January 13th, 2012

Curing Chord Confusion Syndrome

By Forrest

Chord Confusion

In a recent question from a reader, I was asked why in many examples on this site do I denote the iii chord in a iii Vi ii V as half-diminished?

iii Vi ii V

This is an excellent question. In many lead sheets you see the iii chord denoted as minor and many theory books claim that the iii chord should always be minor because that’s how you would derive it from the tonic key.

So, what’s correct? We’ll get there later…

The thing you have to remember for now is that chords are sounds. It almost seems dumb saying that, but we often forget that simple fact. Chords are not just symbols on paper. They are living, breathing, aural entities that work together to create a progression.

A progression “works” because one chord pushes to the next. That’s why it’s called a progression…it progresses. It’s this sense of forward motion within progressions that allow you to make many different decisions on what chords you specifically play at any given time.

Lead sheets are leading you astray

I remember years ago learning tunes from play-along recordings with the written music in front of me and no matter what, I couldn’t seem to sound “right.”

I finally took it upon myself to learn one of the tunes I was working on straight from the recording. At first, it took a lot longer and I was terribly frustrated, but it got much easier. And then, I realized, wait a minute, the piano is not playing the chords on the lead sheet, and the soloist is definitely not playing the chords on the lead sheet. What’s going on?!

It turned out that what was holding me back was using the lead sheet as my road-map. The lead sheet had a few spots in it where the chords didn’t necessarily make sense to me. You know those spots where you question how one chord is getting to the next?

Here’s a huge tip: the progression should make sense. In general, the solos I’ve transcribed illustrate the soloist playing strong, logical progressions. If the chords on the lead sheet are not logical, that’s your first clue that you need to study the recording and that the lead sheet is steering you in the wrong direction.

Where you’re going matters the most

To answer the readers question, in a iii Vi ii V, you could play the iii chord as half-diminished or minor. Both are acceptable and plenty examples exist of the greats doing both.

Why do both work?

Both work because what matters more than each individual chord is the sum of it’s parts: the progression as a whole and where it’s headed towards.

In a iii Vi ii V I, each chord logically pushes toward the next, however, there’s many ways to look at this progression.

  • You could hear the iii Vi as a unit resolving to ii and the V resolving to I.
  • You could hear each chord resolving to the next chord.
  • Or you could hear the entire iii Vi ii V resolving to I.

They may all seem like the same thing, but they imply different approaches. You ask why i call the iii a half-diminished chord much of the time. It’s because I hear the iii Vi pushing strongly towards the ii chord, hence, I often make it a minor ii V instead of a major ii V.

chords pushing forward

Transcribe a blues by one of your heroes and pay special attention to what they do in the eighth bar and the eleventh bar. Half diminished here we come. Or check out a rhythm change’s solo, specifically in measures three and measure seven. You’ll hear different soloists play the iii in the iii Vi sometimes as a minor chord and sometimes as a half-diminished chord. Listen to when they play each and try to figure out why they make that particular choice at that particular time.

What matters most is where you’re going. Of course you can’t just play anything to arrive at that point, although many people do ;).

Understand where these big cadences are. For instance, in a blues, the fifth measure is a huge cadence to IV. Everything you play up to that point is about getting you to the IV chord.

Once you know where these big points are, it becomes easy to hear various ways of reaching them.

You can take many routes to the same place

Depending on what you want to express based upon what you’re hearing at the time, you may choose to play one chord instead of another

Yes, the lead sheet says a particular measure belongs to a particular chord, but is that really the case? The piano player plays a chord, but do they hold it the entire measure? Of course not. That would be boring and trite. They play one chord for a beat, then another, then anticipate another chord for a beat and so on.

The harmony is not a drone. It’s not static. It’s dynamic and exciting. It’s about movement and forward motion.

Because the harmony is played in this fashion, it leaves a lot of room for exploration. This doesn’t mean that you should play what ever you want and ignore the chords. It does mean that you shouldn’t feel boxed in to always playing the same chord progressions to get from one part of a tune to another.

By listening to the harmony of  a tune from a recording instead of looking at lead sheets, you’ll hear that the harmony is not exactly what you conceptualized from the written chart. You’ll hear this dynamic nature of the sound and understand how each sound moves to the next.

Get away from lead sheets that are leading you astray, figure out the big cadence points in a tune and know that those are central to the framework of the tune, and listen to how your heroes take alternate routes to the same place chorus after chorus. With these key steps, your knowledge of chord progressions will extend your harmonic and melodic freedom instead of taming your creativity and causing you a great deal of confusion.

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