonic note. If you want, you can call these chords chromatic chords or non-diatonic chords.

We're going to borrow the three primary triads from the parallel minor key.
[one]m, four[m], five[m] — Cm, Fm, Gm
But one caution: you'll have to use Cm sparingly, if at all, or this could turn into a song in C minor instead of C major. And no one wants that!

Next we borrow the three secondary triads from the parallel minor key.
[three]♭, [six]♭, [seven]♭ — E♭, A♭, B♭
Look, more major chords to play with! These chords are heavily used in rock, because rock loves major chords but loves to get on the minor side of things. It's a tonal contradiction, one that I would like to blame on The Blues... but that's a story for another day.

That's twelve chords already! Is that enough? Sure, it's enough to write any number of songs with, but there are just three more chords that we can't ignore. It takes some tricky sleight-of-hand to grab these chords. These are the primary triads from the parallel major key of our relative minor key. I know, that sounds so arcane, it's hard to believe that these chords count for anything. And yet many rock songs use them. These chords are:
[six], [two], [three] — A, D, E

Okay, we have fifteen chords in our basket! That's a whole lotta chords to keep track of. But remember, these are all echoes and reflections of our first three chords, [one], [four], and [five]. If it helps, you can think of it as three stars, each of which has several stand-ins and stunt doubles.

Here [one] and its posse:
[one], [six]m, [one]m, [three]♭, [six] — C, Am, Cm, E♭, A

Next, the [four] gang:
[four], [two]m, [four]m, [six]♭, [two] — F, Dm, Fm, A♭, D

And here's the [five] team:
[five], [three]m, [five]m, [seven]♭, [three] — G, Em, Gm, B♭, E

Okay, what if we had gone out into our minor-key chord garden instead?
Actually, we would have ended up with most of the same chords, but in a slightly different order. Only the last three chords would have been something different. We'll be digging for the primary triads of the parallel minor key of our relative major key. These are:
[three]♭m, [six]♭m, [seven]♭m — E♭m, A♭m, B♭m

In minor, the [one] posse:
[one]m, [three]♭, [one], [six]m, [three]♭m — Cm, E♭, C, Am, E♭m

The minor [four] gang:
[four]m, [six]♭, [four], [two]m, [six]♭m — Fm, A♭, F, Dm, A♭m

The minor [five] team:
[five]m, [seven]♭, [five], [three]m, [seven]♭m — Gm, B♭, G, Em, B♭m

Now, what can we do with all of these chords? We'll come back to that question soon.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

One breath at a time

What is a phrase? In music, a phrase is originally, literally, a breath. Much early music was vocal music and flute music, and people got in the habit of organizing music into chunks that could be sung or played in one breath.

That original idea of a phrase often holds true in more recent music, but not always. Some slow songs have long phrases that require a singer to catch an extra breath in the middle. And in some fast songs with non-stop lyrics, a singer might get through two phrases on a single breath.

In a rock song, a phrase is typically 4 or 8 bars long. But phrases can be just about any length; you'll see them as short as 2 bars, and as long as 16 bars.

A phrase makes a coherent musical point. If you were going to cut up an instrumental track into pieces and rearrange it in a different order, you'd have a fighting chance of making musical sense if you cut it up phrase by phrase. If you cut it up any other way, you'll just make a musical mess.

One of the important things drummers do is play fills or other gestures to help clarify where the phrases begin and end. Listen carefully to the drum track and take note of what the drummer is doing to give structure to the song.

Like so many things in music, it's hard to precisely define what qualifies a chunk of music to be called a phrase. But in most ordinary rock songs, the structure of phrases is perfectly clear and easy to hear, even when we can't exactly say why.

We'll talk more about phrases when we get into the structure of a song. But we need to talk about phrases now in connection with chords. Certain sequences of chords make a musically sensible phrase, while other sequences of chords just don't. We'll soon start to look at how to put chords together to make a phrase.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Theory of Relativity

Yesterday's shocking headline: The Am Chord Unmasked! Actually C in Disguise.

But that was in a publication with a major bias. In another publication, one with a minor bias, the headline was this: C is for Counterfeit! It Was Am All Along.

The thing is, when the key of C major freely uses chords from the relative minor key of A minor, and when A minor uses chords from C major just as freely, you're bound to run into songs where the line between those two keys is completely blurred. Is the song really in A minor or C major? Different musicians may have different answers to that question.

(Of course, we're just using C major and A minor as examples. Any pair of relative keys can present the same conundrum.)

Luckily Einstein helps us out with his Theory of Musical Relativity. The theory says that you can analyze the song as if it's in the minor key or as if it's in the major key, and you'll get an equivalent and logically consistent understanding of the song either way.

C major and A minor share the same six basic chords:
Am, C, Dm, Em, F, and G
But in the key of A minor, we call these chords, respectively:
[one]m, [three]♭, [four]m, [five]m, [six]♭, and [seven]♭
In the key of C major, those same chords are:
[six]m, [one], [two]m, [three]m, [four], and [five]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Secret alter ego chords

Like solving a Rubik's cube, we're working step by step to show how the whole universe of chords in rock songs can unfold from the basic three chords, [one], [four], and [five].

First we learned that there's a minor mode with its own three chords, [one]m, [four]m, and [five]m.

Next we learned about borrowed chords. The key of C major can borrow chords from its parallel minor key, which is C minor. Conversely, C minor can borrow chords from C major.

Now it's time to look at another minor key that has a close relationship with C major. This is its relative minor key, the key of A minor.

C major and A minor share the exact same set of notes, which happen to be the white keys on a keyboard. The only difference between the C major and A minor scales is in the keynote, the first note of the scale — obviously, C for C major and A for A minor.

Every major key has a relative minor key with a keynote (or tonic) a minor third lower, and the two keys share the same set of notes.

This relationship cuts both ways. Every minor key has a relative major key with a keynote a minor third higher. It's almost like two sides of the same coin. Or like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, if you will. Bruce Wayne and Batman. David Johansen and Buster Poindexter. The same person with two different identities.

Now, let's look at the tonic chords of C major and A minor. The C chord contains the notes C, E, G. The Am chord contains A, C, E. The chords have two notes out of three in common. If you're playing a three-note C chord, raise the G one step to A, and the chord becomes Am. Lower that note to a G again, and you're back to the C chord.

In the key of C major, Am is the [six]m chord. The [six]m chord is the next most important chord in rock music after [one], [four], and [five]. It allows for this chord phrase, so popular in rock music c. 1960 that they wore it out:

[one] [six]m [four] [five]
C | Am | F | G

And this chord phrase, featured in so many 1990s hits that you might want to use it sparingly today:
[one] [five] [six]m [four]
C | G | Am | F

As a songwriter, what can you do with the special alter-ego relationship between [one] and [six]m? Quite simply, you can use [six]m in place of [one] just about anywhere! Take any three-chord phrase, and drop in [six]m wherever [one] appears. Suddenly you have a new chord phrase. It still makes musical sense, but it's more subtle, less obvious.

And just to blow this door wide open, the [four] chord also has its own alter ego, [two]m. And [five]'s alter ego is [three]m. In the key of C, we're talking about F and Dm as alter egos, and also G and Em.

Now we have two complementary trios of chords, for a total of six. There is more to this story, so come back tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

4♣ Take four

4♣ Four of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Four of Clubs invites you to take your song idea and write four completely different songs. Let those four songs fight it out and see which one is best.

Research shows that people are habitually lazy thinkers. Faced with a never-before-seen situation, most people get uncomfortable enough that they start thinking. They typically think about the strange situation just long enough to come up with one plausible explanation. They then stop thinking and assume that that first reasonable explanation is the explanation.

After that point, people not only stop thinking, they actually stop seeing new facts that might lead to a different conclusion.

The Four of Clubs says, keep the brain working a little bit longer. Don't stop with the first possible solution for a songwriting challenge. Try again, and write it a different way. Then try again, and yet again.

After you dispense with the most obvious way to write a song, you have the option to keep your mind working on other possible answers, and you might come up with a clever and completely different approach.

You might ultimately decide that your first answer was the best one. It often is. But your third or fourth attempt might yield something transcendentally brilliant. You never know until you try.

Sure, it's more work to write four songs instead of one. But if you have a lot at stake, it's not too much to ask. A film production can easily go through four storyboards before deciding how to shoot a scene. You might test-drive four cars, or try on four shirts, before buying one.

Songwriting is not hard work, compared to rehearsing, recording, and performing the song. So the Four of Clubs says, maybe this time you can make more than the minimum mental effort, and give four potential songs a chance to audition.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Intervals in music

Second, third, fourth, fifth... sounds kinda like people are waiting in line. But actually we're talking about intervals, which means pairs of notes and their pitch relationship to each other.

If you're an experienced musician, you know this stuff backwards and forwards, and you can skip this post. If you're a beginner, this part of musical terminology takes a bit of explaining, and you should read on.

There's no way to talk about the specifics of music without using metaphors. We say that one pitch is higher than another, but pitch is a metaphor, and so is higher.

A sound is actually a vibration in the air. In a timescale of thousands of a second, some sounds have a regular, repeating waveform, which we hear as a musical tone. A regular waveform has a frequency, which we define as the number of cycles per second. Another word for cycles per second is hertz, abbreviated Hz. Our ears are especially attuned to repeating waveforms, and we hear the frequency as musical pitch.

The A below middle C is traditionally defined as a musical tone with a frequency of 440 Hertz. That means the waveform of the A note has a cycle that repeats 440 times per second.

If a frequency has a higher number, we hear it as a higher pitch. A tone of 880 Hz has a frequency twice as high as the A at 440 Hz. We hear the 880 Hz tone as another A tone, exactly one octave higher that the 440 Hz tone. Twice the frequency equals an interval of one octave.

Our musical system is based on dividing the octave into 12 equal parts. Each 1/12 of an octave is called a half-step or semitone. Musical intervals are defined as the number of semitones you have to travel to get from the first note to the second note. (This is easiest to see on a piano keyboard or a guitar fretboard, where the semitones are clearly marked off.)

If two notes are at the same pitch, the distance is 0 semitones, and the interval is called unison. (For shorthand, unison can be abbreviated P1).
1 semitone is called a half-step or a minor second, abbreviated m2.
2 semitones is called a full-step or a major second, abbreviated M2. (Capital M for major, small m for minor.)
3 semitones is a minor third (m3).
4 semitones is a major third (M3).
5 semitones is a perfect fourth (P4)
6 semitones (half an octave) is an augmented fourth or diminished fifth (A4/d5).
7 semitones is a perfect fifth (P5).
8 semitones is a minor sixth (m6).
9 semitones is a major sixth (M6).
10 semitones is a minor seventh (m7).
11 semitones is a major seventh (M7).
12 semitones is an octave (P8).

The names of these intervals might make more sense if you think about the notes that make up the major and minor scales, and each note's interval to the keynote (the first note) of the scale.

The major scale contains P1, M2, M3, P4, P5, M6, M7.
The minor scale contains P1, M2, m3, P4, P5, m6, m7.

With the sole exception of the M2 in the minor scale, you can see that the major scale contains all the major version of the intervals, and the minor scale contains the minor versions of the intervals.

With this handy vocabulary of intervals, we can also describe the different kinds of chords as the intervals between each note in the chord and the chord's root. So far we've talked mainly about major and minor chords.

The major chord contains P1, M3, and P5.
The minor chord contains P1, m3, and P5.

If you are new to reading music, this vocabulary of musical intervals might seem like a whole lot of details to try to learn. Don't worry! Like everything else in music, it just requires practice.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sobering Truth: People don't trust their own musical taste

Many people don't trust their own ears when deciding what music they like. Some carefully-staged scientific experiments have confirmed this unfortunate fact. People rely largely on external cues — for example, if other people seem to like the song, or if the artist is on a respected record label.

Separately, an overwhelming body of anecdotes confirms that even the people who are paid to exercise their musical judgment — people whose decisions could directly affect your own musical career — mostly don't trust their own ears either. They also largely rely on external cues.

As a songwriter or musical artist, you must learn to trust your own ears. If you can't find the courage to have an independent opinion, who can? More importantly, without confidence in your own musical tastes, you won't be able to create anything new and powerful.

If you want to have a career in creating music, it's important for you to realize that "creating unique, better-quality music" is not a realistic business plan. Creating better music is only Step 1. You need to plan to put just as much or more effort into Step 2, to work on those external cues that will help people (both fans and music insiders) see you as successful and thus decide that they like your music.

Many musicians find it distasteful to work on marketing, branding, promo, and the other elements of Step 2. Remember, this stuff is necessary only if you want to build a career; if you just want to make music, you can skip it.

But there is one external cue that is completely under your control, and there's no reason for you not to master it. I'm talking about your own attitude about your own music.

Your confidence and enthusasm for your own music makes more difference than you might realize. If people sense that you like your song a lot, they're more apt to like it themselves. Conversely, if your performance is tentative and apologetic, your audience will be underwhelmed. If you aren't sure about your own song, why should they stick their neck out and like it?

So make sure that you are writing songs that you can perform with confidence and enthusiasm. Write about subjects that light you up.

When you practice performing your songs, don't just practice the words and notes. Also practice your confidence and enthusiasm. Success begins as an attitude inside yourself, and, like so many other things, it too improves with practice.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Three-chord rock: example chord phrases

Listed below are 24 examples of 4-bar, three-chord phrases in C major. Feel free, of course, to transpose them into other keys and to use them in your songs. No one owns a copyright on these commonly used chord phrases.

A chord phrase is a sequence of chords for a single musical phrase. You might also hear people use the equivalent terms chord progression or chord change.

Phrases can be various lengths. 4- or 8-bar phrases are typical in rock music, but, as I'll discuss in a future post, you can make your songs more interesting by using phrases of different lengths. It's only in the interest of keeping things simple that all of these examples are 4-bar phrases.
  1. C | F | C | -
  2. C | - | F | C
  3. C | F | C | F
  4. F | C | F | C
  5. C | - | - | F
  6. C | G | C | -
  7. C | - | G | C
  8. C | G | C | G
  9. C | F | G | -
  10. C | - | F | G
  11. C | F | G | F
  12. C | F | G | C
  13. C | F | C | G
  14. C | G | C | F
  15. F | C | G | C
  16. F | G | F | C
  17. G | C | F | G
  18. G | C | G | F
  19. C - | F C | - - | F G
  20. C - | F - | G - | F C
  21. C G | F - | - G | C -
  22. C F | C - | - F | C G
  23. F C | G - | F G | C -
  24. F - | C G | F - | G C
Optional assignments (a/k/a your "songwriting homework"):
  • Create an alternate version of each phrase by substituting one or more chords borrowed from C minor.
  • Try transposing all 24 of these phrases into C minor.
  • Create an alternate version of each of the C minor phrases by substituting one more more chords borrowed from C major.
  • Create one more variation of each of the 24 phrases by making some other change. You could substitute another chord that's not one of the three main chords, you could change the rhythm, change a bass note, play it backwards, add a seventh, or do something even more radical. It's your move!
After you complete all four optional assignments, you'll have a list of 120 chord phrases at your disposal. And obviously we're just scratching the surface of the possibilities of "three-chord rock." Even with this limited vocabulary, you can still stay a lot.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Can I borrow a chord?

Can I borrow a chord or two? You sure can!

Think of all those 1980s hair-band boys with long hair, makeup, and frilly clothing. They basically dressed up like girls and somehow made it look cool. And remember the hard-rock girls who cut their hair short and acted tough -- you sure wouldn't pick a fight with them, but you still loved to look at them.

Yes, rock culture has no qualms about borrowing stuff from the opposite sex and making it work out. And rock music is just as free about borrowing chords from the opposite mode. If you're in C major, you can throw in chords from C minor (the parallel minor). And if you're writing in C minor, the chords from C major (the parallel major) are fair game.

These chords borrowed from the parallel major or minor are called borrowed chords.

In a minor key, using the major [five] or [five]7 chord provides decisive cadences that you can't quite get with [five]m. The major [four] in might help a minor-key song sound a little more bright and open.

In a major key, the minor [four]m chord strikes a poignant note, while the minor [five]m might help create an introspective atmosphere.

You can jump back and forth between major and minor flavors of a chord. This sequence is a favorite of ELO's, using both flavors of four:
[one] [four] [four]m [one]
In the key of C, that's C | F | Fm | C

Guiffria's "Call to the Heart" uses major [five] in the verse and switches to minor [five]m in the chorus to anchor the song's distinctive, memorable hook. (Here's Call to the Heart on YouTube.)

When a tornado picked up Dorothy in Kansas and put her back down in the parallel land of Oz, she said to her little dog, "Well, Toto, I don't think we're limited to just three chords anymore." That trip opened up so many harmonic possibilities for Dorothy, it was almost like switching from black-and-white to technicolor.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Three-chord rock, in major and minor

Has it really been a month since we first talked about Three Major Awesome Chords? Yes, it took a whole month to circle around so we could get back to three chords and take this next step.

As we learned yesterday, the difference between a major chord and a minor chord is the third. (The third is the middle note of the chord.) If you take a major chord and lower the third by a half-step, you turn it into a minor chord.

Now, the difference between the standard major and minor scales is that three notes are a half-step lower in the minor scale. Those notes are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the scale.

You could say that the major scale contains the notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, while the minor scale contains 1, 2, 3♭, 4, 5, 6♭, 7♭. Flat (♭) means a half-step lower.

[one], [four], and [five], are, of course, the three famous chords of rock and roll. In a major key, these three chords are major chords. In a minor key, these three chords are minor chords.

Those three lowered notes in the minor scale happen to be perfectly placed to change those three chords from major to minor. 3♭, is, of course, the third of the [one] chord. 6♭ is the third of the [four] chord. And 7♭ is the third of the [five] chord.

In a minor key, the three main chords are [one]m, [four]m, and [five]m, where the m suffix indicates a minor chord. In the key of C minor, these chords are Cm, Fm, and Gm.

You can rock perfectly well in either major or minor. You might have heard someone say that the major mode is brighter and happier, while the minor mode is darker and gloomier. There is some truth to that, but don't pigeonhole the modes. Both major and minor are suitable for a broad range of moods and expressions.

There is much more to the story of 3-chord rock, and many cracks in the wall between major and minor. We'll get to all those nuances soon. For now, let's enjoy the clear-cut difference between major and minor in these two clips from YouTube:
  • Three-chord rock in major: Do Ya by Electric Light Orchestra. This was a hit for Jeff Lynne's earlier band The Move, and an even bigger hit when he rerecorded it with ELO.
  • Three-chord rock in minor: Tony Adams by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I'm still sad about Joe's untimely death, but he gave us some great songs in his last few years, like this one from Rock Art & the X-Ray Style. But don't ask me who Tony Adams is or what this song is about.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Major vs. minor -- what's the difference?

What's the difference between a major chord and a minor chord? What's the difference between a major key and a minor key?

The different is the third.

C major chord: C (root), E (third), G (fifth)
C minor chord: C (root), E♭ (third), G (fifth)

C major scale: C, D, E, F, G
C minor scale: C, D, E♭, F, G

C major has a major third -- E -- while C minor has a minor third -- E♭.

Remember that major literally means big, while minor means small. The distance from C to E is bigger by one semitone (one half-step) than the distance from C to E♭.

Now, what about the sixth and seventh notes of the scale? It's true that in standard C major those notes are A and B, while in standard C minor, they are A♭ and B♭. But, fundamentally, those notes don't hold any weight.

You can make A♭ and B♭ as flat as you want, and if the scale includes E, it's still going to sound major. Conversely, as long as you keep E♭, you can use A and B natural, and it will still sound minor.

The sixth and seventh notes have important roles to play, but it's the third that makes all the difference between major and minor.

Tomorrow, we'll take a fresh look at three-chord rock, in major and minor.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

J♦ Sculptor

J♦ Jack of Diamonds in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Try the sculptor approach. Create an initial version that's very approximate — just in the right general shape. Then chip away at it, one little change at a time, until you're satisfied with the results.

A song, of course, is not like a block of granite or a lump of clay, and writing a song can never be exactly like carving a sculpture. But the Jack of Spades reminds you that you can rough-in the full song, and work on its overall shape, while many of the details remain unresolved.

For lyrics, you can start with pure nonsense — if you're good at thinking up nonsense lyrics — or perhaps something like this, words that are obviously just temporary placeholders:
I'm going to sing about something here
Exactly what, it's still not clear
I'm going to sing about something here
And when it's done
This will be verse one

Using whatever shortcuts you have to take, quickly get a draft version of the whole song together, and then try it out and see how it feels.

At that point you're ready to begin a trial-and-error process of revisions. Think of one change you can make, and see if it makes the song any better. If it's an improvement, keep it; then see what else you can change. You might change almost everything along the way — the title, the subject matter, the chords, the melody — but as long as each change is an improvement, you must be heading in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Keys, modes, and scales

This is a super-simple introduction to a complex topic. For fun, you can show this blog post to your knowledgeable musician friends, and ask them, "Which of these statements aren't true?"

All music is built from 12 basic notes (often called tones): A, A♯ (or B♭), B, C, C♯ (or D♭), D, D♯ (or E♭), E, F, F♯ (or G♭), G, G♯ (or A♭). This full set of 12 tones is sometimes called the chromatic scale.

Each piece of music is set in a key based on one of those twelve notes. The central note of the key is called the keynote or tonic, or simply [one]. When someone says, "This song is in E," they're telling you that E is the song's keynote.

In addition to its keynote, each piece of music has a mode. A mode is a flavor of tonality. The most famous modes are called major and minor. The combination of a keynote and a mode is sometimes called a key or a scale. "This song is in the key of A minor." "This melody uses the C major scale."

Twelve keynotes times two modes give us 12 x 2 = 24 different "keys." That's one for each hour of the day, if you like. J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Keyboard made a point of offering pieces in each of these 24 keys.

A scale is a set of seven tones chosen from the complete set of 12 tones. The seven chosen tones are said to be "in the key" or diatonic. The other five tones, if they appear in the piece of music at all, are said to be "not in the key," non-diatonic, or chromatic tones.

On a musical keyboard, this is easiest to see for the key of C major. The seven white keys in each octave are the diatonic tones in C major, the tones that are in the C major scale. The five black keys are chromatic tones if they appear in a piece set in C major.

The white keys on a keyboard also happen to be the diatonic tones of the key of A minor. Yes, A minor uses exactly the same set of seven tones as C major. Even though they share the same set of white-key tones, these two keys are distinctly different keys. The keynote falls in a different place in the set of tones, and that makes an enormous difference.

Though they are different keys, C major and A minor do share a special relationship. Because they use the same set of tones, it's quite easy to slip from the key of C major into the key of A minor, and vice versa. We say that A is the relative minor key of C major. C is the relative major key of A minor.

C major also has a special relationship with C minor. These two keys share the same keynote and four out of their seven tones. C minor is the parallel minor key of C major. C major is the parallel major key of C minor.

Every major key has its own relative minor and parallel minor. Every minor key has its own relative major and parallel major. If you can grasp these special relationships between closely related keys, you've got a big head start on the next chapter, when we go beyond three-chord rock and learn how to use dozens of different chords.

More technical details on keys, modes, and scales can be found at Wikipedia.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sobering Truth: You finished the song, but it still needs work

I finished writing my song! All the verses are penciled in, all the chords figured out, and I sang it all the way through. I'm all done, right?

No — sorry. What you have now is a first draft.

It's easy to understand why creative people love their first drafts. The ideas arrive in a flash of inspiration, some kind of mysterious magic. It's almost like you've been touched by the Divine and given this great blessing in the form of a song. Why would you want to mess with that?

Besides, after inspiration fades, songwriting is just another form of work. It's creative work, sure, but it's still work. And many of us got involved with music because we wanted to avoid having to do anything that resembled work.

Sorry to say it, but after the song is "done," you still have work to do. It's time to take a close look and ask questions like these:
  • Does the song hold up well from beginning to end, or are there places where the energy sags a bit? Maybe you can just cut out some of the weak spots, and make it a shorter song. Or consider changes that will give those spots a little more punch.
  • Are there places where the music sounds tired or un-fresh? Maybe you can use some less obvious chords or change the rhythm a little to make it sound less like "I've heard that song before."
  • Are there any spots where the lyrics make you wince a little bit when you listen to the song? Overused cliches, things that don't quite rhyme, extra syllables that make the rhythms awkward? Look for different ways of saying the same thing, so you can remove any "wince potential."
  • Are there places where your words are easily misunderstood? It's not your fault if "she's greater" sounds just like "cheese grater." The English language is full of gotchas like that. But it's your responsibility to make sure the message gets across.
Play your song for songwriting friends or other people who can give you an honest critique. If things stick out and bug them, see if there's a way to fix those spots without hurting the main message of the song.

Hopefully you're not rushing into the studio to record your album tomorrow. It's best if you can live with your song for a few weeks or months. It often takes that long to shake out all the rough spots in a song, and of course it's better to do that before you commit to its final form.

Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Recommended resources: books, blogs, tweets

There's a shortage of good books on songwriting. That's one of the reasons I started this blog. Most songwriting books dance around the subject; they never quite get around to how to write a song. Some other songwriting books focus narrowly on writing hits for pop radio. There's nothing wrong with pop radio hits, but it's a tiny, tiny part of a big and beautiful world of music -- like looking out through a keyhole instead of opening the door and stepping outside. If you're a rock band, a singer-songwriter, or a musical artist of any kind, you have to take these hit-oriented books for what they're worth, and disregard advice that doesn't apply to your music.

I previously recommended The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. It's a rigorous DIY creativity course. If your creativity isn't flowing freely, give yourself the time for The Artist's Way.

If you want to write better lyrics, my top recommended book is not about lyrics at all; it's about poetry. Get yourself a copy of
The Art and Craft of Poetry by Michael Bugeja. If you had to suffer through stuffy, old, pedantic poetry books in school, don't worry -- this is nothing like those. It's a modern, practical guide to help you write better poetry, and you can easily apply its lessons to song lyrics. Used copies are 99 cents at Amazon -- can't beat that price.

Hugh MacLeod has written an intriguing book called Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity. I haven't actually read the book yet, so I can't tell you whether it lives up to its promise. But I definitely recommend reading this page, which gives away some of the best ideas from the book. Sample advice: "Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds alto­gether."

I like Hugh MacLeod's ideas; they definitely fit with my own exhortation, "Create something unexpected." You're not here to compete with other songwriters; instead, you have your own creative mission to discover and fulfill on.

Robin Frederick has a long resume of writing songs for other artists and producers, and just as much experience critiquing songs written by other songwriters. So when she offers songwriting advice, it's practical and it gets to the point.

I recommend reading her page on How to Write a Song (aimed at beginners but worth a read for anyone), and following her on Twitter for concise, helpful songwriting tips.

Robin Frederick's book
Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell sounds promising. Despite the emphasis on hits, I expect that it's loaded with immediately useful ideas, techniques, and tips.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Floating weightlessly with only two chords

Here's a technique popular with composers of ambient music, film soundtracks, and symphonic music. You oscillate slowly back and forth between two chords to create a sense of movement without direction. It's simple, yet unsettling.

To make this the most effective, pick two chords that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Here are a few examples:

E - C - E - C -
Fm - D - Fm - D -
Ebm7 - Gm7 - Ebm7 - Gm7 -

For the ultimate floaty effect, pick two seventh chords half an octave apart. These chords are tonally as far removed from each other as any two chords can be -- yet, paradoxically, they share two out of four notes in common. It's like moving to the opposite end of the room while standing perfectly still. Spooky!
G7 - D♭7 - G7 - D♭7 -

Friday, October 2, 2009

Two rebellious chords

David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" pulls off a good trick: it (almost) gets through the song using only the [four] and [five] chords. Usually when you put those two chords together, you can count on the [one] chord following soon after. It's practically a law. And the androgynous glam-rock teen of Bowie's song breaks that law. You keep thinking "oh dear, they've got to get to that [one] chord now!" But no, it just slides from [five] back to [four].

The [one] chord does sort of make an appearance in the brief leadup to the chorus, but it's not very convincing or satisfying.

Check out this singular songwriting accomplishment -- and see David posing with a guitar, barely pretending to play it: "Rebel Rebel" on YouTube

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Two comfortable chords

If the [one] chord and [five] chord are rivals, as I posited last week, the [one] and [four] chords are best friends. They enjoy their time together, and they don't mind taking their shoes off or eating from the same plate if that's what the occasion calls for. These two chords are very easy and comfortable together.

Try this as an experiment: write a melody with a major pentatonic scale, and write a chord line to go with it, using only the [one] and [four] chords.

(In the key of C, the pentatonic scale includes the notes C, D, E, G, and A, and your [one] and [four] chords are C and F.)

Okay so far? You've got your melody with its pleasant two-chord accompaniment. Now, switch the chords! Wherever you wrote a [one] chord, play [four] instead, and wherever you had a [four] chord, switch it to [one]. You will probably find that the melody works just as well with the chords reversed. As a rule of thumb, you can't go wrong accompanying a pentatonic melody with these two chords.

[one] - [four] - [one] - [four] - might be the single most popular chord progression for starting out the verse in a rock song. Why is it used so often? Well, typically a rock verse starts out not trying to go anywhere musically. The music wants to sit in one spot for a bit before it starts to go adventuring.

As I mentioned last week, you can achieve this affect by just staying with the [one] chord for the first few phrases. But sometimes it's just too boring to stay with a single chord. In that case, moving over to [four] is the next most comfortable thing. Switching from [one] to [four] gives the ear a little bit of movement, but it won't rock the boat or make anyone uneasy. Because with [four], you know it's not really going anywhere. It's not like going into town and getting into who knows what kind of trouble. It's like right next door where you can keep an eye on it.

If you want to tone down the sense of movement even more, you can keep the base on the tonic note. In the key of C, play
C - F/C - C - F/C -

And for the absolute slightest sense of movement, play
C - Csus4 - C - Csus4 -