Getting the right sound in complex chords

Our daughter is 16 and does not date yet, but that does not stop boys from asking. Last week, she came to us to tell about this guy that had asked her on a date. I asked her what he wanted to do with his life and she said: “Music.”

I was taken aback for a second and said nothing. However, I wanted to say a lot. I wanted to tell her to run from anyone that wanted to be a professional musician. I know the odds of that working out well on a financial level; and I really don’t want my daughter held hostage in a basement apartment by the unrealistic dreams of a narcissistic musician husband.

Then I thought about myself. For obvious reasons, it seems a bit hypocritical for me to write off a would-be musician. And on top of that, it is not my nature to squash dreams. I am all about people finding their passion in life and making it happen. I am glad that people did not squash my dreams, or at least the people that mattered a lot to me.

So I made a truce with myself: I am not going to squash any would-be musician’s dreams but I am going to keep my daughters away from would-be musicians. I am just joking. Sorta…

Here is the truth: if you had asked me twenty years ago if I would be doing professional music in any capacity, I would have laughed. It is really mind-blowing that it happened for a few reasons. I was barely even playing the piano at that time, I was comfortable in another career, and I was also realistic about the fact that I am hardly a world-class musician or writer.

Consequently, I am still to this day amazed that anything happened with me in music. I am still humbled that anyone buys any of my recording or watches my videos. But the thing that blows my mind the most is that anyone wants to play my arrangements. I would have never guessed that I would end up writing so many arrangements and selling them all over the world.

It has happened nonetheless, and lately, I have been blown away by the response to contests I have been running over on my Facebook page where I post an arrangement and ask people to record themselves playing it. There is something special about hearing your arrangement played by other people. I have never gotten over that either.

That brings me to the point of this post (finally). The people submitting their recordings play great but sometimes, I hear things that make me take notice. I might as well make one of them a teaching moment. It is a subtle thing about playing thick/complex chords.

Basically, what you need to know is this: how you play a thick chord will impact how it works. The exact same chord can sound either wrong or right based on how it is played. The thicker the chord, the more subtlety is required when playing it.

I know that what I said may not make much sense. You might be wondering why just playing the right notes is not enough. Trust me when I say it is not– and I can explain why.

Thick chords contain dissonance. Usually, a minor 2nd exists somewhere in a complex chord but there are other dissonances as well. Dissonance adds complexity to the sound –sort of like salt seasons food. If used in proportion and balance, salt is awesome. If you put in too much, the dish is ruined.

One major way we apply proportion and balance to a complex chord is in how we apply different key velocities (volume) to the notes in the chord. If you play a dissonant chord with all the notes in the chord at the same volume/velocity, you won’t get a great result. Depending on the voicing, you may get a very clunky sound.

Last time you checked, you won’t see any writer telling you what volume needs to be applied to each note in a complex chord. That would make the music hopelessly unreadable and overwhelming. In fact, I don’t want you to even think that way, really. I just want you to be aware of the principle and keep your ears engaged. With time, you will know how to coax the best sounds out of those chords. It becomes instinctive.

Let me give you some general rules though:

  • With complex chords, you will generally get better results by playing quieter. I don’t really know why that is but I have a feeling someone that understands how sound works will email and educate me. The takeaway is this: if a chord is sounding clunky to you and you know it has the capacity to sound good, lighten up on it.
  • In general, back off on the notes causing the dissonance. If you are playing a V7b9, back off on the b9. That is your dissonance note because it is a half step from the root. By backing off on that note, you change the proportion of dissonance in the sound but still leave enough dissonance to add the complexity you are looking for.
  • Use roll/grace note techniques to avoid playing the entire chord together. You probably have noticed that I use this technique constantly. Even though I don’t write it that way, very often when performing/recording, I shift a dissonant note just a bit so that it is not played straight up against another note. This is an instinctive thing too.
  • As always, let your ear be your guide. I say this all the time because it is always true.

I hope that helps your performance. Now go over to Facebook, get your arrangement, and learn it. I post a new one every Monday and then you have two weeks to get your recording done.