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Dave Stewart's Music Seminar (Part 12)

In Praise Of Learning

Part 12. Dave Stewart wraps up his music seminar with a look at chords and scales, and why you need to know them.

Figure 1. Three ways to play an A major chord.

The mathematics of music, when you consider them, are actually quite frightening. Take the matter of chord voicing — a simple 3-note chord, say, for example, A major, can be constructed in three basic ways (see Figure 1). Multiplied by 12 (the number of different keys), that gives 36 chord shapes to learn in order to be able to play simple major chords in any key. Add minor chords and you've got 72 shapes — but major and minor chords are not enough. Even very simple songs occasionally use 7th chords, which are made up of four notes, and there are three main types of 7th chord. These are the dominant 7th (Figure 2), major 7th (Figure 3) and minor 7th (Figure 4). So, to learn all the voicings of 7th chords in every key means memorising 4x3x12 = 144 shapes!

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

Worse is to come in the shape of diminished, augmented, 9th, 6th, 13th, suspended 4ths, 7 flat 9s, flattened fifths... and so on. You don't have to be Einstein to work out that to know all these chords in every key is going to involve learning thousands of different shapes. And on top of that, the more complex the chord, the more voicing possibilities it contains — a 7 sus 4 chord could be voiced in at least a dozen ways. As you start to work out the number of shapes required to know all of these more complex chords in every key, the resulting calculations produce bigger and bigger figures, and are clearly heading for — infinity!

What does the average musician do when confronted with infinity? Same as everyone else — try not to think about it. But pretending it's not there does not make the problem go away. The subliminal realisation that there is always something new to learn about music (and this applies equally to me, with 25 years experience, as it does to a novice) can have a daunting effect, and sometimes it actually puts people off trying to learn more. This is unfortunate because I reckon the more you know about music the better you can express yourself musically. But I concede that not everyone has the time or patience to study harmony theory for eight hours a day, especially now that popular music is increasingly doing away with chords. (Don't doubt it — the average 30s popular song featured a new chord every bar. The average pop song now uses three or four, or sometimes none at all.) Is there a system of learning which won't take up all your spare time?

I think so, and it involves hard work — though not to an excessive degree. Here are a couple of guidelines I would suggest to anyone wanting to expand their knowledge of music, and of chord voicings in particular.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

Know your notes. I'm afraid there's no avoiding this. There are 12 notes on the piano (or vector synthesis PCM workstation) keyboard and you have to know their names. It is not necessary to be able to notate them on music paper, but you must know what they are called and where they are. Get to it, dumkopf! The white ones are named after the first seven letters of the English alphabet: A to G. The black ones in between are called the sharps (#) and flats (b) (see Figure 5). Sharp means higher, flat means lower. So, the note one step (one semitone) higher than C (Figure 6) is called C#. Why is it also called Db? Er... don't worry about that now.

Know your scales. Or at least the major ones. (Sound of 12,000 readers hastily turning to other pages.) Stop complaining. You have to know the 12 major scales. A major scale is what you get when you play all the white notes between C and C on a piano. Recognise that sound? Yes, it's what you hear coming from piano teachers' front rooms every Saturday afternoon, often accompanied by the crack of a ruler against knuckles, and a scream as little Rebecca or Hideo plays another wrong note. You have to be able to play major scales starting on each of the 12 keys. If you can't or won't, your knowledge of music and chord voicings will forever be limited. There are many books on music, or even computer software, which will show you the right notes for each of the major scales. Some of you may even be able to work them out unaided, by ear.

I would recommend any student of music to put in at least 15 minutes a day concentrating on the two subjects above. In that time, do not worry about correct fingering, speed, or fluency of performance — just concentrate on finding the right notes and remembering where they are. If you do that every day for six weeks or so, you should know the names of the notes and the 12 major scales thoroughly. Congratulations! This is where everything starts to open up.

Figure 8.
Figure 7.

You will see, for example, that the notes C and E have the same relationship as Ab and C. In both cases the second note is the third step in the major scale of the first note, and when played as chords, C and E (Figure 7) sound the same as Ab, and C (Figure 8), though at a different pitch. Now you can start working on chords in earnest.

Figure 9.

Figure 10.

Figure 11.

A C major chord is any of the shapes in Figure 9. An Ab major chord is any of the shapes in Figure 10. Or even Figure 11, what the Hell. With your knowledge of scales you can start identifying the steps of the scale — the 3rd and the 5th — that feature in every major chord. From here, it's not too hard to go on and incorporate minor chords and scales (same as the majors, except for alterations to the 3rd, 6th and 7th intervals) into your musical vocabulary. But what is the rather attractive chord in Figure 12?


Figure 12.

This is not a major or a minor chord. It is an ambiguous, commonly used, modern chord whose proper name would be something like 'C (no 3rd)' or 'C add 2nd'. Arguing about the precise name is not important, but the sound of the chord is. It is not a sophisticated, dense, jazzy chord like that in Figure 13, where lots of pitches are added to the root note (G) to create a harmonically complex effect. Rather it is the opposite — a simple, open-sounding chord with a hint of dissonance (created by the C and D) over which a singer could equally well sing the notes of a C major or a C minor scale.

Figure 13.

Figure 15.
Figure 14.

Let's look at another, similar chord in Figure 14. It has the same kind of simple sonic strength as Figure 12, and is known as C suspended 4th, or 'sus 4'. Why? Well, the interval between the root note (C) and the F above it is a 4th (see Figure 15).

And 'suspended'? This dates back to an earlier era when such a chord would usually be followed by a major chord (Figure 9), thus resolving the feeling of suspension in the first chord. Nowadays we're not obliged to let the listeners off the hook in this way. Let them stay in suspense!

These are just two simple shapes that could be added to any keyboard player's arsenal of chords without a huge amount of study. If you could play these shapes readily in all 12 keys, and be able to freely jump from one key to another, you would find all manner of interesting chord progressions which might help you write some music. And if your schedule could take it, experimenting with different bass notes underneath these shapes would throw up many more interesting voicing possibilities.

Figure 16.

Figure 17.

After a while, it would begin to be easier to go on and construct chords like those in Figure 16, in any of the 12 keys, and eventually become fluent in swapping them about, learning which shapes led well into others, etc. It just takes time and practice. The main thing is to have a good memory of the basics so that the more advanced voicings can always be related back to a simple starting point. For example, being able to recognize that a chord like that in Figure 17 is based on a C minor triad (Figure 18), or that the chord in Figure 19 is simply a G sus 4 chord — G,C and D, repeated in two octaves. In theory it's quite easy!

Figure 18.

So what's holding you back? Why is it that not everyone can write music and invent chord voicings? As I said before, often the perception of a huge amount of work deters people from making any effort at all. Also, people have a tendency to stick to what they know and be wary of the unfamiliar, which provides a psychological excuse for not working on anything new. Much as I sympathise with this fear of the dark, I have to say that it doesn't make much sense. If you want to be a better musician, why be afraid to work at it?

Figure 19.

There is one more subliminal argument here, which needs to be quickly countered and destroyed. It goes as follows: What's the point in trying to play interesting chords and learning more about music when so much of the music scene is concerned with churning out crap? The answer is simple — do you want to churn out crap? Clearly not, or else you would not be reading this. So be individual — write and play the music you like best, and don't worry about whether it sounds 'uncommercial' or eccentric. If you work hard on music and do your best, it will have a quality to which others will respond.

Conversely, if you can't be bothered to invest time and effort in your music it will sound weak and uninspired, and others will not be attracted to it. It really is that simple.

Philosophy aside, and getting back to practical considerations, you have in front of you on your keyboard a means by which 12 pitches can be turned into an infinite array of beautiful combinations and patterns. It is no longer necessary to wade through books full of frightening-looking chords to acquire some harmonic knowledge, but it is up to you as an individual to undertake a certain amount of study if you want to improve your music. Be honest with yourself. Is your grasp of simple chords and scales good in all 12 keys? Or are you perhaps a little shaky in B minor or B major? If so, you know what to do. 15 minutes a day of concentrated effort on your weak areas (sounds like a bodybuilding course, doesn't it?) will fill the gaps. It doesn't cost anything, and it will make you a better musician — so get down to it right away! (If you don't, I shall want to know why.)

First published in 'Keyboard Magazine', Japan.


This ends Dave Stewart's current music seminar, but anyone wishing to contact him is welcome to do so via Broken Records. All letters are perused with interest, and most are answered, although those that ramble on about progressive music tend to get a curt response. Thanks to all who have written.

Broken Records, (Contact Details).

Series - "Dave Stewart's Music Seminar"

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jun 1991

Donated by: Rob Hodder


Music Theory


Dave Stewart's Music Seminar

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 (Viewing)

Feature by Dave Stewart

Previous article in this issue:

> Desert Island Waves

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