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Music (Part 8)


Article from Sound International, March 1979

Dave Stewart continues his look at music in terms that real people can grasp with some more well-structured chords and even more well-contrived witticisms.

All right you lot, stop enjoying yourselves. Teacher's back.

As some of you may have noticed, the highbrow content of the magazine has taken a rather regrettable nosedive during recent issues due almost entirely to the absence of my article. For this, my apologies. However I shall at one fell swoop put us firmly back on the cultural beaten track with an impromptu discourse on:


My last thesis on this subject ended rather optimistically with the assertion that one (or at least, I) could play a 'minor seventh' chord (in this instance A minor 7th) in several different ways. These were some I suggested:

Due to the limitations of the guitar, some of these would not be playable on the instrument, but here are a few which are:

All these chords played on top 4 strings only

In any case, I'm not so much concerned with exactly what can or can't be played on various instruments, but more with the idea of chord voicings in the abstract. After all, chords aren't confined to what just one person can play; they can be made up by a combination of different instruments (for example, a 4-note chord produced by oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn each playing one note). Or, in a rock band, one guitarist could play one chord while the keyboard player simultaneously played another, thereby producing an interesting composite chord. While it's true that there are certain pianistic chords (notably ones with big intervals or lots of 'clusters') ie:

which cannot be played on guitar, there are some beautiful, subtle voicings of guitar chords which a piano cannot duplicate. Basically, a chord voiced in a certain way will have a certain musical character or effect, and it's as well to be familiar with those effects, whatever instrument you play!

Let's go back to major chords for the moment. These, the simplest of chords, are the simplest to voice, but even these three notes can be arranged in a lot of different ways. For a keyboard player in a modern beating group, the obvious task will be to play the chord with one hand, leaving the other free to dramatically punch the air, to turn amp volume controls up to '10', and to lash the roadies with knotted mic leads (goes down a storm in the States). Therefore we arrive at these three time-honoured voicings of C major:

Clever geezers like myself can also manage:

and sometimes:

if I've had enough to drink, and most players will get round to putting in extra notes on the first three:

Which is best? Well, only you can be the judge of that: there are no rules on the subject. Listen to the various voicings available and decide which sounds nicest to you; but bear in mind that context may change this.

To take an example; you might be given a chord sequence for a song the verse of which is depicted as follows:

(Remembering that C, F, etc are abbreviations for the chords of C major and F major.) If you try to play this 'progression' sticking rigidly to one voicing or chord-shape:

it will tend to sound a bit stiff. If, however, you have the ability to utilise different shapes, the results will sound more fluid:

(It's not a great sequence anyway, but never mind!)

So even with straight major chords played with one hand only, a keyboard player has a huge range of choice over voicings; a guitarist has it too, though the possibilities may be a little harder to see initially. The careful exercise of this choice is what can help make a very good musician out of an ordinary one, as chords are all-important in music; a good player will usually be the one who really knows chords and voicings, and who knows what scales can be used in conjunction with them. By the way, everything I've said about major chords applies also to minor chords — the three 'ingredients' are the same (root, third and fifth) except that the third is a minor third, not a major; the three notes can be played in as many combinations.

is a nice voicing of a minor chord.

Adding an extra note to a chord expands the choice of voicings by a vast degree. (By 'extra note' I don't mean adding another E to a C major chord, but bringing in a new element like an A or B to make up a C6 or C7 chord.) The possibilities are greater and so the choice has to be exercised that much more carefully. Great fun it is, too! Here are some different voicings of C6:

An interesting ambiguity crops up here. Look at the first three C6 chords — aren't they exactly the same as the first three examples of A minor 7 guitar chords? Why, yes they are! Well, er... goodbye till next month!

...The sad truth is that the same combination of four notes can be called either Am7 or C6. An A, C, E and G can either be seen as (respectively) the root, minor 3rd, perfect 5th and minor 7th of an Am7 chord:

or the major 6th, root, major 3rd and perfect 5th of a C6 chord:

This is a little confusing, a good example of the all-pervading ambiguity of music; there are after all only 12 available notes, so they often have to do more than one job! On paper then, the chord is the same — but the question of which way you hear it is very interesting indeed. What tends to happen is that the context in which the chord is placed and (more important) the bass note played underneath it would determine which of the two it sounded like. If you heard the chord in conjunction with a low bass note of C, you would hear it as C6; if the chord was then repeated but with the bass note changed to A you would hear it as an Am7.

The 'bass note' factor does in fact throw everything into a different light. A chord in itself might have a certain sound which suggests 'majorness', but in conjunction with a different bass note it can suggest 'minorness'. The chord itself has not changed, only its musical setting. I'll try to give more examples of this as we progress.

More chords; we now (should) know about major and minor chords (anyone in doubt can refer back to SI November '78 wherein chord construction is expounded with laborious exactitude and God-like patience on my part) and we've seen a few examples of 6th chords (sometimes referred to as 'added 6th'). A further combination is of course the minor 6th chord; this is an ordinary minor chord (root/minor 3rd/perfect 5th) with the sixth note of the scale added. Now the 6th chord, if one were in an uncharitable mood, could be deemed the greasiest chord in the whole of popular music. Voiced in this particularly unacceptable fashion

the 'added 6th' is always used as the final chord of such master works as Edelweiss and Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer as if to prove in one cheap flourish how socially acceptable and normal those tunes are. Whereas the major 6th has a blandly triumphant, conclusively cabaret ring to it and is thus ideally suited to bringing geriatric melodies to a falsely encouraging halt, its brother the minor 6th is maudlin and pathetic, often cruelly misused as accompaniment to blubbering wretches singing of distant and unavailable sweethearts many moiles away in dear ould Dublin town. (He's paid by the word, y'know — Ed.) If you persist in being interested in minor 6ths, consider these voicings at your own peril:

Top 4 strings only
Guitar voicings courtesy of A. Holdsworth. Thanks!

but don't blame me if elderly relatives burst into tear-stained melodic reminiscence while you're practising them. Adieu!

Series - "Music"

Read the next part in this series:

Music (Part 9)
(SI Apr 79)

All parts in this series:

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

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Mar 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Music Theory



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

Feature by Dave Stewart

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