Archive for chords

Pianissimo!

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , on January 27, 2021 by telescoper

Not a lot of people know that I acquired a second-hand piano when I bought my house in Maynooth. I’ve been having a go on it from time since then. Fortunately it’s a detached house so that doesn’t cause the neighbours to suffer too much. I wish I’d got it tuned before the lockdown though. It’s a little bit flat in the middle range and gets worse as the notes get lower. Still, I’m such a terrible player that doesn’t make too much difference!

I can read music but am used to single note instruments and find piano parts difficult to read especially if there are complicated chords – or even simple ones, for that matter. I find having the notes squashed together like in the bass part here makes it difficult to disentangle them.

Fortunately I have a basic knowledge of harmony and can cope with chord symbols so I generally don’t try to read the bass parts but instead fill in chords according to the symbols. If the chords aren’t written on the music like the above example I add them myself.

Even for an oldie like me it’s quite easy to get used to playing basic chordal accompaninents. Most standard progressions involve only three or four chords. You can start playing block triads like in the example above just to get the idea. Adding, for example, the odd 7th here and there helps to explore the sound produced by different harmonic ingredients. After that you can play left-hand figures based on the chords to make it more interesting.

I know you’re all thinking that I’m way too old to be trying to teach myself how to play the piano. One of these days I think I’ll put up a YouTube video to prove that you are right.

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

From Major to Minor

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2011 by telescoper

I was looking around for something to post next week in honour of our graduation ceremony (which is coming up on Tuesday) and came across this, which brought back a flood of memories. It’s the wonderful Annie Lennox singing the classic Cole Porter song Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye as performed as part of the AIDS fund-raiser Red Hot and Blue way back in 1990. Was it really that long ago?

Cole Porter has to be  one of the cleverest songwriters of all time.  His ability to produce tune after lovely tune was matched by his supreme skill in crafting the lyrics, often managing to produce rhymes in the middle of lines as well as at the end. He often used this superb craftsmanship to comic effect, but produced his share of beautiful ballads too, though none more beautiful than this. I’ve always loved the Ella Fitzgerald version of this song so much that I didn’t believe anyone could outdo it, but this track (and the video) moved me to tears when I first saw it, and it’s never lost its impact on me, especially when heard with the poignant video. The  little  boy shown in the home movies is a young  Derek Jarman, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

This song exemplifies Cole Porter’s art as both  composer and wordsmith. The trademark clever rhymes are there, but in this case there’s a wonderful juxtaposition of  the words “how strange the change from major to minor” and an interesting chord progression, which is a minor scale variation of the plagal cadence (sometimes called the “Amen cadence”, because it’s how the word A-men is often sung in hymns). The plagal cadence involves a IV-I step back to the tonic chord (I), via a major 4th (IV) but in Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, the progression goes via   IV-iv-I with the interpolation of a minor 4th chord (iv), which in the original key of E♭is an A♭m chord. It’s a lovely touch, no less lovely for being so clever.

This progression – or a variation of it involving a dominant 7th chord (i.e. IV-iv-♭VII-I) –  can be found in many jazz standards, as  a kind of “bluesy” alternative to the more usual V-I “authentic” cadence, and many pop songs use it too, including several by The Beatles.  However, I doubt if even Cole Porter could have come up with a rhyme for “dominant seventh”!