The Theory of Musicality: Chords 101
I mentioned in an earlier post that I'd dive into more detail and really break down chord symbols and how to understand them, and this is the start of that journey! Once you get the basics down for how chord symbols work, it will unlock a whole new way of thinking about music! This "harmonic shorthand" is the key to quickly playing pop songs, changing the key of a song (so that it's in YOUR range), and even writing music of your own! It may seem a little tricky at first, but we're going to break it way down.
Before we begin I should say that I am assuming that you, brave reader, have some working knowledge of musicmaking. You don't have to be a music theory wizard (unless you have a neat wizard hat), but it will be very helpful for you to understand some basics, like which notes are which on the staff, and the difference between major and minor. There are some really great music theory resources online, such as www.musictheory.net. You can also check out the iPhone app Nota, which appears to be a great, all-inclusive app for bringing you up to speed. (If you find these resources useful, or have suggestions for other resources, please leave a link in the comments! I'd love to hear about your experience!)
So what is a chord symbol anyway? Why are they so important? Just for a moment, let's jump back in time to the Baroque era (1600-1750). In classical music at this time, it was very common for ensemble pieces to have something called a basso continuo (meaning "continuous bass"), which was simply a form of improvised accompaniment played on an instrument capable of playing chords. Since the piano had not been invented yet, that meant either a harpsichord, organ, lute, guitar, or harp would play the accompaniment. Often, another instrument would play the lowest notes, usually a cello, double bass, or bassoon. In this way, we have an instrument (or instruments) playing the bass line, and an instrument playing the harmony notes, allowing a solo instrument to play the melody on top. This basic recipe for ensemble music (bass+accompaniment+melody) has proven through the ages to be quite a successful combination.
Although most people think of modern jazz and rock music when they think of improvisation, the truth is much of Baroque music was improvised, some 300 years before mainstream popularity of jazz in America! To save the composer time and to relegate some creative freedom to the performer, a system known as "figured bass" was developed. In this system, the melody was written in the treble clef, the bass line was written in the bass clef, and a special system of numbers was used beneath the bass notes to indicate what the harmony should be. (If you want to really put on your waders and slodge into Baroque harmony, Michael Leibson's explanation on his page Thinking Music is a pretty good one.)
You don't have to understand how figured bass works (in fact, I had no clue it even existed until college) to get the big take-away: chord symbols are harmonic shorthand, and you just need to understand the language. With figured bass, the bass line was written out, making it even easier for bass instruments to play along. With that covered, the harpsichordist or lutist simply needed to fill in the rest of the harmony as it was spelled out. With modern chord symbols (and the modern piano), usually both of those tasks will be carried out by the pianist... unless you have an awesome bass player.
If you checked out the graphic at the top of this post, you saw an excerpt of a lead sheet called "Just Friends". A lead sheet is a shorthand version of a song; it usually contains the melody, sometimes lyrics, and chord symbols. (If you've heard about "fake books", that's what we're talking about) We're probably all familiar with melody and lyrics, so let's break down the chord symbol bit.
If you look at the example above, you'll see a mysterious little F floating above the first note. That's a chord symbol! A letter all by itself with nothing else after it tells us that it is a major chord. It's also in root position, meaning that the lowest note in the chord is an F.
The next chord symbol we see is Bb, which means we simply play a B-flat major chord underneath the melody. So far so good! Our third chord symbol is the first wacky one we've had, so let's check it out. The A means that root of the chord is A, but the next letter is a lower-case m. That means that it is minor. Since it is understood that a root all by itself is major by default, we have to add the lower-case m to indicate that it is minor. So what we have is an a minor chord... but what's with the numbers? The 7 after the m indicates that we add the minor seventh on top of this minor triad.
If I just lost you, don't fret: 90% of confusion with chord symbols comes from understanding 7 chords. We have a few moving parts here, so let's isolate. For the purpose of simplicity and clarity, I'll use C Major as an example.
The two factors here are whether it is a major triad or a minor triad, and whether the seventh is a major seventh or a minor seventh. Adding the appropriate 7th, a C (major chord) becomes CM7 when the major 7th is added, whereas a Cm (minor chord) becomes a Cm7 when the minor 7th is added. The only wingnut in the bunch is the dominant 7, which is just written as C7. (There's a lot of theory for why this is the norm for dominant 7th chords, but let's not go there) Do not confuse the C7 with the CM7 (C major 7). Here is a brilliant walk-through on Seventh Chords if you are still a little foggy.
Now, go back to the "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" example and try to identify the chords. You should have all the tools needed to spell out each of these chords no problem! With just this limited understanding of these five basic chords (major, minor, major 7, minor 7, dominant 7), you can figure out the notes for most of pop music ever written ever. Ever. Test yourself! See if you can figure out these five chords in every key! Make it a game, start with your favorites, or make a plan to learn these five basic chords in 2 new keys every day. You'll be astounded by how quickly chord symbols will become second nature to you!
In my next post, I'll dig a little deeper into chord symbols and talk about suspensions ("sus chords") and other fun sprinkles we can add on top of our basic chords... but for now, I'll leave you in "suspense"!
Coty Cockrell is a freelance musician and artist living in Brooklyn, New York working as a professional ballet accompanist, theatrical music director, and vocal coach. When not teaching private lessons, he gigs with his jazz trio throughout the NYC area.
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