After years of trial and error in his laboratory, Rangrim the Dwarf finally managed to fuse chord tones and chords together. Everybody said he was crazy, that he should come outside more and get some sunshine while the suns out… But for him, it was worth it. For it was in this moment he realised he had discovered a key thing to what makes music interesting.
He has let me in on the secret so I can share it with all fellow travellers who feel like their playing is lacking something. And that secret is…
But what is forward motion? And how do we use it with chord tone improvisation? I persisted Rangrim until he gave in and taught me all of its secrets.
Combining Chord Tones and Beats
The first thing I learned from crazy Rangrim is that he likes to drink. And as he poured us a cup of the good stuff, he also mentioned that forward motion starts with chord tone soloing, which is when you target the chord tones of a chord.
He found that if you play the chord tones of each chord at precise times when the beat plays then you generate forward motion. He described this as an “unseen sparkle”, a “magical substance you don’t hear, but feel… a feeling that makes you want to keep listening instead of getting another ale”, the froth from his own tankard forming a cheerful moustache on his own beard.
He regarded the beats of music as something very important, a hidden force we all feel and move to, regardless of whether we’re aware of it or not. “The beats are just the first level” he stated. “It’s how we dance with them that enables us to go deeper!”
Targeting Chord Tones: The Law Of Beats
You see, the beats are the ancient powers we refer to when we craft a song. They are our guide, and when we play notes with their steady rhythm, we create a rhythm for the notes. It is these unique rhythms of the notes, as well as which notes we choose, that create the unseen sparkle, and thus memorable melodies.
Playing with the expectations of the listener, we can see how the beats serve as a guideline and not a rule of when to play the guitar. If we only played on the beat it would be very boring indeed. But we can play around it, dancing before and after it lands, whilst toying with the harmonic rhythm, the law of forward motion, which, Rangrim assures me, “is present in every song you’ve ever heard.”
He then drained the last of his cup and poured himself another. I had barely started my first, listening intently to his teaching whilst wondering how I could grow a beard like his. (it hung to his knees, a great bushy mess that looked as wild as his methods for figuring out the secrets to forward motion)
“The important thing to know about beats, you see, is that each one is ranked in order of stability, or strength. They go like so;
- the 1st beat is the most stable and thus the strongest (just like Dwarves are the mightiest of races),
- the 2nd is unstable by comparison and thus weak,
- the 3rd is seemingly strong but not so much as the 1st (much like those who pretend to be Dwarves but are not)
- and the 4th is the most unstable of them all, being the weakest”
Like the beats are ranked in order of stability, so too are the chord tones, as well as the chords they belong to. These chordal notes are simply the notes a chord is made from.
- The most basic chord is a major triad, which contains the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes starting from it’s root. For example, if we had a major triad starting from the G note, the 1st note would be a G, the 3rd a B, and the 5th a D.
- The 1st note of a chord is the most stable, then you have the less stable other chord tones.
- Chords typically are played over a scale. The rest of the notes from the scale you’re playing in are the weakest, most unstable notes
It is the fusing of stable and unstable chord tones and chords at just the right times with stable and unstable beats that create the essence of melodic rhythm, which is drawn from the older sibling, harmonic rhythm. “So”, Rangrim concluded, “to better understand melodic rhythm we need to look at its harmonic equivalent.”
“As well as another drink”. I looked on in amazement.
What Is Harmonic Rhythm?
As the candle burned lower, I learned harmonic rhythm is the rate at which chords change when playing over the beats of a song. For example:
If the guitar chords changed 4 times per bar, the harmonic rhythm would be identified as quarter note harmonic rhythm, relating to each chord change being a quarter note in length; in other words, the bar is divided up into 4:
If the chords changed once per bar, this would be called ‘whole note harmonic rhythm’, because each chord changes at the rate of a whole note:
“Now,” slurred Rangrim, “Two things to note hEre…”
“First, the harmonic rhythm looks at the rate at which chords change, NOT at the rhythm you play those chords with. So you could play a lightning-fast guitar lick that singes your eyebrows and those who dare get too close to you, but if the harmony – the chord you’re outlining with your melody – changes only once per bar, then it’s still going to be a whole note harmonic rhythm”
“Second, each chord has a function, a role it plays to generate forward motion. Each chord function is ranked in order of stability, just like the beats.”
Here, he slowly leaned forward, eyes shining with a fierce excitement that showed a passion for music cultivated by the decades.
“And each chord function has a group it belongs to, which, although simple to understand, grants us mortals the power to understand forward motion, and is the essence, the secret, to writing songs. Do you want to know these fabled groups are called?”
I nodded, eyes wide with anticipation.
Rangrim grinned, and whispered “The 3 groups of chord functions are the Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant”.
As he spoke the last name, a thunderclap boomed outside, lightning flashing in the distance, as if a God in the clouds had answered the call to his name.
I jolted upright, whilst Rangrim heartily chuckled and drained the last of his cup. He then got up to retreat in his study.
“Wait!” I cried. “I want to know more about chord functions. How do they relate to creating forward motion? And how can I do it myself?”
He halted. With his face hidden, lit by a lone candlelight, he pulled out a scroll and said in low tones “If you wish to learn more about chord functions and their orders of stability and unstability, you can read more about them here.”
He placed the scroll next to the candle.
“And as for how we can use them to create forward motion… Let’s just say that you’ll have to wait until next week.”
He chuckled, which rose to a laughter that rolled like the thunder only moments before, ending with the hollow boom of the door to his study slamming shut behind him.
And with that, I took the scroll about chord functions, extinguished the candle, and headed out into the rain to pour myself into study. I could almost feel like someone, or something, was watching me the entire way home…