Posts Tagged ‘music theory’

A Lesson in Chords and Voice Leading

April 5, 2017

By Jim Simmons

guitar instructor at the lesson studio

Many famous artists have used and much good music can be made from strumming simple chords against melodic lines, vocal or otherwise. Nevertheless, during guitar lessons at the studio, I am often asked by those who have moved beyond a cursory acquaintance with simple chords and strum patterns how to choose more interesting chords, or how to differentiate their part from other instruments, especially another guitar prone to strum the same chords.

Possibilities here are myriad, and some comment should be made on how to navigate these choices, but before that, I want to introduce two concepts which may prove helpful in any and all scenarios from here on:

(1) Chord Scales, & (2) Voice Leading.

While both of these are topics unto themselves, much can be gleaned from their use in the present inquiry. Now, for a brief survey of options for the inquiring guitarist, and how those options will inform and interact with these two concepts above:

 

(1) Using a Capo/choosing a different register/chord shape (CAGED, etc.); (2) Adding or reducing tones;

(3) Doubling tones; (4) Using inversions;

(5) Differentiating strum patterns; (6) Playing a separate part, ostinato; (7) Playing a separate part, melodic; Etc.

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Now for the “how-to” part: I. Chord Scales

Regarding chord scales, begin with root position triadic chords (root-3rd-5th), barring

chords if necessary to locate each root in the overriding scale of the song (or portion of song). In a normal major key, this won’t be that hard, since the bass notes up the neck will complete a major scale (“do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do”). If the portion is in minor, or something more exotic (like a mode), you will need to revisit how to walk up the neck to

complete the scale, and in the case of minor, double-check for options that make minor so interesting (such a raised leading tone on a major V chord; use of the melodic ascending scale, or Dorian, etc.).

Establishing a chord scale (or more than one: (1.) Taking the scale up the neck with the root located on the same string; (2.) Exploring the chord scale across the neck, letting the root move across multiple strings) will provide your hands and ears with a lexicon of

 

options for each chord, each option profiled by its location on the guitar, its register, and its fingering (if it has open strings or not). Doing this is crucial for beginning the search for differentiated guitar parts.

Here I mention the CAGED method for chords and scales, as searching through the neck for other chords will naturally run into the options this technique will present. Simply put, the CAGED method will supply quick landmark options for each chord, which can be accessed either through using a Capo or playing all chords by-hand. I will revisit CAGED shortly, but these two approaches compliment one another very naturally (no pun intended).

One other strong benefit to establishing chord scales becomes important in the next phase: discovering the notes of the melody within accompanimental chord shapes

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Part II: Voice Leading

While this topic sprawls across all of music and music history, I want to limit our discussion of it to two main concepts any guitarist will appreciate: smoothness of chord change, and supporting the melody inside chord shapes.

Regarding smoothness of transitions between chords, two ideas become important: how close each chord is to one another; how harmonically smooth the change of each chord is one to another, that is, in terms of tension and resolution and stepwise motion between chord tones. Let’s say your chord progression involves going from an E major to a B major (I to V in the key of E), a certain amount of block-iness may be hard to overcome, but let’s try and see what happens:

Our first two options involve moving up the neck to the V chord either to the 7th fret of the low-E string (a barred E major-shape), or to the 2nd fret of the A string (a barred A major-shape). Let me say neither of these is “bad” necessarily, so no guilt here, but let’s analyze each option in terms of voice leading: by opting for the barred E major at the 7th fret, we here a transposition of every tone up a Perfect 5th; now, we have the open E string “do” resolving to “ti” in an oblique way (“ti” is on the G string here, 8th fret); again, the fact that it’s oblique is neither good or bad, just neutral, but if the music called for this motion to be heard clearly, the guitarist using this 7th fret choice of a B major could

simply strum only out to this note on the G string, and not provide the other two strings.

Now let’s compare this option to the second of these, barring an A-shape at the 2nd fret: a similar choice can be made here, taking the strum all the way out to the B string and leaving out the E string. Which of these is easier or better, I leave to you to decide, and they both have advantages and disadvantages, which we will look to presently.

The first of these is that both of these shapes reduplicates the exact same chord tones, except that the 7th fret adds one last tone, the reduplication of the B on the 7th fret of the E string; otherwise, the notes produced (assuming one strums the second option from the A string) are exactly the same (notes given by string, low-to-high):

Option 1:

B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B) Option 2:

 

(F#) – B – F# – B – D# – F#

So, while there is some difference in the timbre of each of these choices (notice the thicker strings resonate a darker quality than the thinner, higher ones), these two options do little to provide any profile between the guitarists. Thus, we may consider another “voicing” of the chord, or even chord shape. Beginning with chord shapes, we might decide to place the Capo on the 4th fret, and use a C-shape chord for our E major (I) and a G-shape for our B major (V). Some very nice changes occur in this scenario: we now

here the 3rd on top of the I chord, and, while we may have a reduplication of the high B on the E string (if Guitarist 1 is using the 7th fret bar for the B chord), we still have some new tones resulting from the G-shaped B major chord.

Guitar 1 (Open)                                                   Guitar 2  (Capo 4, or 4th pos.)

E-shape                                                                       C-shape

E (I):  E – B – E – G# – B – E                                   (G#) – E – G# – B – E – G#

E-shape, barred, 7th                                                                              G-shape

B (V): B – F# – B – D# – F# – (B)                              B – D# – F# – B – D# –  B

As you can see, now we have more harmonic variety, which may be what you’re going for. If it isn’t, then we need to look at our last few options, but at least we see how many more choices are possible with only exploring one other position on the neck.

In terms of the voice leading, we also see that our “do”/”ti” motion is accomplished with much greater ease in the Guitar 2 part (the 5th fret resolves to the 4th fret). Let’s assume one further possibility: the “do”/”ti” motion is actually part of the melody. In this case, the notes of the melody could be synced with Guitar 2’s voicing with much less effort than Guitar 1.

The final layer of considering voice leading in your guitar parts is considering how you can support, or directly represent the bass and melody of your particular piece. In terms of support alone, when choosing a chord voicing, you may want to lean towards voicings which contain the melody note(s) somewhere in the chord. I often try to keep the melody going continuously on the High E and B strings while providing the rest of the chord in the middle strings, and also providing a bass line in the Low E and A strings.

That may be a bit much to bite off right now, but it gives you an idea of what the guitar is capable of, as well as how different guitars can complement one another in musically practical ways, such as one guitar strumming simple chords, while the other supports or provides melodic elements.

Let’s look at a few other considerations to conclude this brief exploration in creating guitar parts.

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Part III. Other Options: ostinato, counter-melody, inversions, strum patterns

Ostinato

An ostinato is a musical idea that obstinately stays part of a musical texture (ostinato is Italian for “obstinate”). Several musical examples come to mind: think of Ravel’s Bolero, or the high electric guitar from Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” the main riff to “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin, or any Ratatat song, for that matter. A great deal of popular music, whether classical, rock, or EDM thrives on repetition (and often transformation) of small musical ideas. Depending on the context, an ostinato may be created that doesn’t conflict with the melody, or even supports it. One favorite of mine is the melodic ostinato  (or riff) that accompanies the song “Release” from Pearl Jam’s Ten record. Another beautiful, but radically different (much “heavier”) version can be heard in “Tempting Time” by Animals as Leaders, at 2:51”.

Counter-Melody

Somewhat similar to an ostinato is a counter-melody, a melody that wouldn’t be considered the primary melody, but that weaves about more independently than a simple harmonization.  In the chorus of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” we here a counter-melody in Slash’s guitar part against Axl’s vocals. Another well-known counter-melody occurs half- way through J.P. Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” in the high piccolo/flute part, against the main theme. Melodic descants are yet another type of counter-melody, When constructing a counter-melody, take care not to step on the main melody too much. Inversions

As you become acquainted with all of the methods above, you’ll find chord inversions lend themselves readily to voice leading, most especially for bass motion. For instance, an E/G# (in the key of E, a I6 ) goes to an A (IV) smoothly, since the bass note only has to ascend a half step (G# to A). Once you’ve mastered your chord scales, experiment with trying them again in first and second inversion (first inversion puts the

3rd in the bass; second inversion puts the 5th in the bass).

Strumming Different Patterns

Quite a lot can be gained simply by strumming similar or even the same chords in an entirely different way. For instance, consider letting one guitar strum eighth-notes in a palm-muted fashion, while another guitar fingerpicks, or strums only on strong beats (like the downbeat of each measure). This method is especially effective when one guitar is acoustic and another is electric, but is useful in almost any situation to create a new texture.

I hope you found this Blog lesson useful! Good luck fishing for guitar parts, and have fun while you’re at it!

How to maximize lesson impact and keep your child growing as a musician, with the help of The Lesson Studio

March 29, 2015
Hugh Lobel , The Lesson Studio

Hugh Lobel, Piano

by Hugh Lobel, instructor of piano, theory, and composition

The following post is inspired by an article titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument (and how Parents Can Prevent It) by Anthony Mazzocchi. The original article can be found on the website “The Music Parents’ Guide” at the following URL: http://www.musicparentsguide.com/2015/02/17/students-really-quit-musical-instrument-parents-can-prevent/

I recently stumbled upon an article that resonated deeply for me as a music educator. The article, titled “Why Students Really Quit Their Musical Instrument”, is a thoughtful exploration of the student-parent-teacher dynamic and how parents and teachers can work together to keep children interested and engaged in music.

The article focuses on public school music programs, and notes that over half of the students who join a music program quit within one or two years. The author, Anthony Mazzocchi, (or “TONY” in the article) lists the real reasons why students usually quit, and how parents and teachers can combat these problems together.

Tony’s observations are wonderful and I strongly recommend the article to every parent of a young aspiring musician. After reading the list, it dawned on me that our studio provides MANY ways of keeping students engaged so they don’t want to quit, while simultaneously maximizing their musical growth potential!

For this blog post, I’ve decided to re-visit Tony’s “quit” list, addressing how parents can work with teachers and the studio to make sure that your child stays encouraged to make meaningful progress! Again, this list comes from a public school educator with a long history of experience. This list items come from Mr. Mazzocchi; the comments on each item are my own.

  1. Parents don’t treat music as important as other subjects.  It’s easy to treat core school subjects as the most important part of a child’s studies; those grades and test scores are a constant reminder of future expectations. But don’t forget that there are wonderful skills to be developed with learning a musical instrument: complex reasoning, hand-eye coordination, the value of studying another ‘language’ (and music is definitely a language!), and the reward of learning a craft.

Teachers at The Lesson Studio can come up with and endless list of ways that learning music helps a young mind grow, and science agrees! Just look at this article: http://health.heraldtribune.com/2012/09/13/learning-young-to-play-a-musical-instrument-can-have-a-lifetime-of-benefits/ If learning music has so many benefits, then we really should treat our practice with the same importance as studying for those exams! Remember, if you have any questions about music’s importance, just talk to your child’s teacher or any other instructor at the studio.

  1. Students don’t know how to get better.  This one is really critical. It surprises students and parents alike that we all need to practice practicing our instrument! There are many exercises and methods of thinking about our practice sessions that can keep us focused and growing. Many teachers (myself included) spend a good part of every lesson working on showing a student exactly how to practice to get the most out of their lessons and the most out of their time. It’s critical that our parents understand something about this as well!

Did you know that parents are welcome to sit in on the lessons? I encourage any parent to join in on occasion. You’re free to sit in just once, or to come in every time. This can help you better understand where your child excels and struggles, and can give you a better insight into exactly what your child should do to get the most out of that valuable practice time. Just ask your child’s teacher if you can join in for a lesson or two (or 10)!

  1. Parents and students think they aren’t musically talented.  As Tony points out, we all have to remember that music is a craft. It takes serious time and dedication to make progress! This is especially difficult in a generation where videogames provide quick and easy reward incentives for situations that can be solved in a matter of minutes. Learning a craft is so different from the reward pace of games, that the slow speed of progress at an instrument can be very discouraging to a young student, possibly making your child feel like s/he simply doesn’t have any talent!

 

Making sure that your child feels a sense of progress both inside and outside of lessons is crucial to helping them see how they are improving. In my lessons, I reward students by playing for them, and by improvising with them at the piano. At home, your child can be rewarded for practicing by giving them “free play” time at their instrument, where they can make up whatever they want! Free improvisation has its own value and teaches a child to explore and learn the instrument beyond the studies in lesson books. Record these improvisations and use them to show your child how much progress has been made, and play back their favorite “sessions” to show them just how creative they are!

  1. Students discontinue playing over the summer.  Over the summer many students stop taking lessons in order to free up time for family travel and summer programs. Cutting out lessons entirely is a huge hindrance to a student’s progress, particularly if their practice schedule disappears with it. As Tony points out, “Statistics show that students who do not read over the summer find themselves extremely behind once school starts — the same goes for playing an

Instrument!”

If you’re wondering what you can do about this, remember that The Lesson Studio offers a variety of plans for the summer season. We all care about your child’s progress, and we know that even occasional lessons and practice sessions can keep your child from losing the progress they’ve made over the fall and spring seasons. Although we’d love to see your child every week, we know that it may not be a possibility with your schedule. Just talk to our office about your plans, and we’ll find something that works for your family. Remember that we want to see improvement so that your child can continue to learn and grow and love their instrument!

  1. The instrument is in disrepair.  This one can surprise you with how important it is! If your child’s instrument is worn and damaged or out of tune, practicing can sound bad and can be discouraging. A child may think that s/he’s actually playing wrong when everything else is going fine! Remember that teachers at The Lesson Studio can demonstrate how to keep an instrument in tune and well maintained. Consider asking your child’s teacher to show you these proper methods during a lesson. If your instrument needs professional maintenance, the Lesson Studio can recommend someone to help. You can even leave your instrument with us, and we’ll handle the repairs for you!

An instrument that works, but is missing some of the functions can also be discouraging. A piano student can learn almost every song ever written on an electric keyboard, but a $100 instrument is likely to lack realistic volume control and may not even have enough keys for a student to play their song properly. The Lesson Studio doesn’t sell instruments and we don’t receive any “kick-backs” for recommending specific manufacturers or models. We only want what’s best for your child, and our teachers are happy to recommend something that can fit your price range and needs. This conversation can happen at any point, not just the first lesson. Maybe you want to start with a smaller instrument for a “trial” period, but you’re not sure where to go once you’re ready to invest more. Maybe you’re ready to buy a professional level instrument but you’re not sure what brand or style best fits your own needs. Don’t be afraid to talk to your instructor about these questions and concerns at the beginning of a lesson, or a few minutes before the end. We can point you in the right direction to get the instrument that will help your child have everything necessary to make the right progress.

  1. Teachers don’t create enough performing opportunities during the year.  Well, this might be an issue that Tony finds elsewhere, but this certainly isn’t the case at The Lesson Studio! For private lessons, we provide recitals at the end of every semester, and we encourage students to find their own reasons to perform for an audience.

But we’ve found an even more exciting way to get students performing as a group in our Rock Band ensembles! Playing with a band can be a wonderful experience for anyone wanting to learn music. In a band, students learn to work as a team, learn how to play in fun situations where accuracy and fluency are required, and experience an environment where everyone contributes meaningfully without the additional stress of being a soloist. Our rock bands perform at Boulder festivals and at their own recitals, providing many opportunities for your child to grow and experience the excitement of playing for an audience.

  1. There is not enough “fun”music to practice. This one can definitely feel like the case for a student who is still going through the lesson books. Teachers at The Lesson Studio know it’s important for your child to play music that is fun, but we don’t have the same level of insight into your child’s interests that you do! Look up your child’s favorite songs online; if it’s out there for your child to hear, someone’s almost certainly made a version for your child to play! Bring these songs with your child to the studio and our instructors can add it into the lesson. If you’re not sure what the best online resources are for your child’s instrument, feel free to ask the instructor and we can point you in the right direction. If you ask at the beginning of a lesson, or a few minutes before the end, we can usually even help you look. And if you really want to make sure that your child is playing “fun” music, think more about signing up for one of our Rock Bands. Our bands often play popular and current songs, and we also teach classics from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s!

Practicing an instrument and making progress can feel challenging and frustrating at times. Many children get discouraged and either quit or stop making progress when the issues listed above are not addressed. At The Lesson Studio, our instructors want each and every student to find something meaningful and impactful in making music. By working with the studio and the teachers, parents can really help to ensure that their child continues to grow and to love their instrument.