When I wanted to learn to drive a car, I was required to study, something I wasn't prone to doing at that age. I was told there’d be a test.
Learning to play an instrument requires few tests. Our culture tolerates operating a musical instrument while intoxicated. Not so with a motor vehicle. I suppose that’s because fewer people have been injured by bad songs than by cars, with the exception being “The Hokey-Pokey Incident,” which, in all honesty, was never substantiated.
As a kid someone told me that geniuses didn’t use music theory. Naturally, most kids assume they are geniuses, which, in a creative sense, they are. This belief is bolstered by the crap they’re told by adults. Crap like English speaking parents telling their children to “sound it out” when they don't know how to spell a word!
Most of us are capable of figuring out anything given enough time and motivation. Unfortunately, as kids, we have an excess of one and very little of the other. Enter the “Mel Bay Method” (it’s a real thing.) We buy a book full of chord diagrams and then learn to play songs like Horse With No Name. After considerable time, effort and frustration, we learn a few chords.
Time passes until the day we realize the chord we hear in our heads, the chord we so desperately need, is nowhere in our vocabulary. We go back to the book and start trying chords at random. Sometimes that works, but most times we settle for a “sorta like” chord. We wonder if there’s any logic at work here.
Most guitarists react badly to learning the basics of music theory. Their eyes glaze over and they get that look that says; “Please don’t make me memorize any more!”
I toyed with learning music theory, but I didn’t know what any of the terms meant. It all seemed Greek to me! I also assumed that I was not bright enough to plumb the depths of the music theory arcana. Only later did I realized that I was, in fact, not very bright. Not because I wasn’t able to grasp theory, but because I had floundered helplessly for so many years praying for Divine Intervention instead of learning a few basics!
When songwriters don’t recognize the chords I’m playing, they often say; “I need to learn some new chords!” It’s the Mel Bay mentality all over again. What they don’t understand is that I’m lazy, so I mostly use two chord forms, F and B flat. I just know how to modify them.
I was invited by the Benson Songwriter Exchange to give a short presentation on what I call Color Chords. That sounds friendly. When people call them Jazz Chords, they usually get intimidated. Besides, I think in terms of color and flavor just as often as I do musical pitch, but people get confused when I call them Flavor Chords.
I showed up with fingerboard charts which had intervals marked for the F major chord and the B flat major chord. I also passed out plastic cups containing little red cinnamon candies which we used as movable markers. We experimented with making majors chords into minors, minors into diminished and majors into augmented. We then added an additional note to construct 7th, 6th and 9th chords.
The impact of my presentation was mixed. About a third of the class got that glazed look in their eyes. Another third became bored immediately because they learned all of this stuff years ago. They began gorging themselves on the candy. Most had a ferocious sugar buzz going by the time they left! The remaining third actually began to see how the whole system worked and became excited with the prospects of expanding their use of chords. Thanks to them, I felt as if I’d accomplished something worthwhile!
Unlike driving a car, there’s no law that says you have to learn this stuff. However, if you’re looking for that lost chord, but still have an aversion to basic theory, the best advice I can give you is, sound it out.
About the Author: Doug Kuony is an Omaha singer-songwriter and member of the Benson Songwriter Exchange. His music has been described as a cross between Tom Waits and Randy Newman. You can follow him on Reverbnation, and Facebook.