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Thread: do you choose chords by sound?

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    do you choose chords by sound?

    Hi, I'm wondering how I would choose chords while I'm trying to write a unique tune. Sometimes I try stuff out that doesn't follow strict theory. For instance I'll start with a major root and use a minor iv and/or minor v. It doesn't always sound too bad. I like a song with emotion, but I wonder if it would sound right to other ears. How do you go about choosing from the array of chords? How much can we stray from the rules?

    Another question-- Every scale has a particular character. When someone transposes the song up or down a certain interval, doesn't that change the character of the song even if they are better able to sing it (or whatever)?

    Thanks

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EaZiE View Post
    Hi, I'm wondering how I would choose chords while I'm trying to write a unique tune. Sometimes I try stuff out that doesn't follow strict theory. For instance I'll start with a major root and use a minor iv and/or minor v. It doesn't always sound too bad. I like a song with emotion, but I wonder if it would sound right to other ears. How do you go about choosing from the array of chords? How much can we stray from the rules?
    Its a balancing act between chord movement within the verse, start with the I for rest, move to the IV for tension then bring the verse to a climax with the V7 chord and quickly resolve back to rest so a new thought (2nd verse) can start. AND -- harmonization. With harmonization we get into a chicken or egg thing......
    Do the chords come from the melody notes, or do the melody notes come from the chords? To harmonize your melody line and your chord line must share some of the same notes. Now one note per measure is enough to reach harmonization, two are better and three probably are not necessary - but you still have to share some of the same notes to sound good. You do that by inserting a chord that has the needed harmonizing note in it - but, this can mess up your rest, tension, climax, resolution and return to rest structure. Or you could insert the harmonizing note into one of the chords you already have in the mix - adding an extension, making one chord into a sus chord, etc. How much can you stray from the rules? Passing notes or chromatic runs are like kings X stuff, if it sounds good it's good, if it does not sound good, then it's best not done. Kinda depends on how you write songs. I decide on a cookie cutter chord progression and work the verse's lyrics around that progression, i.e. climax lyric matches with the climax V7 chord, etc. I then work on the melody. If still in the first draft stages I'll use the chord's pentatonic notes as my melody notes. Of course changing melody notes as the chords change. Is that the only way? No. Just one of them.

    Another question-- Every scale has a particular character. When someone transposes the song up or down a certain interval, doesn't that change the character of the song even if they are better able to sing it (or whatever)?
    Depends on what you change into. If you just take everything into another key - no problem.
    If you are using the natural minor scale and change the b7 to a 7 you changed to the Harmonic minor scale. Which may or may not be a problem, the point being what you did changed from one scale to another. If you change the 4 in the Ionian mode to a #4 you now have Lydian, and that does change the character. Again this may or may not be terribly important. So it depends. Changing a 3 to a b3 changes the song from major to minor, now that can be important, or not. So it depends.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 03-20-2012 at 07:49 PM.

  3. #3
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EaZiE View Post
    Hi, I'm wondering how I would choose chords while I'm trying to write a unique tune. Sometimes I try stuff out that doesn't follow strict theory. For instance I'll start with a major root and use a minor iv and/or minor v. It doesn't always sound too bad. I like a song with emotion, but I wonder if it would sound right to other ears. How do you go about choosing from the array of chords? How much can we stray from the rules?
    If your ear leads you away from the "rules", you are following the One Big Rule: "if it sounds right, it IS right."
    All the other rules spring from that one.

    IOW, if you're finding stuff that sounds OK, and think you are breaking rules, you're not. You just haven't yet learned the rules you're (instinctively) following. IOW, for ANY good sound you can make (assuming your instrument is in tune...), there will be a theory to cover it.

    Anything we think sounds good (if it uses normally tuned instruments) is going to be something we've heard before, somewhere. Or something very like it. A totally new sound simply wouldn't sound like music at all. It would be "noise" - which might well be cool, and musically usable, once ears became accustomed to it.

    Eg, minor iv and v with a major I is a little unusual, but easily "explained". If those were the only chords you used, and the major I really did sound like I, then it would be a mode known as "mixolydian b6", or 5th mode of melodic minor. (To most people's ears, I'd guess the minor iv would sound more like the tonic, because that would be the most commonly heard key chord out of those three. Eg, the chords E, Am and Bm would most often be heard together in the key of A minor; although they could also occur along with other chords in other keys. But you're at liberty to make us hear E as I, presumably by stressing it in various ways.)
    Quote Originally Posted by EaZiE View Post
    Another question-- Every scale has a particular character. When someone transposes the song up or down a certain interval, doesn't that change the character of the song even if they are better able to sing it (or whatever)?
    This is a good question.
    In theory, the answer is no. Every key has the same internal pitch relationships, so every major key has the same "character". E major is no different to D major, F major, whatever. All other things being equal.

    However, all other things are rarely equal! A singer will find a particular song easier to sing in some keys than others - maybe just one key will feel right (positioned comfortably within their range). So higher and lower key will cause some strain or discomfort, meaning they will feel very differently about those other keys. (Which keys they are will change from song to song, of course, because keynotes are not always in the same place within the range of a melody.)

    IOW, it's not true that singers have "favourite keys" that they apply to any song - eg always wanting to sing everything in Bb, or whatever. Different songs in Bb will have different highest and lowest notes, and it's the range that governs how vocal keys are chosen.

    When it comes to instruments, things are different. To a guitarist, the key of E has a very different vibe from the key of D, and F is different again. The chord shapes and voicings are different, the feel of the chords is different (assuming, btw, we're talking open position shapes). This can lead to different mood or character associations with different keys. At least, most guitarists would regard the key of A as "easy", while the key of Ab is "hard" (needing barre chords); that naturally leads to character/mood associations. And the ringing open strings in A major make for a different mood to the naturally more muted ones in barre chords.

    For a trumpet player, the keys of Bb and F are easy. The keys of A and E are among the hardest. For horn players in general, moving away from their "comfort zone" keys means it's harder to actually play in tune, not just (maybe) harder to finger.

    A pianist will probably regard C as the easiest key, because it has no black notes. (Something that doesn't worry guitarists playing in E. )

    Of course, the ease or difficulty of playing a key doesn't necessarily equate to mood associations. A perhaps more likely influence is the kind of music one gets used to playing in particular keys. Eg, because horns find Bb, F and Eb easy, jazz tunes tend to be played in those keys. So we'll associate those keys with the kind of sound and mood we associate with "jazz" - ie we may come to think of them as "mellow", maybe a bit "cheesy" (depending on the kind of jazz we're most familiar with, of course).
    The keys of E and A, meanwhile, are "rock" keys. So, in linking them with rock music, we - or jazz players anyway - are likely (perhaps) to think of them as "heavy", "hard" or "mean".
    The key of G is common in folk, bluegrass, etc (in fact in all guitar music, but particularly acoustic guitar music, in my experience). That can have other associations.

    This may not be a conscious process - but I'm sure it has an effect. I know that I feel very differently about the key of F than how I feel about E.
    But - I couldn't tell any such difference by listening, this is the crucial point.
    If someone played me a recording in the key of F, I don't have perfect pitch so I'd have no idea what key it was. Perhaps if I it was played on a guitar (and I knew it had no capo and was in standard tuning), I might get some kind of clue, in that I'd be hearing no open strings. So I might guess it wasn't E. But that only means that barre chords of some kind are being used; that could still be almost any key.

    So - in short - there ARE (at least arguably) differences in character between different keys, but only to a musician, and it depends what their instrument is. And the differences will be subjective anyway. To an objective listener, there is no difference.

    However... while only someone with perfect pitch can reliably identify key (and therefore make any subjective conclusion they like about the character or meaning of that key), there is such a phenomenon as "pitch memory", which it seems everyone has to some extent.

    It's been shown by experiment that if someone is asked to sing a well-known song from memory - one that is generally only ever heard in one key (eg on one famous recording) - they will tend to sing it very close to the right key; not necessarily dead accurately, but much closer than chance. They may not have heard the song for some time.
    http://cogprints.org/643/1/pitch.HTM
    It's as if we all have a very rudimentary sense of absolute pitch, suggesting that people with perfect pitch have simply refined it to the extreme, to be able to focus it consciously. (And that skill is likely to have developed in infancy, almost by accident, not be inborn.)

    It's still true, of course, that if any keys are associated with specific characters or moods, those associations will be subjective, depending on the individual's experience.
    You often see it said in association with classical music that certain keys have certain moods. Eg, F is supposedly "pastoral", D is "martial", or whatever. But this is always down to some famous piece of music of that character having been written in that key. Its character is determined by other factors (melody, harmony, orchestration etc), and the key it happens to be in is then linked with it.

    In the days before equal temperament (which wasn't established until after the classical era), different keys actually DID sound different. So composers may well have chosen keys according to those differences. But it was still only a matter of how "in tune" or "out of tune" they sounded, or how easy/difficult they were for a chosen instrument (especially in the case of sonatas, designed to showcase one instrument). The impure tuning of a remote key might be used for many different purposes; it might imply any mood.
    And of course composers themselves might have had subconscious associations based on their own main instrument. Some were synaesthetic, so had subjective colour associations with pitch, key and/or harmonies.

    In short -again - there's a lot of irrationality around this question. The science doesn't say simply that "all keys are identical". In one pure sense they are. But that ignores the effects of instrument design and culture, and of the biology and psychology of hearing.
    Last edited by JonR; 03-20-2012 at 07:51 PM.

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    Thanks guys for taking the time to write out some tips. I'll definitely look at this closer later. I read it briefly.
    I always thought different key sigs. had a unique sound regardless of the same interval structure. Check this out: http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

    Oh, instead of starting a new thread, I thought I'd ask-- For guitar, if I am looking at a songbook where there are several guitars how do you decide if it is fingered, played classically, or picked? I'd like to play it how the original performer did. Do you try both ways and do the easiest? Arpeggios seem easier classically played, chords strummed. But some parts have a somewhat complex combo of these. I'm new to guitar.

  5. #5
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EaZiE View Post
    .........Oh, instead of starting a new thread, I thought I'd ask-- For guitar, if I am looking at a songbook where there are several guitars how do you decide if it is fingered, played classically, or picked? I'd like to play it how the original performer did. Do you try both ways and do the easiest? Arpeggios seem easier classically played, chords strummed. But some parts have a somewhat complex combo of these. I'm new to guitar.
    I think by fingered you mean fretting the chord pattern and then strumming it.
    Then there is playing classically and/or finger picking, which are somewhat related. I've just purchased my first classical guitar and have found it to be much more complicated than finger picking.

    Most of us do not excel in all three we have our way of playing and that is what we play. So we would not try all three. As to which is easiest. Fingering the chord pattern and strumming it is the easiest. That's known as playing rhythm guitar and is done most of the time from fake chord or lead sheet music.

    Most new guitarist want to play as the original artist did/does. That is not realistic, you have not reached the skill level of the original artist.

    I suggest you start with rhythm guitar playing chords while accompany the lead vocalist or lead instrument. After you become skilled in this you then could accept a lead break and play single note melody during your solo lead break of 12 to 36 bars. When finished you pass the lead either back to the vocalist or one of the other solo instruments and the song continues with you going back to playing rhythm chord accompaniment.

    Playing with others, you can count on the others to handle specific parts of the song. Accompaniment instrument accompany. Solo instruments solo. Rhythm instrument take care of the beat. You do not have to do it all. With piano and guitar you can if you want to......
    Last edited by Malcolm; 03-25-2012 at 01:19 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Malcolm View Post
    I think by fingered you mean fretting the chord pattern and then strumming it.
    Then there is playing classically and/or finger picking, which are somewhat related. I've just purchased my first classical guitar and have found it to be much more complicated than finger picking.

    Most of us do not excel in all three we have our way of playing and that is what we play. So we would not try all three. As to which is easiest. Fingering the chord pattern and strumming it is the easiest. That's known as playing rhythm guitar and is done most of the time from fake chord or lead sheet music.

    Most new guitarist want to play as the original artist did/does. That is not realistic, you have not reached the skill level of the original artist.

    I suggest you start with rhythm guitar playing chords while accompany the lead vocalist or lead instrument. After you become skilled in this you then could accept a lead break and play single note melody during your solo lead break of 12 to 36 bars. When finished you pass the lead either back to the vocalist or one of the other solo instruments and the song continues with you going back to playing rhythm chord accompaniment.

    Playing with others, you can count on the others to handle specific parts of the song. Accompaniment instrument accompany. Solo instruments solo. Rhythm instrument take care of the beat. You do not have to do it all. With piano and guitar you can if you want to......
    Yea, you've got to learn them chords and there are quite a few of them. I've been playing bass for a few years and have learned the basic structure of chords. With guitar there are much more options and some of the fingerings are grueling. I'm used to finger style on bass, but on guitar it seems a easier to get a melody down with a pick (although I have practically no experience)for faster playing, especially if you have the strum pattern down. It seems like the strum pattern is just as important as the chords and notes. But I agree--it is best to get the basics down solid to get a better overall feel. Them strings are so close together compared to bass, that's my biggest obstacle.

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    JonR, What you said about that key sig. characteristics makes sense. Otherwise, the waveform of each of the 12 roots would somehow have to create an emotion. The only way I can think it would do this is its relative pitch--higher pitches sound happier. So, maybe the songs we've heard have already disposed us to different feelings. It's hard to say. It still leaves me with the question--why would someone decide on one key over another in writing a tune? It's an interesting way to write tunes if you know what each element provokes, eg., I need a little conflict or color or resolution etc. here.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by EaZiE View Post
    It still leaves me with the question--why would someone decide on one key over another in writing a tune?
    Two reasons only:
    1. What's easiest to sing (either for themselves or whoever they're writing it for).
    2. What's easiest to play, or sounds best (either on their own instrument or whatever instrument it's designed for).

    Seeing as there are no inherent characteristics of individual keys, the above is dependent on:
    (a) the range of the song (how easy it is to hit the highest and lowest notes) - this naturally affects singers more than instrumentalists, because most instruments have a wider range than the human voice.
    (b) the nature and tuning of the instrument it's being played on.

    The key of a song is not connected to its range (and for a singer, the latter is what matters). Eg, a song may cover an octave from G to G. That note can occur in various keys: G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, D. The keynote could appear anywhere in that G-G octave range (and the other notes in the scale will of course vary accordingly). If the singer can't get as low as the low G or as high as the high G, then they'll change the key until its range fits within theirs. They don't care about the key, either before or after.
    So if you're writing for a singer (which may be you!), thats how you fix the key. (You might start off writing in one key - eg what suits your instrument - then realise the melody is going out of range; so you'd then adjust the key accordingly.)

    Guitarists - OTOH - will often compose songs from reason #2 alone, esp if they start by noodling around with chords and chord changes (instead of singing a melody). They'll then just try and fit their voice wherever it will go. Ie, they'll let their vocal melody (and its range) be governed by their instrumental choice.

    Guitarists will often differentiate between keys because of how they sound on the instrument. As a guitarist myself - as mentioned - I find A major a very different scenario from Bb. I can of course put a capo on fret 1 and play in Bb as if it's A. That disposes of almost all my perceived differences between those two keys - almost. Somehow (and this may be psychological, because I know what I'm doing) Bb still has a subtly different quality from A. (My rational brain resists this perception - and in fact I take little notice of the perception; even it it's not my imagination, it's too subtle to have any important effect on a song.)

    An additional consideration - in professional composition - may be that a composer (or publisher) will choose an easy key. Eg, if a composer (for some reason best known to themselves) begins writing something in Db, they'll probably move it to C or D for publication, because it's easier to read, especially for non-pros, and any singer who wants to change the key will probably find it easier to begin from a simple, common key. There's simply no point in printing it in Db.
    Naturally this applies to original songs, where there is no well-known recorded version. If there is a recording (where the key will have been chosen to suit a singer), then a songbook will usually be in that key - regardless of how the musicians played it. (Eg, a song played by a guitarist with capo on 4 using Am shapes will be written as it sounds in concert, which is in C# minor; the exception would be a book specially designed for guitarists, which should indicate the use of a capo; although it may still notate it in C# minor.)
    Still, some beginner songbooks will just notate a song in what they consider the easiest key (usually C, G or F), regardless of the original key. (Eg, if a guitar song was played in E major, a beginner keyboard book may put it in F; because E has 4 sharps while F has just one flat. Never mind that guitarists find E easier than F...)

  9. #9
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    Yes, I do and as an arranger, this is vital as one wants the piece to have a different vibe.

    Certain chords and how they're played gives a song its tone. f course, there are other techniques used in arranging such as prolongation. (ie: Two chords in a phrase may turn into eight; yet, those additional six are in relation to the original two - referred to as functional harmony.)

    One may look and say you're just adding notes and yes you are (or even taking some away), but doing so helps change the song's character/tone/mood; however, you have to decide what kind you want.

    This is why genres have their established sound - and it's more than the instruments chosen.

    A simple triad: C has nice bright sound, but add a color tune (ie: 6,7,9,11) and the color/character changes.

    It's odd as the Maj7 is a very dissonant interval; yet, it adds oodles of lush - that is if it's in root position. You get other not-so-lush sounds upon inverting, but that may be what you want.

    Jazz (but not limited to) will use extensions to add more lush and brightness, but also altered intervals to create/increase tension. Remember when I said the major seventh is quite dissonant, as are the minor and augmented 2nd/9th and the tritone intervals (found in dominant sevenths)

    Not just major sevenths, but any seventh and above or triad sounds different when inverted. (C-E-G# doesn't sound like, E-G#-B# (and it's B# - not C) despite being the same quality (both are augmented chords)

    I don't like 6/5's (first inversion sevenths), but I'm sure they sound good; however, given the context of the arrangements I do, they (to me) don't. I gravitate towards 4/3 and 2 often (but careful - especially with 2's). However, all three work well within songs because I understand the voice-leading concept.

    As a keyboardist or pianist (especially pianists) will tell you, you want as little movement in the hands as possible as well as using inversions to make a piece sound more alive and smooth. [Move your fingers, not hands. That's piece dependent, but that's the general tip]

    There's more reasons, but to recap the few I've mentioned:

    Chords are chosen due to:

    Sound - meaning the kind of sound you want (inverted chords sound different then root position; extensions/alterations differ from triads

    Style/Genre: Pop likes triads, close sevenths; Jazz/Latin likes open, extensions + alterations.

    Voice-leading -(Ear catering): Does the progression sound smooth/connected or disjointed/choppy? which ties into what the hands/fingers are doing (Walking, running vs. leaping) Bass lines can do whatever since they're single notes; conversely, often you want them to be linear (smooth and connected, too) - especially if they drive the song.

    Mood:

    Alterations really help because of the tension caused (A13b9->A7b9) = get to some kind of D right now!) But inverting these, really brings it home.

    Of course, it's not just whatever is playing the harmonic portion, but the
    melodic and rhythmic portions help as well.

    Lastly, Identification: (the most important reason or very close IMO)

    Like a singer: If s/he emphasizes vibrato or acrobatics, then you can blind guess who it is an most often be correct.

    The same with a musician, composer or arranger. Provided you've heard tons of music from them, you know how they like to operate.

    I've been told that when I play or write, that I add color to the music [hence, the sn, but there's another reason behind it] and I have no problem pointing that out. Not to boast, but not to scare anybody either (although that just happens often)
    Last edited by Color of Music; 07-20-2012 at 10:45 PM.

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