Monday, July 30, 2007

Chords Generic


Since blogs are about people typing and sharing things that piss them off, I’ve never really had much to blog about. I’m a happy guy in my life, and in general, have few complaints. I try to not let things bother me too much or for too long, and I try to not allow myself to get depressed or angry very often. I’ve found exercise works better than ranting and raving. I’ve also learned that consuming mass quantities of alcohol in isolation no doubt lends itself efficiently to blogging.

When I was trying to think of a topic so that I could at least post one blog, I thought about what has made me angry in my past. I realized that a weakness I have is that I am perhaps unusually sensitive to criticism of my work. I work hard at my job and at things I create in my personal life, and rarely get negative feedback. When I do, sometimes even though it’s eye-opening, I even appreciate it. Not always, however.

Topic Overview

I have sought and received critical feedback on many of my original songs from multiple reviewers. As someone who is probably more aware of the limitations to my own musical talents and skills than the average amateur songwriter, I frequently agree with the negative criticism I’ve received. There is however one particular criticism from one particular critic that has stuck in my craw a bit. That’s what this blog is about: the one thing that has sort of bugged me, the comment that I’ve allowed to get under my skin a little, the critical remark that has irked my soul a bit. This negative comment can’t be summed up or shortened because in its entirety it is only two words: “generic chords.”

Standard Disclaimer Before I Begin

As a critic myself, I give people feedback I think will help them improve. I wonder if, out of my own insecurity and perhaps even unconscious evil retaliation, I’ve attacked another’s song in the very area that I know I’m stronger myself, or even worse, found a single weakness and pounced on it out of an innate, competitive spirit. Although the idea of soliciting feedback from a “supportive” peer is about encouragement, sometimes we don’t have each other’s best interest in mind. We somehow feel better about ourselves when we can point out that someone else is worse off than we are. Human nature is sick but true in this way.

Examining the Terminology

The free, online version of Merriam-Webster puts it this way: “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. What this means to me is that the chords I play, according to the reviewer in question, do not stand out.

Aesthetics and the Ear of the Beholder

This statement implies that every songwriter’s goal should be to write songs that have unusual or complicated chords. Maybe along with a rhyming dictionary, every songwriter’s toolkit should include a “rare chords” book! Most reviews are based on whether the music sounded good or not, whether it moves the listener in some way, not whether the chords were rare or difficult to play on a guitar.

There are many sources of advice from music industry professionals out there that describe what makes a song a good song. Seldom, if ever, do they contain specific advice about using really unique chords. Pros know that the chords matter not, and that a good song is a good song no matter what chords it uses.

Chords are Chords

Whether an “augmented-minor-sharp-seventh-diminished-to-the-tenth-power” or an open E, chords played on a guitar are just that, nothing more nothing less. Whether they require high degree of difficulty finger contortion or not is irrelevant. The average non-musician listener of a guitar chord being played hasn’t a clue as to how difficult it was to play or how often it is used in popular songs, nor does he realize it is rare.

In fact, I challenge any non-musician to a taste test (a la the pepsi challenge): I can play a series of rarely-used chords interspersed with commonly-used chords and challenge the non-musician listener to discern the difference. My guess is the result would be that most people would not be able to differentiate between them at all.

Playing a Commonly-Used Chord in an Unusual Way

Of course there are many factors that come into play when referring to the sound of guitar chord – the tone of the guitars being played can vary drastically, the type of strings used, the amount of sustain, the reverberation in the room, the volume of the sound being produced, the strumming technique, the type of pick used, the way the chord fits with the other instruments in the song – all can be considered factors in the way chords are “phrased.” The critic in question could’ve been referring to the fact that the phrasing was not unusual enough, however, in multiple critiques of multiple songs of mine, this is a recurring comment, so I rule this out, since those songs were all in different styles, time signatures, genres, played on different guitars, with different strumming styles, different strings, etc. Note: they did not all use the same chords as each other either!

Critiquing the Critic

Unless he was looking for a starter idea for writing an “original” song of his own, I don’t know why this reviewer would take the time to figure out what chords were being played in a song he was asked to review that someone else (me) wrote. If this particular reviewer was known for providing extremely long, thorough & detailed critiques, it might make more sense, but that is not the case.

Pro critics for newspapers or magazines don’t typically comment on whether chords being played were commonplace or rarities. Pro songwriters who give advice to those of us who are aspiring advise us about hit song forms, tempos, melodies, hooks, and subject matter, but never much at all about what chords to play. If he’s planning to learn my songs to play as covers, then I should be flattered, but I doubt that’s the reason he took enough time to determine which chords were being played and label them generic.

What I find intriguing is that no other critic of my songs has ever mentioned anything negative about the chords I use in my songs. Some songwriters use unusual chords and filler in the form of fancy hammer-ons, pull-offs, and controversial lyrics to compensate for a lack of basic understanding of things like the proven concepts of commonly-accepted song forms, chord families, and writing melodies.

There is a general consensus that certain chords go well with each other in a song that is in a particular key, and maybe this reviewer was looking to enhance his own understanding of this concept by carefully studying the chords used in my songs. Personally, I just happen to be a fan of pure melody vs. a lack of melody made up for with a lot of tricks, gimmicks, bells & whistles.

Melodies and Hooks

The idea of hooks being the quality of a song that makes it get stuck in your head is tried and true. It could be a memorable vocal style, it could be memorable lyric, it could be a drum solo, it could be wicked bass line. More than any of these, however, is the fact that a hook is usually related to the melody of a song. This could be a repeating guitar riff, it could be the singing of a chorus. More often than not, either of these examples have to do with one thing: the melody of the song. The melody is the part you hum to yourself, whether vocal or instrumental. It’s the part of a song that you find yourself involuntarily whistling long after you’ve heard the song.


When you consider that an entire song can be transposed into a different key, that alone can convert a song from one that had commonly-used, open-string major chords for example, to one that has rarely-used chords. Whether a song stands out from the rest by having unusual chords or whether it winds up having the simplest chords to play, played with the most commonly-used techniques even, it should stand as a creative work to be judged on its overall appeal. It’s not an exercise in manual dexterity, but rather the blending of many parts that make up a whole. Songwriting should be about writing a song that feels good, that flows out of you, that comes from your heart, soul & mind in such a way that it is unconscious. It should not ever be about consciously trying to write a song that is distinctive, but instead be about not caring what the outcome will be or whether others will think it distinctive. The bottom line is that non-generic chords being played on guitars in songs do not make them sound better.