Kevin (erf_) wrote,

private reading: music theory

A couple of days ago I was practicing a song for which I had memorized tabs from the Internet, and I realized that the chords I was playing were exactly the same as Pachelbel's Canon. This shouldn't have come as a surprise to me--I'd already seen the now-infamous Pachelbel Rant--but these chords weren't just based on Pachelbel's Canon; they were Pachelbel's Canon. I'd think that the transcriber had cheated--that he realized that the song had a I V vi iii / IV I IV V chord progression and wrote it down in the key of G without even bothering to listen to the song--if not for the fact that he actually transcribed the melody wrong. The song would sound almost right if you sung along to his tab, but he was half a step off in a couple places; if you played it as I V vi iii / IV I IV V exactly, you would get something that sounded far closer to the original.

Now lots of songs imitate the Canon--the Beatles' "Let It Be" goes I V vi IV / I V IV I--but this is the first time I'd heard the Canon's chord progression copied exactly.

This is not to say that the song's original composer had the creativity of a brick. To the contrary, it was impressive that he added enough of his own touch to the performance that after years of singing the song, hearing it on the radio, learning to play it and so on I never managed to recognize the distinctive I V vi iii that comprises the accompaniment. Only now can I not listen to the song without thinking of Pachelbel. was a bit of a shock.

Intrigued, I hit up Wikipedia and, bought a book on chord theory from Guitar Center, and, well, whoa.

  • The chord progression defines the song, not the actual chords. Virtually all of the dozen or so unique tabs for the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" on the Internet are V - I - II - V in different keys. With a sliding capo, you could play all of them in one go without ever putting down your pick.
  • Noel Gallagher from Oasis gave Green Day some shit for ripping off "Wonderwall" by using the same chord progression and melody in "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," but this may be unfair--I IIIb VIIb IV has long been a pretty common chord progression in jazz, and the melody is based on it too. (Didn't believe it myself until trying it myself in a blues riff and going, oh, hey, I've heard this before.)
  • Maybe 90% of the tabs on, even the acoustic ones, are comprised entirely of power chords. This is incredibly lame, since you can generate a recognizable power chord version of any song by finding single notes by trial and error--like a six-year-old goofing around with a piano--and then turning those notes into chords by holding the next two strings two frets down. Fuck, I don't need tabs to do that. Plus, although power chords sound almost as good as full chords on an electric guitar, they sound like shit on an acoustic--there's no fullness to the sound. It's the aural equivalent of a croissant reheated in a microwave. (Ever try playing the power chord version of the opening riff to "Smoke on the Water" on an acoustic? It's hilarious.) Mix it up, tabbers! You can't all be fourteen-year-old music n00bs without Positive Role Models whose hands you can watch as they play.
  • Old music--church hymns and stuff--was not designed for the pitch range of modern instruments, do not rely on modern chord progressions, and therefore take a lot more dexterity to play than they sound. I end each practice session with the Gloria Patri, and I have to do it with mostly single notes because that high bit brings me to the lowest frets on the guitar, just barely above the hole, and I haven't the slightest clue how to fret chords that high. I've been able to find exactly one website with tabs for the eighteenth-century hymns you typically find in Presbyterian hymnbooks, and even the simplest songs require absurd manual dexterity to play pitch-perfect. (I think they're computer-generated?) Small wonder churches still have organs.
  • There are hundreds of hand-shapes for fretting chords. Most contemporary music uses, like, eight.
  • Which might be because most of pop music guitar tabulature is comprised of G, C, Em, Am, A, D, Dm, and F--everything else is played with the same three or four barre chord patterns. Those are the first chords every beginning guitarist learns. Not a coincidence.
  • Elliott Smith and Radiohead, on the other hand, virtually never use those chords. Or any of the traditional chord progressions, for that matter. That's a big part of why Elliott Smith's music is so expressive and Radiohead's music is so interesting--they violate your expectations of which note follows which note, but do it artfully enough that it comes out as music instead of noise. (Always amusing to see tabs struggle to describe their songs--I'm seeing weird shit like Dm13th and G#flat5/aug5 in tabs for Smith's "Independence Day." Goodness--it might be easier to just write sheet music.) That also might explain why friends of mine who like to listen to those artists tend to prefer single-note fingerpicking; gentle, restrained vocals; and intricate, vaguely discordant solos in their own playing, rather than the screaming major-minor four-chord tennis that defines most pop, folk, country, and alternative. It's a radically different way of looking at the instrument.
  • I'm getting the feeling that most pop covers (of the street busker or YouTube variety) are composed by this formula:

    1. Pick up the main melody by ear, and play single notes by trial and error.
    2. Use those notes as root notes to form a progression of three or four chords.
    3. Strum those chords, occasionally fingerpicking the notes of those chords in random order for solos.
    4. Add licks, arpeggios, and other ready-made show-off pieces to those solos.
    5. Sing poorly.

    This must be why most covers sound so dull, and why software like Microsoft Songsmith is possible--there's no creativity to the process aside from the placement of canned riffs and licks. It's an algorithm seeded by a human random number generator, and the music it makes is generic by design. Surprisingly, though, the best covers don't necessarily deviate from that formula; they play with your expectations of it, or apply it in unusual ways. Like the runaway licks in the Nashville Super Pickers version of "Stairway to Heaven," or the masterfully restrained silences (negative noise?) and discordant chords of Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt." Just because a song follows a well-known chord progression, or even a well-known melody, doesn't mean it has to be predictable. In that sense chord progressions are not unlike poetic forms--just because you know a sonnet's final couplet is going to kick you in the ass doesn't mean it won't take you by surprise.
  • I still can't play a single song I write. Damn it.
  • Of course, no amount of technical prowess will substitute for soul. You could be playing a bare bones, four power chord version of Britney Spears's "Baby Hit Me One More Time" with a simple four-quarter-note up-down-up-down strumming pattern, and still somehow manage to make it sound beautiful if you have an amazing singing voice, have crafted your performance around your voice, and are putting your heart and soul into it.
  • But not if you're off-key.
  • Or off-rhythm.
  • And you'll still sound like a n00b.
  • And if you have neither ability nor soul...there's always enthusiasm.

I could have learned all this stuff from a book--I could have learned all this stuff much better from a book--but it would have been infinitely less exciting than discovering it by myself.
Tags: guitar, music
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