Music isn’t changing…

It’s just being explored… and much like the Earth, there isn’t much left to explore. After the work of the mid to late 20th century, nearly all harmonic combinations were pretty much exhausted. Then came the rhythmic exploration. What’s left?

There are still composers across all genres doing great innovative things. What we see becoming popular across most genres, however, is pretty much just old ideas with some new orchestration slapped on and no innovation at all.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to return to old ideas. In the evolution of Rock we see a direct development from the blues, then an infusion of folk, classical orchestration, back to the blues, etc… and this is just in the first 10 or so years. This is how music has always evolved and become something new. But, as I said above, all we see now is the plunder of old ideas.

Although there isn’t much new coming from most of the “popular” artists, this isn’t an accurate reflection of the human spirit. Rather, it’s the result of an industry that’s in panic about losing everything because all of their old models have been destroyed by new technology. They’re only concerned now with pumping out a hit song that will make at least a million bucks.

And the artists they’ve chosen to work with are either pretty and pliable people, or diligent researchers of what has made songs hits in the past. They either smile and sing whatever is handed to them or dissect old hits, extracting the elements they need to construct a new one. Facade, sterile and surgical… no art allowed.

If you look deeply past all of this, all the fireworks that explode once, blinding you for a while, but then disappearing forever, you find the underground. The fertile ground where new ideas actually take shape.

Sites like Made Loud help you to navigate this new and vast terrain. There are others. Just search indie or underground or DIY and the genre of music you love the most. Unfortunately, as powerful as the internet is, there is so much garbage to wade through but there’s also a lot of gold buried there! You’ll find it well worth it in the end!

The Pentatonic Scale – Somehow We All Know It

The pentatonic scale is by far the most used scale in music on the planet. It shows up in folk and indigenous music from all over the world and is used heavily in most popular forms of music.

Perhaps it’s because the pentatonic scale jumps naturally to our ears. The acoustical vibrations that make up the major pentatonic are the most harmonious in the natural world. If you listen close you can hear it everywhere, and it seems to be as natural as language, as Bobby Mcferrin demonstrates.

The scale is made up of 5 (penta) notes (tonic) – C – D – E – G – A and consist of major seconds and minor thirds. This is a major pentatonic in C and if transposed to any other key, or played in the minor, it’s make-up remains the same. The two notes added to make the diatonic scale are F and B. These notes are a tritone apart add half steps to the scale, adding dissonance, which, I personally argue, makes music more interesting!

As we move through the alterations of the scale from culture to culture we see the addition of dissonance in many. the blues scale and the Hirajoshi are the two that come to mind first.

The natural flow of the scale and instant familiarity we have with it makes it perfect for pop music. If you chose one of the most used chord progressions and threw a melody built from the pentatonic scale on top… you might have a hit on your hands… but I personally hope you put more effort in!

Missing the Past

There are sounds from my childhood that I miss dearly. Like the sound of my grandfather’s grandfather clock or the perk of his coffee maker in the morning – two sounds I could conceivably replicate today. But there are other sounds I fear I’ll never have again.

The sound of summer without the ring of tinnitus! Rotary phones. The pop and crackle of a vinyl record. The sound of a manual typewriter.

Our world is changing. These sounds are unknown to most people under the age of 25 today. Arguably it’s not a bad thing. These sounds are replaced by others.

The beep of a cell phone, the pure music heard from digital recordings (though i still think the warmth of sound from vinyl is unbeatable!), the soft click of the computer keyboard… All these will change too. What will replace those?

In 100 years all these sounds will predictably be completely different. In 1000 years those will be completely forgotten… and in 10000 years every bit of history we’ve ever known up to this point will be completely forgotten.

Is this why we feel nostalgia? Because we also know how fleeting everything is?

Man… what a bummer!

Do You Want to Play?

You might say you wish you were good at playing an instrument. You might believe that musical talent, and perhaps all talents (sciences, languages, drama, etc) are something you are born with. Over the years I’ve come to think this belief is completely wrong.

There are studies (which I alluded to in the Bruce Lee post) that demonstrate that people gain expertise through an investment of time and energy – through practice. Anyone can play! Waiting for a divine gift of talent will probably only be an exercise in frustration… If you don’t put in your own energy, the most likely outcome will be nothing!

To play for pleasure, which most musicians do, you need a smaller time investment than you would need to become an expert. Pros play for 4 – 8 hours a day! As a hobbyist, half an hour to an hour a few days a week would probably be perfect.

So ask yourself, “do I really want to play?” If the answer is yes, the next question is “what?” What kind of music do you like? What instrumental sound in the mix seems to always catch your ear?

The next step is to get yourself an instrument! I suggest an inexpensive one – just in case. It’s been argued that when a serious investment is made then you will be more motivated to practice… I’ve seen that this doesn’t always work.

Now, do a little research. Look for a little info about your instrument, who the best players are, maybe where there is a good teacher nearby, and by all means, make noise! Experiment with your instrument, see what kinds of sounds you can make. At first, it’s most common that everything you do will probably sound terrible!!!

The penultimate step is to find time in your busy schedule to play. This is usually the most difficult. Especially since we’ve been programmed to think it’s frivolous and selfish to play. The studies show that the benefits of playing an instrument go beyond just making music. It has positive effects on you intellectually, socially, and emotionally. It just happens to also be fun! Let yourself have fun.

Which brings us to the last step – enjoy.

Bruce Lee was the Jimi Hendrix of Kicking Ass – Why People Become Exceptional

There are people in this world who are exceptional. People who seem to have god given talent. Bruce Lee, in my opinion, is in the same category as Jimi Hendrix. His ability was mindblowing! They both had that kind of talent.

How does someone reach this level of skill? Is it something you’re born with?

Studies show that expertise comes from a lot of practice. Not just sitting and playing, but conscious, focussed practice! I’ve been there, sitting with my guitar, and I zone out… When I come back to consciousness, I know I’ve been playing but I wasn’t there for it… That kind of practice doesn’t count! According to the studies, you need to put in at the very least, 3 hours a day for 10 years… Seems like a lot, but in interviews, virtuosos tell that they have done this very thing – usually more.

People like Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix, as well as a host of others like Michael Jordan, Andres Segovia, John Coltrane, Vaslov Nijinsky (and hundreds of others I could name right now) go beyond our understanding of expertise. Theoretically, anyone who puts in focussed and deliberate practice or study, can become an expert. To achieve the levels that masters like Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix have, you need to live your passion. For these people I argue that their art was not just something they did, but something inside the depth of their souls. It wasn’t just there while they were practicing or performing, it was there in everything they ever did. It wasn’t something they chose, but something that chose them.

Music

Music is invisible, energy waves pulsing through the air, ordered noise, organized sound… and music has amazing power.

Music stirs up emotions and can bring you back to your greatest joy or sorrow instantly. Music can make you angry, or whip you into an energetic frenzy.

Music is proven to have positive effects in education, emotional health, and even physical health.

Music plays an important role in our cultural and social lives.

The study of music contributed to deeper understanding of mathematical truth.

It’s even been speculated that music evolved before language – that music was, in fact, the first language.

Music is far more important than most people realize.

Key Relationships… Jacob Gottfried Weber

Jacob Gottfried Weber (March 1, 1779 – September 21, 1839) was a German music theorist. One of the most useful tools he created was a chart of key relationships which I’m including here as an image.

Jacob Gottfried Weber's Table of Key Relationships

Jacob Gottfried Weber's Table of Key Relationships

 

The capital letters represent major keys and the lowercase letters represent minor keys. The chart shows us all the keys that are closely related to any one key. Using C as our example again, you can see that the major keys above and below are G and F. The minor keys on either side are cm and am. These are the 4 keys that are the most closely related to C. G and F share 4 chords each with C, am shares all chords (it’s the relative minor of C) and though cm shares no chords at all, it’s technically considered the same key because the note C is the tonal center of both keys.

Moving to the keys that are linked to the main key in question is always a smooth modulation. Writing one part of your song in C and another part in G sounds natural. If you want to move from one key to another that’s not as closely related, you can write a bridge between the two using the key or keys in between.

For instance, you could change from C to bm by moving through G and D to settle on bm… You could always just move directly to the next key too. It all depends in the end on what you want to hear in your music!!!

The chords in the 24 keys (12 major and 12 minor) are below. I list the relatives together because they share chords but they are technically different keys.

Since I don’t have a flat character on my keyboard, I use a lowercase b… Which is only really confusing when I need a b flat minor chord, which I write as bbm… Sorry!

C/am – C, dm, em, F, G, am, bdim

G/em – G, am, bm, C, D, em, f#dim

D/bm – D, em, f#m, G, A, bm, c#dim

A/f#m – A, bm, c#m, D, E, f#m, g#dim

E/c#m – E, f#m, g#m, A, B, c#m, d#dim

B/g#m – B, c#m, d#m, E, F#, g#m, a#dim

F#/d#m – F#, g#m, a#m, B, C#, d#m, e#dim (also known as Gb/ebm)

C#/a#m – C#, d#m, e#m, F#, G#, a#m, b#dim (also known as Db/bbm)

Ab/fm – Ab, bbm, cm, Db, Eb, fm, gdim

Eb/cm – Eb, fm, gm, Ab, Bb, cm, ddim

Bb/gm – Bb, cm, dm, Eb, F, gm, adim

and finally…

F/dm – F, gm, am, Bb, C, dm, edim

 

Now experiment!

Basic Music Theory for the Aspiring Songwriter – The Notes and Building Chords

Music theory can be a pain in the butt. While studying the history of music theory I realized it’s usually Jean Philippe Rameauthe work of people trying to figure out and document what the music creators are actually doing in their music… And it seems that for a period after a new theory is put in writing, music becomes, for many, stale and lifeless as they try to actually follow the rules.

But…

Music theory, if used as a tool and not a set of rules-set-in-stone can be powerful for songwriters and composers.

I’m starting with the notes because they’re the group of basic building blocks we use in almost all our music!

As kids, most of us in the western world learned Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. This is the major scale. Most of the music we hear is built from this. There are 7 notes (do through ti) in the major scale and 7 basic chords we can build from these. In the key of C major, the notes that correspond to the do – re – mi are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

The chords we use in western music have a root, third, and fifth. The first chord we usually consider in C… is the C chord. The root is C, the third is E and the fifth is G. We count the root as 1 so C – E – G is 1 – 3 – 5 (D would be 2 and F would be 4…).  The base of most of our chords are built this way.

In major chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a major third (two whole steps) and the interval between 3 and 5 is a minor third (a whole step and a half step). In minor chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a minor third while the interval between 3 and 5 is a major third. The C major and c minor chords both have the  notes C and G. The difference is in the middle note. The C major chord has an E as stated above while the c minor has an E-flat.

In the key of C the 7 chords are as follows

I – C or C major is C – E – G

ii – d minor is D – F – A

iii – e minor is E – G – B

IV – F or F major is F – A – C

V – G or G major is G – B – D

vi – a minor is A – C – E

and the last chord is vii dim – b diminished B – D – F

Diminished chords are rarely used in rock and pop. They have two minor thirds and will be discussed further in a later post.  There is also the augmented chord which can’t be built with the major scale and will be addressed in a later post!

For hundreds of years we’ve put heavy importance on the Major and minor keys. This, in no way means you need to. It’s a familiar sound but sometimes we need to explore the unfamiliar to get greater inspiration!

Later this week I’ll post all the chords in all the keys and explain how you can mix and match! For now, play with the chords in C and get used to the sound.

The 10 Most Used Chord Progressions in Pop and Rock and Roll

The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some Jimi_Hendrix_guitar_on_fireare classic and have been used hundreds of times sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alteration to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song! To make it a little easier to play in any key, I made this PDF that lists all the chords you’ll need in all keys! I’ll be putting more resources including scales for guitar and bass, arrangements, chord charts, etc. here.

If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes.

For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.

Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!

The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” off.

The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his Canon in D (not G as above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.

The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in Johnny B Goode though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and beyond.

The fifth is the Smoke on the Water Progression, ii – IV – V (am – C – D). It’s usually used as part of a larger progression and was used in Purple Haze, Iron Man, House of the Rising Sun, Stepping Stone, etc…

The sixth is the Good Love Progression, I – IV – V – IV (G – C – D – C). This was used in Wild Thing, La Bamba, and Good Love, etc.

The Seventh is the Sweet Home Progression… (god, how I hate Sweet Home Alabama!) V – IV – I (D – C – G). Can’t Explain, Sweet Child of Mine.

The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in Holiday, and The Cranberries used it in Zombie, just to name a few.

The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression  vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from California Dreamin to Stray Cat Strut… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D) which arguably may be more popular today…

And the tenth that I see is the As My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G  for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in 25 or 6 to 4 focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Led Zepplin, Green Day, and Neil Young all offered their variations as well.

These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you look on the ultimate guitar archive you’ll see them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variation, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.

Check out my teaching website at Thorne’s Guitar

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How We Learn: Communities of Practice

As a guitarist I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning alone. Most classical guitarists perform alone too. It might seem that being a part of a community of practice is unimportant in the guitarist’s learning process.

Not true.

For many guitarists there seems to be no community of practice. Musicians who study with a private instructor have a limited community composed of instructor and student. If they play in an ensemble, the community of practice is larger. Guitarists, more than most musicians, tend to spend most of their time as solitary learners.

No one ever learns in a vacuum. Though we seem solitary, we are surrounded by examples of good technique, online repositories of music, tips, tricks, and of course, the sound of our favorite players. But this is not enough.

There are plenty of amazing players out there who learned completely alone, but the learning that happens in groups is far more profound.

Communities of Practice, according to Etienne Wenger, are:

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and (who) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The last piece of Wenger’s definition is crucial. Online, we see information from thousands of players who share our interests, but there is little or no interaction. When you get 5 guitarists in a room discussing their art, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and teaching each other new things, the learning process increases in ways that are amazing. And because there is regular interaction, the solitary practice has more meaning as the guitarist prepares for the next meeting.

It’s absolutely true that you can learn anything completely alone if you have the right information. Learning within a community of practice can take you to a higher level than you could ever achieve alone.