Tutorial: Using Your Brain (Part 4)

In Part 3 of this series I talked about the three two-note bass lines you need memorize. In this part we’ll discuss what goes “on top” of those bass notes.

How about if I told you that you only need to ‘hear’ eight chords in your brain. That’s right, not 8,000, just eight. There are variations on those eight buy they make sense so don’t be intimated by that. Your goal is to get these eight in your brain so that you can sing all the way up and down them (‘arpeggiate’ as they say in wine country), recognize them when played and conjure them when creating music. People do it every day.

I’ve created a printable version of the eight ‘chord families’ so you can hold them up to the screen or MIDI keyboard as you pluck them out for yourself.

You: Is this really every sound in Western music? Every combination?

Me: Yes. (wink)

You: What was the wink for?

Me: Nothing.

In fact there are several sophisticated ways of stacking notes that are not included in the chart. Again, trust me, you don’t care about them. For example: do you really care that stacking minor thirds end to end builds a diminished chord family? Ironically that stack is one of the easiest to recognize because it is so distinctive. Too bad you will never use it. Besides, an overwhelming percentage of the time you think you’re hearing a diminished chord family, it’s actually Family #6 on the chart.

There are two important sounds that are not on the chart that are worth mentioning:

A pedal is where you play one really long bass note and have a bunch of chords moving about on top of them. It is often futile to try map the pedal note into the chord family rules. So there’s no need to try.


[ listen ]
[ download ]

A moving line is when you’re playing one chord for a long time and one note is whole or half-stepping up or down (typically down, sometimes up then down, etc.) If you do this in the middle of a minor chord you’re James Bond, if you start in the middle of a major chord down to the root you’re John Lennon, if you do it on top of a minor chord down you’re Gershwin, if you do it from the bass of a chord down you’re half the pop songs ever.

Click on Vincent to hear some of these.

“Hey, what’s that second chord in the third example?!” There is no second chord, that’s one chord with a moving line through it. “OK, smartass webmaster guy, what family is it?” No family. It’s the John Lennon descending line through a single chord thingy. If you think he was thinking about chord families you can stop reading now.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. The chart itself has all the notes rooted in ‘C’. You’re supposed to use the chord families “over” the bass notes. For example, lets say you can hear the following in the bass:

    C -> D -> G -> C

    You could try:

    C (Fam 1) -> D (Fam 2) -> G (Fam 6) -> C (Fam 8)

    Then mix it up, using different families over different bass notes. You will find some real clunkers along the way, but for every one of those you’ll stumble upon one that kicks your butt (in a good way).

  2. You are not supposed to play all the stack all the time. Start by playing or sequencing the bottom four notes in the family. Just be aware that some families get important coloring from a note from top half (like the green dot/note in Family 1 or the 5th note in Family #5).

Hint #1 You will rarely need the third dot up from the bottom, so now you’re down to three distinctive notes in most cases.

Hint #2 When entering these into your sequencer, add the three or four notes starting from C, then select the stack and move it to root note in the bass. Understand, however, that this is cheating (!). What you have to get to is where you start on the root note you want and by ear add the chord family notes above that.

Hint #3 Move the root notes to another instrument, like bass or cello soundfont an octave below.

Hint #4 That will leave you (in most cases) with just two (sometimes three) notes. Move the notes around until there is as little movement as possible between chord family changes. Using the chord family progression from above this is what it looks like:

Notice I introduced a new note halfway through one of the changes. Of course that’s allowed. Anything’s allowed that sounds cool.

Family Demo

[ listen ]
[ download ]

Click on Vincent to hear what it sounds like in a production I put together for this article. The fake Moog is doing the notes in the picture about over and over again throughout. The bass is sticking to the roots of chords. The melody is emphasizing the notes in the families that the Moog and bass aren’t playing. This is an interesting progression because it starts out ‘pretty’ moves to ‘happy’ then to ‘tense’ then to ‘sad’. Kind of like life in the suburbs, no? The chord progression tells a story. Expresses emotion.

That’s 1.5 minutes of music on four chords and 1.5 hours in FL Studio. Imagine what you could do with say, two more chords and a Saturday afternoon.

The bad news is that composing is not the act of following some ‘rules’ you read on a web site about bass movement and stringing together chord families from a chart.

What is Composing?

Now we are ready to add some meat to the bones of what I said at the beginning of Part 1. Once your muse has kissed you on the cheek or kicked you in the ass (you know, in a good way) you start translating that emotional inspiration to a melody supported by your aural vocabulary of harmonic textures. The melody and the underlying chord families should be hitting you at roughly the same time. The choices you make in both are based on your emotional state — or at least the one you are hoping to express — or the one the director told you scene was about.

I can tell you what composing isn’t: Tons of singer/songwriters will write some lyrics and then sit around and strum guitar aimlessly (sorry, you know it’s true) waiting for a progression that sounds kind of like that ugly guy that was married to Julia Roberts for a while but not so much that people would say “Hey you stole that from that guy that was married to that Pretty Woman chick!”

What is Arranging?

The art of arranging is spreading the different parts of the chord families around to instruments of your choice. The method I used above of making the notes glide into each other for the Moog part was a slight of hand (lazy) arrangers use to avoid having to make the parts melodic. But that’s what needs to happen: each part needs to stand on it’s own, not a bunch of notes that meet the needs of the chord family

Working within a genre actually simplifies things because the individual parts usually have rigid constraints on what makes them authentic to the genre. A blues riff is a blues riff, a gospel lick is a gospel lick, a D&B bass a long boooiiiiingy sound etc. The same goes for the genre’s acceptable nstrumentation which further limits what that part is capable of (e.g. the usable note range for a given emotional feel of a sax is pretty tiny.)

What is Remixing?

I really don’t care what David Holmes or Brian Eno or Matt Black say about how they are ‘non-musicians.’ What they are really trying to do (besides look completely stupid in publicity photos) is sound “edgy” by distancing themselves from the musicology of formally naming everything they hear.

I don’t blame them. But that hardly means they are not musicians.

I’m guessing they mistake the trial-and-error of digging and matching samples for a life-long process. What they probably don’t realize is that they are building an aural vocabulary of sounds the same way a guitar player memorizes Jeff Beck licks or a songwriter internalizes the chord structure of every Lyle Lovett song ever. (That’s the guy’s name!)

So you dig and match enough through trial and error to find a brilliant sample A that works great with sample B. After ten years of doing that you’ll hear sample X and subconsciencly realize some similarity to sample A and sample Y is related somehow to sample ‘B’ and so you just “know” X and Y are going to work together the same way A and B worked together. And you turn out to be right! Damn you’re good!

OK, but really you’ve built an internal system for recognizing sounds in Western music. You’re doing what every other musician, yes musician, has done before you. Some of them associate sounds with goofy naming (D flat augmented flat 9 plus 13) and you associate it with a specific sample (the opening of that cool classical piece by the guy with the unpronounceable French name and the fucked up drawing of a bird on the cover).

Neither of these methods is more valid, more ‘musical’ than the other. Sorry, you’re a musician.

In the next (and last) episode I’ll post some MIDI cheat files and hopefully offend a few more academics.

3 thoughts on “Tutorial: Using Your Brain (Part 4)

  1. Walter

    You cannot imagine how glad i am i stumbled into this page….i was about to take lessons and buy books about music theory, but right now i’ll stick to studying your tutorial and built my own ‘aural vocabulary of harmonic textures’ =) I’ll see where i go from there.

    Thanks alot!

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