Tutorial: Using Your Brain (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a series about techniques for embedding sounds into your head. Sounds painful and it might be, you have been warned. Part I is here.

Here’s a test: compose a piece of music completely in your head. Can’t do it? Just write the first four bars, the first phrase. Compose the melody and harmonize it (figure out the chords). It’s not easy but that’s what musicians do. The instrument (piano, guitar, sequencer) then becomes a validation and recorder.

The difference between music that sounds “inspired” and every thing else can almost exclusively be attributed to the musician playing what she hears. There’s no other explanation for a career like John Lee Hooker who never played or composed anything other than an E chord and rarely even in time. A whole career on one chord and people never got tired of it because he was using that chord, the only thing playing in his head, as an expression of his inner emotions.

If that sounds freaky or hard or over-the-top, consider this: when you write a paragraph in email or your blog or whatever, do you sit down with a dictionary, open it randomly start using whatever words appear hoping you hit on something inspired? Do you close your eyes hit the qwerty keyboard for two minutes and then go back and edit?

Of course not, you have ideas in your head, translate those ideas to your “native” language, formulate sentences and then use the computer to record your thoughts. Anything else would be stupid, or at best, a novel stab at randomness as inspiration. Nah, just stupid.

Yet musicians are happy to just “pick up the guitar” or “open ACID” and start “messing around until inspiration hits.” That is: until they hear something that can pass for a good riff or chord progression. Of course the worst thing that can happen is that this method actually yields a decent song or two.

Now it’s possible that your brain has a limited “vocabulary” available. When you composed a piece a music in your head did it have a ton of chord changes? Or was it a standard blues? Or was just an E chord? If so, it would probably serve you well to expand your brain’s musical vocabulary so that when you have an emotion you wish to express, you have more available to you than just “cooookie” and “Oscar.”

Once those sounds are in your head you can call them whatever you like. Call it “E seven plus nine”, “the Purple Haze chord”, “the crap my pants thing”… It doesn’t matter, but you may wish to communicate those sounds to recording engineers or other musicians where external references don’t always work and you’re in danger of over-sharing something you may not want others to know.

There are several common second order mappings that are available:

  • Note names (“Tell me the notes so I can learn it”)
  • Instruments (“Show me how you play that riff so I can learn it”)
  • Dots and lines on a music score (“Write it down so I can learn it”)
  • Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do (this is not meant to be cute, we used the chromatic version of this in “ear training” class)

Understand that a musician learning your song should not need any of this stuff, because they have the same sound vocabulary in their head. (“Let me hear it so I can play it”). In school we used to call this “eight bars of anything” as in: Play me eight bars of anything and I’ll repeat it. If this sounds magical remember it’s only as magical as your ability to speak or write in any language. Build your internal ear’s vocabulary and you’ll be able to do it to. I swear.

Below is the basic “major” chord with some extensions that drastically color the sound of the original chord. Break out your piano roll and soft-synth and do whatever it takes to get these into your head:

Read this picture from bottom up and the notes in the chord are C E and G. It’s a “chord” because there are three or more notes, “major” because of the choice of notes, hence it’s a “major chord,” in this case “C Major.” If you only play the three notes that’s called a “triad.”

Right about here traditional music teachers would start taking about ‘intervals’ or the ‘distance’ between notes and how that makes up the chord. Fuck that. Get the sound of these three notes played together in your head. Then, pluck out any other note on the keyboard and try to make the same sound. Don’t count intervals, hear it. I mention numbers below for information and communication purposes only — people call that sound a ‘7th’, you probably should too. Learn the sound, presumably you already know how to count to 7.

The other notes in the picture are to be played and heard together with the major chord. Add one note (like the ‘pretty’ one) and remove it, then add the ‘funky’ note and remove it, etc.

Pretty This note is a ‘major 7th’ That makes this chord a “major 7th” or specifically a “C major 7th.”

Bluesy This is a ‘dominant 7th’ or just ‘7th’ or a friend calls it “pretty but dirty.”

Beatles Yes, the Beatles have their own note. It’s the ‘major 6th’ or just ‘6th’. That’s because before them, no one ever thought to finish a song with a major 6th chord. Look it up.

Steely Dan You would think this is called a ‘2nd’ but it’s actually the ‘9th’ because the same note shows up nine white keys above the root. If just add this note it’s a ‘C add 9’ (not the same as ‘C+9’). If you combine with the ‘pretty’ note it’s a ‘C major 9’. If you jam this note into the middle of the chord you’ll recognize that sound from almost every Steely Dan recording ever.

When you are training your brain to hear these sounds remember that C, E and G in any combination is still a C chord. Note in the picture below that we play the E in the bottom.

This is still a ‘C chord’ (!) it’s very important for your ear to hear this chord as a major chord. When you move the same notes around to other octaves it’s called a ‘voicing’ not another chord. If you add the pretty note or the funky note anywhere in the voicing, it’s still a Major 7th or Dominant 7th chord. The thing that makes the Steely Note chord above distinctive is the voicing.

People with a very, very deep aural vocabulary will tell you “this is a major chord with the third in the bottom.” Be impressed but shoot for that as a goal. It’s attainable and will, someday, play an important role when you’re trying to create music. That’s because when you put the E on the bottom it feels like the chord ‘opens up’ and becomes less ‘rooted’. Playing a major triad with the root on the bottom (like the first picture above) can elicit ‘strength’ (as in ‘power chords’ in heavy metal) but also ‘rigidity’ (as in heavy metal). Beethoven and Pete Townsend loved rooted triads.

This is where guitar players get screwed because the options for voicing are extremely limited, especially across ‘unfriendly’ keys (i.e. anything other than E and A). Pound me over the head with all the Ted Greene books you want, you have less choices of chord voicing on guitar which means you have to use less of your brain’s sound vocabulary. Here’s the composer’s pecking order: computer easiest, piano easy, guitar harder, kazoo hardest. Deal.

If you change the E to an E flat (like in the picture below) the whole emotional ranges changes completely. This is called a “minor” chord, again, because of the choice of notes.

Cool This is a very cool sound (cool as in jazz cool). It’s called the 9th and makes the minor chord a ‘minor 9th’ — occasionally some bored musicologist will call it a ‘minor add 9’.

Pissed Or maybe ‘cranky’ is a better term. It’s a rare chord but if get this one in your head moving on to more complicated harmonies will be easier. It make the chord a ‘major minor 7th’ (what else?)

Jazzy Or ‘elevator’ or ‘muzak’ note, but you shouldn’t dismiss it. It’s very popular sound in R&B. Makes the chord a ‘minor 7th’

In the Part 3 I cover variations on the ‘jazzy/funky’ chord that you probably already have in your head (hopefully) and the dreaded “chord progression” and why it doesn’t matter.

3 thoughts on “Tutorial: Using Your Brain (Part 2)

  1. mark

    Hi i found your web site by chance but found very insightful.
    i write lyric’s and i’m happy with them but some times i write past the bar so its off, but then i found out there are diffirent bars for writing
    the signiture i sometimes start before or after
    its like i’m reading music in diffirent ways
    but need to know the laws for each one first before
    i can progress into better writing.
    simply put i write complicated when it is simple
    when i’m truly feeling the music like in your article its so much more easyer and better writing
    comes from that for me, any way if you know something that could stop me complicating myself
    i know i will be one of the greatest writers of all time.

  2. victor

    Well your prose is certainly poetic…

    Meanwhile I’m not a therapist (by trade) so it’s hard to tell how to uncomplicate your life.

    As far as the “laws” go, here’s what I want you to do: find a song by the Beatles called “All You Need Is Love”

    As the song is playing, trying counting a bar of 4, you know, 1, 2, 3, 4 like you’re trying to march to it (it even has a kind of march feel to it). But you can’t, every now and then you have to stop at ‘3’ or ‘2’.

    That’s because the musical phrase was ‘over the bar’ (or actually ‘under the bar’) and it didn’t bother John Lennon one bit. No laws involved, no music theory, no nothing. Just a great musical idea left to itself.


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