Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Avoid Notes

Q: My question is about avoid notes. There seems to be something about keeping an F over an Cmaj7 chord and for what I've read about it so far it has to do with the F clashing with the (major) E: E being one of the basic chord notes (3rd) and the F only being a half step apart. Can this be applied to other stuff: playing the C major scale notes over an E-7 will give me the phrygian feeling, but isn't then the flattened 2nd an avoid note too, although the flatened 2nd is characteristic of the phrygian mode?

A: I'm not a big subscriber to the "avoid note" concept. I think some of it may hold true for chords but as far as scales go, it depends completely on the chord you are playing over and the way it is voiced.

Granted there are some notes that have be handled with a little more care, but the musical caste system is a little too much. Let's take your example of the C major scale over an Emin7 chord. What makes this mode phrygian? It is the b2 (or b9) of the scale. If you were to avoid it completely, you wouldn't be playing phrygian anymore, you would be playing some kind of neutered scale. The b2 is possibly the most important note. Granted, it will want to resolve down to the root, so play it and let it resolve. Your ear might not be pleased with the effect of sitting on the note for a long time, so don't sit on it if your ear protests. The important thing to remember here is where the root is placed in the chord voicing makes a big difference. If the root is placed near the bottom of the chord voicing your ear will protest less about you playing the b2 in a higher register. Usually whatever note is on top of the chord is the strongest note. Also, remember that if you played the definitive phrygian chord, a sus(b9) the supposed avoid note, the b2 is going to become the un-avoid note.

Teachers love to divide thing up into good and bad but music doesn't really work that way. They will tell you that the 4th in the mixolydian scale should be avoided but if the chord you are playing over was a 9sus chord, it would be a great note to play. Okay, the 6th! That note has to be weak and avoided at all costs! Yeah, what if the chord were to be a 13th chord? For that matter, what if the chord was a 13sus chord? The 4th and 6th would be the notes to be shooting for in your solo.

Your ears will tell what is strong and weak anyway, believe in your ears and listen when you play and you should be okay. If there really were "avoid notes," musicians would have eliminated them from scales a long time ago.

Anyway, the point I am making is that any note in the chord is a strong note and any note not included is going to be weaker and possibly rub against the notes in the chord. In the latter case, they need not be avoided but treated with more care.

Developing a modal practice routine pt.1
Developing a modal practice routine pt.2
Got a question? I'll answer it if it's a good one!


Tonal Centers

Q: If I were to play, for example over a ii-V in the key of C (Dmin7-G7), is it correct to assume myself playing a D dorian scale over the Dmin7 chord and a G mixolydian scale over the G7 chord. Even though I would still be playing the C major scale, should I think of the scale as a different mode over each diatonic chord? I mean, over the G7 chord am I all of a sudden getting the mixolydian modal sound as opposed to the dorian sound over the chord before? Or should I simply be thinking that the whole thing is dorian?

A: I wouldn't think that much into it. Although, maybe technically you are playing a new mode over each chord, it is a little too much to consider. Think more in tonal centers. What is the sound of the C major scale played over a Dmin7-G7 progression? It is dorian. Whether you play a ii-V or a ii-iii-IV-V progression, the tonal center is revolving around the ii chord, the dorian chord. The only thing that would change this is if you had a functioning V chord resolve to a I chord, this cadence would automatically turn the center of the tonal universe to the I chord. But if the V chord doesn't resolve in a ii-V or something similar, the focus would be on the ii chord. I mean, if you were playing the C major scale over a I-vi-IV-V progression, would all of a sudden everything go minor sounding on the vi chord? Over the IV chord, would everything turn lydian? Even though you might be able to say that you were temporarily playing the aolian mode for a bar, it wouldn't sound so. Nor would the one bar of the IV chord sound lydian. The reason is simply because the major tonality of the major key has been determined, you have started on the I chord and that is what the ear will consider home. The only time it might be safe to think modally over each chord in a diatonic progression is if for example each chord was eight or more bars. I imagine the listener’s ear would start to hear each chord as a different tonal center.
Regardless, you would still be playing the same scale over the whole thing no matter what you named the scale when the diatonic chord changes.

Needless to say, that does not mean that you should take all chords that come after the first chord lightly, even though you might play the same scale over all the chords, you would want to pay special attention to each chord and maybe outline or shoot for chord tones especially on the strong beats where the chord changes. Your ears are your most important tools when improvising, I wouldn't worry too much about pasting names on the scale everytime the chords change, especially if the chords are diatonic to one key.

Links for modes:

Developing a modal practice routine pt.1
Developing a modal practice routine pt.2
Got a question? I'll answer it if it's a good one!


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Why The Major Scale?

Q: Why the major scale? Why is music based on it and who decided that the major scale is what we will create music from? Couldn't it just as well have been something else?

A: No, it couldn't have. I've always sort of assumed that the major scale was a result of physics but never thought much about it. I did a little research and found out something really interesting. Now, remember here I am not a musicologist, music historian, physicist or archeologist so I'm just giving you my opinion based on some facts, you can decide for yourself if I'm full of it or not.

Anyway, it turns out that several years ago Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist, found a bone fragment that looks like a flute. It is between 42,000 and 82,000 years old and was found at a Neanderthal campsite in Europe. I found the
essay on the web and believe me it is a hard read. The scale apparently plays part of the major scale which bugs a lot of academics because it possibly means that major scale may be the processor of the pentatonic scale and not the other way around. Some of these so called academics claim that a bear or wolf may have chewed on the bone and it was pure luck that it turned into a flute that plays the major scale (yeah right, and pigs are going to fly out of my butt!).

So what this says to me is that Neanderthal musicians were messing around with the major scale before we were (which bugs a different set of academics). Do you think it is it a coincidence that they found the major scale and we also did? That a completely different race at a completely different time based their music off of the same scale that we do? No, it leads one to the conclusion that the major scale is something created by some natural force and is most likely inescapable for the most part. Why would this be? I researched this too and it turns out that academics also fight about this as well (they give me a good crack up).

Anyway, the theory is that generally the interval of choice for the common ear is a fourth and fifth from the root. In other words if you were a normal person and sang or played a C note, you would be likely to sing the C note followed by a F note (the fourth) and/or a G note (a fifth) It is true, take it from me, music and especially bass movement favors 4ths and 5ths. If you play any of these notes against a C note, you get a fairly pleasing effect, very little dissonance. On the other hand any other intervals played against a the root creates a less pleasing effect. Therefore is seams pretty likely that these would be the intervals of choice even 80,000 years ago. Hold on to this thought while I explain something else.

Overtone Series - You also have this thing called the overtone series. When you play a note, you are really playing a few notes. If you listen real carefully you can hear it. I tried it the other day in the classroom to demonstrate the principle to my students. I played a C note real loud on my guitar and let it feed back. After a few seconds you can start to hear some other notes come out. What comes our besides our C note is a G note and to a lesser degree an E note. That is the overtone series. C = C, G and E. There are some other notes that come out too but don't concern yourself with them because they aren't really audible. Once again, besides your root, you get a 5th and a 3rd in that order.

Overtone Series and the major scale - Now let's go back to my last section, I said that C is generally followed by a F or G note. If we look at the harmonic overtones created by these three combined notes, we get this:

C = C, G, E
F = F, C, A
G = G, D, B

Now combine all these notes in order from low to high: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Wow, it's the major scale! Pretty cool! That is the theory anyway, and academics fight about this too. I'm probably going to get some slack too for writing this as well. I always get hate mail from academics who hate my simplicity. When I wrote about the "Baroque Police" and "Mr. Rodgers Diatonic Neighborhood" I got a bunch of hate mail.

But that is why the major scale is the basis for what we do, physics has made it inescapable. I would even suggest that if there is life on other planets there is a pretty good chance that they too are making music somewhat based on the major scale. Let's petition NASA to test the overtone series on Mars next time they send a probe. I mean, they bring worms on the space shuttle, why not musical instruments? Hell, I'll bring my guitar along! (Now I'm going to get hate mail from astronauts as well for making light of what they do with worms in space).

Full Free online lesson:
"Developing a Practice Routine" lesson list

The Infinite Guitar

The Infinite Guitar - I started adding a new lesson every month to my site. I guess it was just my way of spreading my knowledge of the electric guitar around. After all, I've had the opportunity and good fortune to study and work with some of the best musicians in the world and there are plenty of young aspiring guitarists who haven't had the same chances, either because of financial reasons or other hardships. Let's face it, it takes a lot of money to relocate to Los Angeles or New York to study music if you where born in a far away place. My site is my way of helping out, I added a new lesson every month for free. The response was overwhelming, thousands of guitarists subscribed to my newsletter and before long I was getting a thousand hits a day to my "lessons" page. What ended up happening is that a Japanese publisher asked me to rewrite the lessons for a book that they wanted to publish in Japan in Japanese. I didn't imagine I would get rich or anything but what the hell, sounded like a chance to learn something about the "book" business. I rewrote most of the lessons and added a bunch of other sections too and turned the rewritten 266 page book into them and they had it translated into Japanese and released the book. What I ended up with was an unpublished English version with no place to go. I originally considered searching for an American publisher but desided against it because I knew they would want to shorten it and/or charge too much for it which would make me a hypocrite. After all, I started the whole thing because I wanted aspiring guitarists all over the world to be able to study and grow without having to get themselves into financial ruin. So I decided to publish it myself and offer it for a price that most anyone could afford, $25 for the book and $15 for the PDF. Pretty cheap for a book that I think someone could use for years and years. Was it easy? Absolutely not, it was an enormous undertaking. It erased all my free time but I'm pretty sure it will be worth it. I wish I had this kind of book when I started out. For those of you who use my site as a recourse, continue to do so. The book will simply offer you the expanded lessons in the form of a book. A book is different than the internet, you can read it while you ride the train, lounge around on the beach or in bed. You can leave it on your coffee table and you can also teach from it. Some of the sections are lifted right from the site but there is plenty of new things too.

The popularity of "The Infinite Guitar" has led to an enormous amount of e-mail with specific questions. This is a good thing, it keeps me thinking and learning myself. I wanted to share these questions, and the answers with everyone so everyone gets a chance to learn too. Feel free to
e-mail questions anytime, they may get posted here with the answers.

The Infinite Guitar
Sample PDF