Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Remedial Songwriting 102, or Pray for the Thunder and the Rain

Consider the first verse of "Sweet Child O' Mine". Not lyrically. The lyrics are a scary, scary place. "Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place where as a child I'd hide"? No. Let's consider it musically.

Guns 'n' Roses tuned down a half-step. If they played something that looks like a G, it's really an F#. Or, since we're flattening, a Gb. It makes it a bit easier to assume they didn't, even though Slash's opening bit sounds wrong tuned standard. So, going by our fiction, the verse progression is D C G D. It starts in D, so we can say it's in some sort of D, but if it was D major, it would be C# major.


This is two octaves of D.
D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C#
Chord theory says that a chord is made up of the root, third and fifth. For a D chord, that's
D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C#
For the G, that's another major
D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C#
And, for the C#, that's
D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C#
That's a C# diminished. There's no place in D for C.

Unless we think modal and call it D mixolydian, which is essentially playing G from D to D instead of G to G.
D E F# G A B C D E F# G A B C D

D E F# G A B C D E F# G A B C D

D E F# G A B C D E F# G A B C D
We have our major chords and we're happy. We have a wistful, nostalgic verse. Now it's time for our chorus.

And it's A C D.

Sounds like something you diagnose in an uruly child. But let's go back to that D mixolydian scale.
D E F# G A B C D E F# G A B C D
A C E. That's an A minor. And they play an A major. (Ab major, but remember our agreed fiction.)

What happened? In what theoretical universe is there an A major and a C major next to each other? Do we skip temporarily into D major for one chord and switch back for the next one?

Somehow, theory can explain it, I'm sure. Someone can bend theory to say "this actually does work". Thing is, it does work. Listen to "Sweet Child 'O Mine", knowing what you just heard. Pull out the acoustic and strum a few bars. Then try it with an A minor.

Music theory shouldn't be used to proscribe your creative impulse. It's a way to communicate it, and it gives a set of rules you can follow if the element in question isn't your primary focus. But if you can make it work, make it sound good even when theory says it doesn't make sense, then you have something.

Because, as Duke Ellington said, if it sounds good, it is good.


Sammy said...

I guess not everything has to follow strict musical theory. I've written plenty of stuff that fall outside of a given key or "rule" and it's sounded cool because of the dissonance.

Plenty of Megadeth riffs have that "off" sound that give them a dark flavor.

Dave Jacoby said...

I think it's the Ramones, for whom that sort of dissonance, that "it's more complex because it's more simple" thing comes from. Or at least that's where I first started to understand it.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it is this:

In the verse (D, C, G, D), the C that you can't fit into a D major scale harmony, well, that C is the 4th of G in a G major scale, which is the suspended interval that when played in a G context, it really likes to resolve to G. So, the C is a short detour from the D major harmony as a way to resolve into the G, which is the fourth interval in D major.

Then, the way I see the chorus (A, C, D) is this: The A major is the 5th interval of D major scale, so, it makes sense. The C is the flat 7th interval of D major scale, which is a very typical way to resolve to the tonic, in this case the D major. I'd say that most rock and roll tunes use the flat 7th interval. Just play the C, D, E bar chords (with D being the flat 7th of E) to recognize that very typical walk.