Monday, February 4, 2013

Finding The Right Chord

Q: One of my biggest songwriting problems is when I have a song in my head, and I'm figuring it out on guitar, and I tend to get a few chords into it and inevitably, it seems, there is an "elusive" chord that I can hear in my head but just can't seem to work out on the fretboard. Do you ever have this problem, and what do you do/how do you find it?

A: Theory will help you immensely in these situations. As I describe in chapter 18 of THE INFINITE GUITAR, composition is a matter of finding a chord for your melody note. There are basically two ways to do this (at least for me). The first is working with diatonic harmony. When we work with diatonic harmony, we basically are working within the chords in one key (sometimes using secondary dominant or borrowed chords). If you aren't getting this, start over here >>. If you understand intervals and chords this is actually pretty easy. Let's say you are writing in the key of C. The chords in the key of C are: C - Dmin - Emin - F - G - Amin - Bdim.
So if you are stuck on a certain chord for your melody and you are mostly working with triads, for the most part you have three choices. For example you have a melody note and it is a F note, this note could be the root of F, the b3 of Dmin or the b5 of the Bdim chord. You have other choices as well. The same F note could be the b7 of G7 or G7sus4, or the 4 of a Csus4 chord. Pop music tends to favor roots, 3rds, 5ths and 7ths (mostly the b7 of dominant 7th chords rather than the 7 of major 7 chords). Jazz sometimes will favor upper extensions from time to time (7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths) but there are no real rules, you can check every possible diatonic chord till you find what works for you. Sometimes using an upper extension as a melody note after using roots, 3rds and 5ths consistently will wake up the listener's ears.

Just for the sake of practice, let's write as many possible chords for a C melody note: C (root), Amin (b3), F (5th), Dmin7 (b7),  Bmin7b5,b9 (b9), Gsus4 or G7sus4 (4), Emin7b6 (b6) or Emin7b13 (b13), etc. Now, some of these chords aren't going to work as well as others (like the Bmin7b5,b9 chord) but you can see that there are plenty of choices. Try it yourself with the other 6 notes in the key.

The other composition method (actually: harmonization) method is based more on voicings rather a diatonic system. Regardless, it is still done by finding a chord for your melody note, but this time you have the choice of basically any chord. You just have to like the way your chords work together. Wayne Shorter writes a lot of music this way and this style of writing is favored by modal or modern Jazz or Fusion. For example our melody note is once again C. The C note could technically be a chord tone of any chord: root of C  or Cmin, b9 of B7b9, 9th of Bbmaj9, Bb9 or Bbmin9, b3rd of Amin, #9 of A7#9, etc.. Using this method you have to be well versed in voicings and have a knack for putting unrelated chords together. 

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