Secret Chords

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losthighway
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Secret Chords

Post by losthighway » Mon Nov 12, 2018 8:27 pm

Not sure if songwriting tricks are welcome here, I suppose they can sneak in the side door as part of a producer's arsenal if you're one of those.

Anyway, after a couple decades of trying to write songs I keep finding new tricks to keep it interesting and hopefully get better. A lot of the stuff has been fooled with since Cole Porter, or The Beatles, but when you find it for your song it feels brand new.

I remember learning the trick of the minor 4 in a major key. Always a nice color. Then one day I decided to follow the alteration from there. So if you were in say G maj and you slid in a C minor where the C major, that means you flatted the sixth scale tone, down to an Eb. If you keep that in place you get a new major VI in an Eb major, where normally it'd be an E min. Or if you keep that Eb in place suddenly the minor ii chord (A min) becomes a diminished chord. This can be a way to modulate, or key change, or just a way to shift things into a weird harmonic space so when you land back in the expected chords they have extra oomph.

Once I get thinking about 7th chords I find all kinds of other fun exercises in harmonic color. It's all math, but when I hear a new sound it gives me a feeling and then I forget about math and make it art. I've got some other stuff I kick around to keep things interesting, lyrical stances, drone strings and chord voicings on the guitar.

Anyhow, what are your tricks?

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by vvv » Mon Nov 12, 2018 9:18 pm

OK, yours made me think of this one:

I like to use I-biii-V (ex., G-Bm-D).

You can put IV (C) or #iv (C#m) in as a passing chord ... Cool for finger-picking parts, also.

Bonus: go to the relative minor (Em), either as a resolve of the biii or a key change.
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Re: Secret Chords

Post by Magnetic Services » Mon Nov 12, 2018 11:14 pm

The One Weird Trick Songwriters Don't Want You to Know!

MoreSpaceEcho
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Re: Secret Chords

Post by MoreSpaceEcho » Tue Nov 13, 2018 9:02 am

i'm not really a songwriter so i don't have any nifty chord progression tricks, but my fave secret chord is a modified add9 chord. so if you normally had an Eadd9 starting on the 7th fret of the A string, as such:

high
x
7
9
9
7
x
low

make that 9th fret E an F, and revel in the glorious scathing dissonance:

high
x
7
10
9
7
x
low

if that's still too consonant for you, i figured out the most dissonant chord you can play on a guitar is either this:

high
0
4
0
4
0
4
low

or the same thing but at the 6th fret instead.

if you play those over and over again for long enough they start to sound oddly pleasant.

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losthighway
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Re: Secret Chords

Post by losthighway » Tue Nov 13, 2018 7:22 pm

MoreSpaceEcho wrote:
Tue Nov 13, 2018 9:02 am
i'm not really a songwriter so i don't have any nifty chord progression tricks, but my fave secret chord is a modified add9 chord. so if you normally had an Eadd9 starting on the 7th fret of the A string, as such:

high
x
7
9
9
7
x
low
That chord shape is a favorite of mine. I so automatically grab it when I'm playing a non-barre A that I almost have to remind myself not to over use it. Such nice jangle to it.
MoreSpaceEcho wrote:
Tue Nov 13, 2018 9:02 am
make that 9th fret E an F, and revel in the glorious scathing dissonance:

high
x
7
10
9
7
x
low
Then we have the unholy tritone.
MoreSpaceEcho wrote:
Tue Nov 13, 2018 9:02 am
if that's still too consonant for you, i figured out the most dissonant chord you can play on a guitar is either this:

high
0
4
0
4
0
4
low
A pile of minor seconds. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm pretty sure it could be used as punishment for misdemeanors.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by MoreSpaceEcho » Tue Nov 13, 2018 8:05 pm

losthighway wrote:
Tue Nov 13, 2018 7:22 pm
Then we have the unholy tritone.
with a minor second on top of it. so nice!

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by lawnmowersongs » Tue Nov 13, 2018 11:59 pm

I like to use two chords a tritone apart sometimes! It's kind of an interesting flavor, but it's really dependent on what you do after to give it context.
One of my songs is in the key of C, and as it reaches the G chord at the end going into the chorus it does a fake out resolution to Ab major, which then jumps to the tritone D major which I use as a V of V to get back to G and then I use the IV to minor iv trick to get back to C. Writing a melody that sounded natural over that felt really good!

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by A.David.MacKinnon » Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:06 am

I don't have enough technical language to really get into this but I will say that the biggest breakthrough I've ever had in writing was when I switched from writing melodies to fit the chord progression to writing chord progressions to fit the melody.
It's seems like a minor thing but it's pretty huge. Having the melody there first really frees up what the chords can be. It really unlocked thing for me. Moving chords from major to minor in the same song and getting in and out of key changes became way easier.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by losthighway » Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:27 am

A.David.MacKinnon wrote:
Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:06 am
I don't have enough technical language to really get into this but I will say that the biggest breakthrough I've ever had in writing was when I switched from writing melodies to fit the chord progression to writing chord progressions to fit the melody.
It's seems like a minor thing but it's pretty huge. Having the melody there first really frees up what the chords can be. It really unlocked thing for me. Moving chords from major to minor in the same song and getting in and out of key changes became way easier.
You know for as theory heavy as some of my explorations have been, I've never done this. It sounds kind of hard cause I've worked in such a different way.... so I better try it!

Thinking about this more, I always want to have cool chord progressions to spark the emotion. Then my melody kind of winds around them. I might write better hooks, or less repetitive melodies if that was all I was starting with. I can't really do this on a guitar, even though that's really my home base, for some reason it's just piano work for my brain so I sit down and chop it out with my hack keyboarding skills.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by ubertar » Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:32 am

I pretty much abandoned song forms and chord progressions a long time ago, but when I used to write rock songs I liked locrian mode a lot, and using a minor7 flat5 flat9 as the i chord, along with the various 7th chords that fit the scale.

There are some nice scales that are modes of harmonic and melodic minor and the minor 7 flat 5 scale... there's another set of 7 modes possible that doesn't have two half steps in a row anywhere in it but I'm not aware of a name for it. The scale losthighway mentioned in the original post (1 2 3 4 5 b6 7) might be a mode of that or of the min7b5 scale... I'd have to work it out... it's been a while since I've thought about that stuff. A nice variation which is the 5th mode of melodic minor IIRC is with a minor 7: (1 2 3 4 5 b6 b7). As with any other scale, you can take every other note to build triads, 7th chords, etc. There are some fun ones with augmented 5ths and other oddities that can be challenging to figure out what to do with but are interesting.

These days I approach harmony differently... given a 7 note scale, a 13th chord built on any degree is an inversion of a 13th chord built on any other degree of the scale. Any notes from the scale you play together are extractions from that universal 13th chord, so they're all allowed... let the ear judge what works. It's less important (in my approach) whether the chords "lead" anywhere than that they express something, so a series of chords isn't necessarily a progression. I haven't completely abandoned a linear sense of time, where a piece is like a story with a beginning, middle and end, in favor of each moment being complete in itself, but somewhere in the middle where moments flow more naturally into each other and not so regimented. That's not true of every piece, but the general direction of my current thinking.

A lot of what I'm doing now uses 10-note systems... I don't want to call them "scales" because it's a different way of thinking but you could think of it that way and get similar results. As scales, they would look like: 1 2 b3 3 4 b5 5 6 b7 7 and 1 b2 b3 3 4 b5 5 b6 b7 7. As it turns out, those two are modes of each other, which can come in handy sometimes.
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Re: Secret Chords

Post by A.David.MacKinnon » Wed Nov 14, 2018 7:22 am

losthighway wrote:
Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:27 am
A.David.MacKinnon wrote:
Wed Nov 14, 2018 6:06 am
I don't have enough technical language to really get into this but I will say that the biggest breakthrough I've ever had in writing was when I switched from writing melodies to fit the chord progression to writing chord progressions to fit the melody.
It's seems like a minor thing but it's pretty huge. Having the melody there first really frees up what the chords can be. It really unlocked thing for me. Moving chords from major to minor in the same song and getting in and out of key changes became way easier.
You know for as theory heavy as some of my explorations have been, I've never done this. It sounds kind of hard cause I've worked in such a different way.... so I better try it!

Thinking about this more, I always want to have cool chord progressions to spark the emotion. Then my melody kind of winds around them. I might write better hooks, or less repetitive melodies if that was all I was starting with. I can't really do this on a guitar, even though that's really my home base, for some reason it's just piano work for my brain so I sit down and chop it out with my hack keyboarding skills.
I can really only do this stuff on piano. It's way easier to substitute chords by moving one finger in a three note chord.
I also really enjoy re-voicing other people's tunes. I sometimes to this with singer songwriter clients who get stuck in cowboy chord land on guitar. What happens if the G becomes a G major 6? It changes the mood because you've got a G major and an E minor happening together. What happens if the A minor becomes a D7? If I make the C a C7 now I can easily transition to Gminor. Or make the G minor a Bb major and be off into a key change.
It really opens things up if you strategically move a note in each chord to change what's happening under the melody without changing the melody.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by markjazzbassist » Wed Nov 14, 2018 7:33 am

i like big block chords ala Dave Brubeck or Neo Soul/Gospel keys players. 1 2 3 5 7 is usually the minimum, 3 notes is too few for me, i really want to feel it. i love chords where you are not skipping intervals, like 123 all together, just sounds gnarly and thick.

the only tip i have is throw out the theory book, i know theory in the sense of notes, timing, rhythm, etc. but as far as chord structure/movement and stuff like that circle of fifths it just never jived with me. i failed theory in college, got an F. my brain doesn't work that way, it's like music becomes maths and formulaic. i just try out different chords and see how they sound, even if they are "wrong" i don't care, it's what sounds best. that could be why i like jazz and abhor pop music.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by ubertar » Wed Nov 14, 2018 8:49 am

markjazzbassist wrote:
Wed Nov 14, 2018 7:33 am
the only tip i have is throw out the theory book, i know theory in the sense of notes, timing, rhythm, etc. but as far as chord structure/movement and stuff like that circle of fifths it just never jived with me. i failed theory in college, got an F. my brain doesn't work that way, it's like music becomes maths and formulaic. i just try out different chords and see how they sound, even if they are "wrong" i don't care, it's what sounds best. that could be why i like jazz and abhor pop music.
Anyone who tells you something is "wrong", outside of an academic context where you're studying a particular style, doesn't understand what theory is for. Theory is just a description for how to do certain things, to get a particular effect, or to write in a specified style... it's a set of ideas that as a composer you're free to draw from as you wish. There's no one universal music theory... pretty much everything about Indonesian gamelan is "wrong" in terms of Western classical theory, and vice-versa (to give just one example). It's a set of tools. Losthighway's story is a great example of the right way to use theory... you play something you like a lot, so you examine it to see exactly what it is you're doing, then apply the same idea more broadly and consistently and hear if you like what that does. If it works, you've got something more powerful and developed. If not, you've at least learned something.

Mozart and all those other cats broke the rules ALL OVER THE PLACE. Tritones, parallel fifths and octaves... all the stuff they teach you in school never to do, they did. If it sounds good, it is good. There is no "wrong". But don't throw out the theory book... that stuff is damned useful.
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Re: Secret Chords

Post by losthighway » Wed Nov 14, 2018 9:24 am

^^ Yeah, knowing the rules and blindly following them are two different things. You can bet John Coltrane knew all of the rules and surgically broke them to achieve different goals, and then levitated above them.

When I was deep in a post-hardcore/punk/underground scene I had a drummer friend who put out the anti-intellectual premise that my studies in college were going to ruin my music. Later that year my band put out an EP and he said, "How do you even think of that stuff", "Theory" I answered. It doesn't mean you're playing stuffy progressive music, or jazz fusion either. I still like all the same basic folk songs I loved when I was 17.

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Re: Secret Chords

Post by vvv » Wed Nov 14, 2018 11:21 am

My theory is you don't need theory, but it helps with hypotheticals, troubleshooting and description.

Theoretically, at least.
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