Feb 212015
 

A good way to make songs more powerful and structurally sound is to use chord progressions not only within sections, but also across them. This creates a harmonic relationship between sections and adds to the sense of forward motion, tension and resolution, and overall strength. A change of section can feel more logical and expected, which you can also use to your advantage by doing something harmonically unexpected.

Progression Vs. Succession

First, we must define chord progression. Since there are two ways of placing chords side-by-side but only one term, “chord progression”, everyone calls both versions the same thing. Let’s call the second version, “chord succession”.

In a chord succession, none of the chords have a relationship to the others except that first one and then another is played in succession. Playing E5, D5, and C5 ala Iron Maiden is a good example. Since nothing is going on, there’s nothing to define. It’s not even clear if this is E minor or C major.

Chord progressions, by contrast, are so involved that books are written on them, so we’ll just cover the relevant basics. It is their nature to solidly define a key by concluding with V-I (the key’s fifth chord and first one). The chords of increasing tension precede the chord of no tension, which is therefore the ultimate resolution. Several other chords can precede V-I, such as the famous IV-V-I (D, E, A). This defines the key as A major, provides tension and resolution, and moves (or progresses) the song forward purely by harmony. Let’s use the IV-V-I progression for structure.

Song Structure

So what do I mean by structural chord progression? Let’s say your song has a verse, bridge, and chorus. We’ll decide our song, overall, is in A major despite any key changes within the song. To do a structural progression, we would write the verse in A major (I), the bridge in D major (IV), and the chorus in E major (V). After the chorus, we conclude the progression by returning to the verse in A major (I). See Example 1.

First

In this example, the indication (V/IV) means “V of IV”, and that A major is not only I in A major, but also acts as the V chord in D major, our next key. Simply by concluding our verse on an A major chord and starting the bridge on a D major chord, we go V-I into D major.

After the verse (I), we continue forward with the bridge (IV) and chorus (V) again (Example 2). At this point, we could either return to the verse music again, or go straight into a solo in A major, but that key is sort of expected at this point, isn’t it?

Second

Why don’t we do something unexpected, such as resolving to A minor (i) instead? It’s a nice surprise, a different tonality (being minor), and is also something we haven’t heard.

The technique can continue within a solo. To determine what keys to use, decide what section (and key) will come after the solo, then work backwards. In our example, the E major chorus comes after the solo, so it makes sense to end the solo in B major. B is V of E and makes E sound like home.

Solo

For this reason, at the coda in Example 3, we remain in E major instead of return to A major. By this point, E sounded like home anyway, and structural progressions have less strict requirements for completion.

What if our song has an introduction? This could be in A major, too, but let’s use E major to create a build up to the main music.

Intro

Here’s the final structure of our song and a recording thrown together to demonstrate it:

 

Randy_Ellefson_Progression

Caveats

Notice how the chorus has a succession in the first phrase (I-vi-I-IV), but because I slipped in the V chord right at the end before returning to the I chord, this became a progression.

To make structural progressions work, we must clearly define the key of each section. The only way is with a chord progression, for if I were to play all the white keys on a piano, the music could either be C major or A minor, or even modal. It must be definitive.

This raises the problem of using progressions constantly when they are all very similar, which is why people avoid them in favor of successions. Still, it is possible to ignore progressions and then slip in the V-I or vii-I motion at the end of a phrase. Either that, or do it at the start of a section and then avoid it, such as the entrance to the solo.

Since structural progressions are less strict, a song does not have to conclude with a finished progression, or even maintain them within a song. Two sections can be related by key when no others are. The song above ends in E major, the key of V, but still feels over.

Coda

This approach can improve your songwriting and make you think of new paths for song development. The effect is often subtle, almost psychological, and yet helps retain a grip on your listener, something every composer wants. This technique and others can be heard throughout the songs on my album, The Firebard.

Interval Riffs, Part 1: Basics

Many guitarists use chords for rhythm guitar without considering another option: intervals. While a chord is three (or more) notes, an interval is only two. This might seem a trivial difference, but using just part of a chord lets you play intervals for specific reasons, and using only two fingers creates other more advanced possibilities. […]

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Interval Riffs, Part 2: Ornamentation

In a previous article, Interval Riff Basics, we looked at and heard examples of using only two notes, or intervals, for rhythm guitar parts. The two main intervals are fifth and thirds, with the latter adding more variety and color to your riffs. Now we’ll look at ornamenting these two basic sounds with melody fragments. […]

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Interval Riffs, Part 3: Simple Counterpoint

Counterpoint is defined as two or more simultaneous melodies that maintain their independence while still forming a harmonic relationship. A single instrument like classical guitar can perform counterpoint with three or four lines seeming like a single part. However, rock guitarists seldom do this for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean it can’t […]

0 comments

Structural Chord Progressions

A good way to make songs more powerful and structurally sound is to use chord progressions not only within sections, but also across them. This creates a harmonic relationship between sections and adds to the sense of forward motion, tension and resolution, and overall strength. A change of section can feel more logical and expected, […]

0 comments

Writing Guitar Licks

I always prefer to write a new guitar lick instead of using a standard one, but since anyone can throw in a bunch of notes that don’t sound good, how do you write something fast, impressive (they must always be that, of course), and musical? Through experience, I’ve developed an approach. To do this, you’ll […]

0 comments
Feb 212015
 

Counterpoint is defined as two or more simultaneous melodies that maintain their independence while still forming a harmonic relationship. A single instrument like classical guitar can perform counterpoint with three or four lines seeming like a single part. However, rock guitarists seldom do this for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

In Part One and Part Two, we examined intervals, how to write riffs with them, and different ways to melodically ornament them. The two main intervals were fifths and thirds, with each having neighbor and/or passing tones. Now we’ll go further to using mixed intervals and introduce two basic ideas in counterpoint: oblique motion and contrary motion.

Mixed Intervals

So far we’ve been using three implied chords: E minor, D major, and C major, in that order. The lower line has also been E, D, and C, and the main interval has either been thirds or fifths. What we’ll look at now is retaining that bass line, but changing what interval is above it. Take a look at Example 1.

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex1
Example 1

Using three different intervals, a third, fourth, and fifth, we have this riff as performed in Example 2:

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex2

The upper part remains on G while the lower line descends. As this happens, the G forms an E minor third with the E below it, and when the passage ends, a fifth with the C below it. G is a common tone for E minor and C major (it is in both the first and last chords).

In between at measures 5-6, while the lower note is D, G seems like a non-chord tone. After all, the notes of D major are D, F#, and A. There’s no G, but we’re playing it anyway. There are two interpretations.

One: G is a non-chord tone that works with D because G is in the chord before and after it. This makes the temporary dissonance of G not being in the chord smoother.

Two: The chord has changed from D major to being G major in second inversion (i.e., the fifth, D, is the lowest note). G major is spelled G, B, and D. Any time you’re playing a perfect fourth, the higher note is the root, as if it’s a root-fifth-octave voicing without the lower root (Example 3).

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex3
Example 3

Simple Counterpoint

In previous articles, when using thirds or fifths, we were always doing parallel motion, which means the two notes were a third apart on the first chord and remained that way as the notes moved to other chords (Example 4). Fifths were always a fifth apart.

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex4
Example 4

Now, one line moves and the other one doesn’t, which is called oblique motion. It might seem that less note movement would be less interesting, but both oblique and contrary motion create a sense of depth and space within the guitar part. The stationary note causes the following changes in this case:

  1. There are two independent parts.
  2. Three different intervals and sounds are used: a third, fourth, and fifth
  3. The chord changed from D major to G major, which also gives the bassist two options: playing D or G. If you listen carefully to the mp3s, you will hear the bass move from D up to G and then walk down to the C chord

A good use of oblique motion is to perform a V-I progression, since the fifth note of a key is in both chords. In E minor, that note is B. The V chord of B major is B, D#, F# and I chord of E minor is E, G, B). You can hold down the B while alternating the E with a D# (Example 5).

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex5
Example 5

Contrary Motion

When two lines move in opposite directions, it’s called contrary motion. This technique is useful for switching between a third and fifth in particular.

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex6
Example 6

A fifth can collapse inward to a third if the lower note moves up a step and the higher note falls a step. In doing this, C and G become D and F# respectively, so a fifth becomes a third and the chord changes from C to D. The reverse works just as well, so a third can expand outward to become a fifth (Ex. 6).

Another application in E minor or major is for the V – I progression, B major to E, as in Example 7. Here, the low B drops to the open E while the D# rises to another E, so a third becomes an octave. We can also add another B on top and leave it there for both chords (Ex. 7b). This sounds richer.

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex7
Example 7

Putting It All Together

If we combine the ideas in this article with the ornamentation ideas of the last article, we arrive at a riff like that in Example 8. This uses mixed intervals, upper and lower neighbor tones, and parallel, oblique and contrary motion. Notice the last beat of measure 8, where C5 collapses to D3, which then rises in parallel to Em3. Hear the mp3, where the bass guitar line outlining the G chord.

Interval_Riffs_Counterpoint_Ex8
Example 8

Coda

Counterpoint is a simple way to add depth to your parts for a more spacious, richer guitar riffs, especially when combined with mixed intervals. In subsequent articles, we’ll go through the song “Motif Operandi” from my album, The Firebard, riff by riff to see these applications and variation techniques in practice.

Interval Riffs, Part 1: Basics

Many guitarists use chords for rhythm guitar without considering another option: intervals. While a chord is three (or more) notes, an interval is only two. This might seem a trivial difference, but using just part of a chord lets you play intervals for specific reasons, and using only two fingers creates other more advanced possibilities. […]

0 comments

Interval Riffs, Part 2: Ornamentation

In a previous article, Interval Riff Basics, we looked at and heard examples of using only two notes, or intervals, for rhythm guitar parts. The two main intervals are fifth and thirds, with the latter adding more variety and color to your riffs. Now we’ll look at ornamenting these two basic sounds with melody fragments. […]

0 comments

Interval Riffs, Part 3: Simple Counterpoint

Counterpoint is defined as two or more simultaneous melodies that maintain their independence while still forming a harmonic relationship. A single instrument like classical guitar can perform counterpoint with three or four lines seeming like a single part. However, rock guitarists seldom do this for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean it can’t […]

0 comments

Structural Chord Progressions

A good way to make songs more powerful and structurally sound is to use chord progressions not only within sections, but also across them. This creates a harmonic relationship between sections and adds to the sense of forward motion, tension and resolution, and overall strength. A change of section can feel more logical and expected, […]

0 comments

Writing Guitar Licks

I always prefer to write a new guitar lick instead of using a standard one, but since anyone can throw in a bunch of notes that don’t sound good, how do you write something fast, impressive (they must always be that, of course), and musical? Through experience, I’ve developed an approach. To do this, you’ll […]

0 comments
Feb 212015
 

Read Part 1 here.

Earning a traditional four-year degree in music, and specifically classical guitar, can make guitarists better at rock music, but it usually takes some effort to transport what you’ve learned from the classical concert hall to the rock arena. The possible benefits to this education include:

  •   Knowing how to write variations
  •   Effective use of keys and more dynamic, sophisticated arrangements
  •   Writing multiple parts, including dual leads and harmony, more easily
  •   Significantly easier writing of lead guitar that is more melodic and does what you want
Writing Variations

An idea is the source of all artwork, and since a good idea is hard to come by, it’s smart to make the most out of each. This is central to classical composition technique, and one thing students learn is to find variations by studying the music. An entire five-minute piece can be written from a single idea less than one measure long.

Variation is all about retaining some element of the original idea while other elements are altered, keeping music fresh and yet familiar. The variation does not have to be recognizable as such, though it helps, but listeners of different astuteness will notice different things anyway. The most important thing is that if you made more music out of your idea, you have avoided adding a second idea to the piece just to finish the writing. That second idea could have been a song of its own. It is fine to write music based on two different ideas, and this “theme 1 vs. theme 2” approach is widespread, but both ideas are then used as a source of variations.

Cosmetic variations are simple and don’t involve manipulation of the material’s structure, which is why untrained musicians often opt for this approach. One example is changing the instrumentation, such as the singer performing the melody, and then the guitarist doing it verbatim. Even extreme changes in instrumentation by all band members, while effective, are cosmetic. Progressive metal bands excel at this.

Structural variations are typically more sophisticated and involve breaking down a musical idea into its component parts, such as its harmony, rhythm, and melody. The most important of these is the melody, which can be further divided into several smaller snippets called “motifs”. A motif is a short musical idea that is recognizable. A motif can be surrounded with different chords and keys, repeated at different pitches, and used as the basis for a new melody. The motif itself can also be varied, not simply repeated in different guises. This is an extensive subject to be covered in future articles.

Knowing how to write variations will not only make your music more compelling, but it can prolong your artistic life. Why waste ideas when you can mine the song for unexploited potential? How many bands sound like they’re out of ideas after three albums? Lead guitar ideas can often be derived from something within the riffs, too.

Dynamic Use of Keys

A key change can be a powerful thing – or it can be largely pointless. In classical music, keys are used to define structure, add tension in either subtle or obvious ways, and for variation. These ideas appear throughout a music curriculum but are most prominently studied in Musical Form class. Each classical form, such as a fugue, sonata, or minuet, is defined in part by its key changes, and while you might not want to write an allemande, for example, the harmonic ideas within such a piece can still be applied to other genres.

Defining Structure: Writing a verse in one key and the chorus in another helps distinguish the sections from each other. The average listener won’t be consciously aware of it, but it still affects them. Their sense of forward motion and the “You Are Here” feeling are stronger. Without key changes, a song may feel like it meanders. For two alternating sections of music, the most basic approach is derived from chord progressions and involves changing from I to V. In other words, if the verse is in A major (I), write the chorus in E major (V), so that when the verse (I) reappears, a V-I motion occurs. This is discussed in more detail in another article, Structural Chord Progressions.

Adding Tension: When a song remains in one key throughout, it goes nowhere harmonically. By contrast, a song with key changes feels more dynamic. The goal of chord progressions is to return to the home chord (I), which is why all progressions end with it. The goal of key changes is that, once left, the home key is a destination-in-waiting, and the desire for the original key to return adds tension. This is why it is used structurally, too. Another option is to surprise the listener with a more audible/noticeable key change. They may not understand what happened, but the jarring or colorful change adds drama. This is also discussed in Structural Chord Progressions.

Variation: Presenting the music in different keys makes it sound different because keys don’t sound the same. Switching between two major keys, or two minor ones, works easily, but going from major to minor (or vice versa) often works well, too. Which key depends on an understanding of related keys and how to use a progression to change keys, and personal preference. For example, from E major, some obvious options are E minor, B major, A major or minor, and C# minor. Each has structural implications, and knowing how to return to E major later brings things to a resounding close.

Every key falls on the guitar differently, opening up some possibilities and closing others. Adapting your theme to fit can cause subtle changes in how it sounds (this is especially true of riffs). Working in different keys also changes your thinking, keeping your perspective and your playing fresh.

Writing Multiple Parts

Guitarists enjoy cleverly written guitar parts, especially when there’s more than one at a time. Whether dual leads or layered rhythm guitars, writing such parts is much easier when you’re very familiar with the internal structure of chords and have studied counterpoint. Both subjects are taught intensely in a music curriculum.

“Part writing” in Music Theory class will make it clear that you can change chords simply by changing one pitch, not moving all of them. If you’re holding A, F, D (a D minor chord in 2nd inversion), you can drop the D to a C to create an F major chord (A, F, C) in 1st inversion. This might not sound like much, and as a single guitar part, it may not be enough change, but if this is an additional guitar part, such simple motions can make great secondary writing. If it’s a 3rd or even 4th guitar, the resulting sound can be rich, like this three-guitar and one bass example from my acoustic piece, “The Joys of Spring”. It works with distortion, too, not just acoustic guitars.

 

Another version of multi-part writing is having several distinct lines in addition to the rhythm guitar’s chords. This short clip from my song “Epic” demonstrates this with 5 guitar parts that enter one by one: the main riff, chords, a melody that becomes an ostinato, double-stops, the high E string, and finally a solo. This sort of writing is difficult without some training.

 

Dual or harmony lead guitar is much easier to understand as well. Classes in Music Theory, Counterpoint and Musical Form, with all the analysis and four-part writing, will make writing only two parts pretty easy by comparison. Playing a melody in strict 3rds is effortless, and writing two different melodies that work together (counterpoint), even over riffs that have melodies, too, is also more straightforward. Listen to this clip from my song “Journeys”, where two call-and-answer leads work over the riff melody.

 

Easier Writing of Lead Guitar

A classical guitar degree will have you knowing the notes below the 9th fret fluently, and this can (but may not) help you play better lead guitar lines. For it to help, you must be able to think about what you’re doing instead of playing by rote. This means abandoning the more common way of navigating the guitar neck for the second and more thoughtful way.

The more common approach among untrained musicians is to use scale patterns, chord shapes, and memorized fingerings to find your way. This helps players go everywhere on the neck, play the same thing in many keys just by moving the hand around, and compensates for unfamiliarity with the pitches. This is how most guitarists learn to play because we’re in it for fun at first. Why waste your time learning all those notes when there’s a shortcut? Because this can come back to haunt you later – as a crutch that prevents you from thinking about what you’re doing.

The second way is to navigate via the notes on the neck. Non-guitarists might be surprised to discover this isn’t how people do it, but old habits die-hard. Once you know the fingerings in E minor, it’s hard to ignore them and focus on which notes you’re holding, but there are reasons to change. Every pitch has a melodic and harmonic relationship to the root of the key (E in this case) and the other notes. For example:

You should be able to think, “I’ll play a D# because it’s the altered 7th of E minor, and it resolves up by step to the root if it’s in the outer voice, and it’s the major 3rd of the V chord in a V-I progression, which is what the riffs are doing in background. I’m on B major (V) now, and the next chord is E minor, so my next note should be E, even if only briefly. Maybe I’ll quickly move up to a G to emphasize the minor tonality of the key. Or maybe I’ll play a G#, making it sound like I’m in E major instead, though this will only work if the riff isn’t playing a G natural. Since the chord is an E5 voicing of E and B, though, it will work.” If all of this isn’t in the back (or front) of your mind before your finger lands on that D#, you are not playing by the notes on the neck.

It is not enough to be able to figure out what note you are playing at a given moment. You must have placed your finger at that spot because of its letter name and all the associated relevancies, but this won’t happen automatically even after a degree unless you change your thinking (how to do so is a subject for another article). Even so, this multitude of knowledge about what could be done with pitches, if utilized, will make you a far more melodic and powerful lead player.

Coda

A traditional four-year degree in classical guitar, or another music specialty, is extremely valuable to longevity, versatility, and overall effectiveness as a musician. This is true even for rock guitarists, but only if you are able to apply it to the rock genre. This requires some thought and ingenuity, and many of these subjects will be discussed in further detail in other articles. The techniques can be seen in virtually all of the music I write, some of which is available as a free download. The annotated tablature shows progressions, key changes, and variations, and comes with an explanation.  A Far Cry and download a separate PDF of the notes.

Be sure to read Part 1.

Evaluating Artist Feedback, Part 1

Whether a musician, author, or other artist, we’ve all received feedback on our work.  Obtaining meaningful feedback is an art all its own.  Sometimes we have to work at it, deciphering comments to figure out what someone means, so I’ve written some observations about this, with examples. Defining Helpful Feedback First we should define what […]

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Evaluating Artist Feedback, Part 2

This is part two of the blog about evaluating feedback on your writing or other artistic pursuits. Read part 1 here. Biased Feedback A person giving negative feedback can be biased in some way. We can sometimes tell from their words. I have some examples here: A CD reviewer once slammed my instrumental guitar CD, […]

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Got Tendonitis? What To Do

Like most guitarists, I never thought I’d get tendonitis, not to mention several times. One side effect is that, since launching my music career, I’ve fielded hundreds of questions about it. These range from how to avoid it, diagnose it, get treatment (and from whom), do home therapy, and continue with playing – and more […]

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Music Degrees and Rock Guitarists, Part 1

Many guitar players learn music theory and consider a degree in music, but wonder what they will gain from a traditional four-year degree and whether it’s worth it. The answer isn’t the same for everyone, but here’s what I can tell you about prerequisites, what you’ll learn, what the experience is good for as a […]

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Music Degrees and Rock Guitarists, Part 2

Read Part 1 here. Earning a traditional four-year degree in music, and specifically classical guitar, can make guitarists better at rock music, but it usually takes some effort to transport what you’ve learned from the classical concert hall to the rock arena. The possible benefits to this education include:   Knowing how to write variations […]

0 comments

Musicians and the Etiquette of Not Being Paid

Sometimes musicians are asked to perform without being paid, whether live or on an album.  The request can come from a venue, other bands, or musicians, and can stipulate (or not) what they get instead. I can’t address every situation here but can give some perspective on what is okay and not okay to say […]

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