12 March 2008

What is a guitar chord?

I am trying to get my head around the guitar chord stuff. We know chords sound nice, but why? Why are the way they are and why not any other way. This post will be from an Indian perspective.

THANKS TO Jared Cechanowicz my lab mate here, who spent an hour explaining, a bone head about how the strings can be tied to my nose and toes and yet get some music because my head is empty (the box)! I am trying to document what I synthesized. Some parts might appear unclear and that is because they are not clear to me probably. If you know better, please correct me. (It is better to be a corrected stupid than to be an incorrect smart?) Also visit and listen to Jared's band's songs on http://www.alloftheabove.ca/

Words we need to know, as used in this post:
Dissonance: apashruti -> an odd note playing together, preceding or follow a right note.
Consonance: sounding well together.
Shruti: drone - pyeeeee/ooooooon sound that starts when Indian singers start singing
and wave their head. (thidi in rural Kannada (actually the air pumping stuff of the
Harmonium))

A guitar chord is described as a combination of three or more notes that blend harmoniously when sounded together. Which three notes? If more than three notes then which are the other notes and why them?

Chords as they stand today consist of 3 or 4 notes played together. I read, they used to be only 3 notes before. A guitar has 6 strings. When we strum them together we listen to 6 notes sounding together. 3/4 notes are produced from the strings pressed against the frets (let us call them pressed notes) and the rest come from open strings (open notes). However the open strings are always one of the pressed notes (mostly).

There are 3 major types of chords. a) Drone (Power) chord b) Suspended chord c) Regular chord. In a drone chord only first, fifth and the octave (first note twice as shrill or 8th note) are pressed notes. This is exactly equal to Indian Shruti where Sa(1) Pa(5) Sa'(8) are played together. On a Tamboori 2 other strings are tuned to Sa. If a Raaga omits the Panchama (5th) then a string is tuned to Madhyama (4th) instead (Eg. Malkauns emphasis Ma(4th)). Sometimes they say a string is tuned to 7th or Ni (Donno why? do you know? may be there is an emphasis on the 7th).

Now, regular chords (to Sa(1st) and Sa'(8th)) add Minor/Major 3rd or add 7th Major/Minor, and optionally omit 5th. Oh boy this is same as our Tambura story but a difference is the 3rd -Ga (Ma and Ni)! The added note is the defining note and chords are named after them for example E major adds a major 3rd. It is obvious that the emphasis is on the added notes when singing along a particular chord. (A7 for example adds major 7th) (excuse me I am mixing up Indian note numbers and western keys I think!)

Suspended chords Jared said will add a 4th and might omit 5th. Omiting 5th he said is usual in Jaaz where it make the music sound delicate.

Put simply a chord in Indian perspective is a drone (Shruti) that can produce rhythms because of strumming patterns. But there is a catch. The lowest harmonic of the dominant frequency in vocal performance is called the tonic or Sa note. In other words the pitch of our shout is decided by a particular dominant frequency while other frequencies are also present in our shout. This dominant frequency is not one but present in multiples of a some number say 4hz 8hz and 16hz. 4hz is then the fundamental frequency or the Sa of the performance. Thus the catch is when we change the guitar chord we change the tonic (Sa)! If we have to sing along with it is like singing in one Shruti for a 4 seconds and then singing in another Shruti for few seconds and so on as the chord changes the drone changes! This is I think is one of the differences (fundamental?) between western and Indian music.

Some notes sound odd when played with other notes (Dissonance). But some sound nicely odd (like me?). I am glad now that my confusion has reached a higher state. But now I know why I could hum along with the open strumming of the guitar. When tuned in fourths, Jared said, open strumming will be a chord - Sapasa drone. I forgot the name of the chord.

I would love to hear if you know better. Leave your comments to help me proceed further down the road of confusion! On why some notes say Sa and Pa sound well together: Sa is Pa's girl friend!

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