Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, Part 4

By Shamus Posted Monday Sep 8, 2014

Filed under: Music 33 comments

As this series drags interminably onward, we reach the end of my musical knowledge. Actually, I guess we were at the end of it way back in part one, and now we’ve sailed off the edge of the map into a vast ocean of befuddlement and misapprehension. (It happens.)

You’ll hear music nerds talking about “chord progression”. It’s time for another one of my screwball images of keyboards:


Again, imagine this is a piano where all the keys are the same size. Think of the red keys as “keys that don’t belong in my song”. As I’ve mentioned before, there are 12 notes in the scale but we never use more than 7 in a given piece of musicMusic nerds, I KNOW you want to nitpick this. I’m watching you.Truthfully, I enjoy the expanded explanations from people who know music, but just be aware that I’m over-simplifying on purpose here..

So now we want to make some chords. For the sake of argument, let’s say we’re making minor chords. Those are shaped like this:


So you have NOTE (skip 2 keys) NOTE (skip 3) NOTE. To find a chord, mentally overlay this pattern on our keyboard above. Our goal is to find a spot where we can do this without landing on a red key. Like So:


But if we try to go one note higher:


We land on a red key, making this an invalid spot to have a chord. If you climb up the entire scale and try every spot, you’ll find exactly 3 spots where you can fit a chord with this particular shape. Music majors have a special name for these three chordsThey have a special name for everything, but good luck keeping it all straight.. I think the proper name in this case is triad. But I get get a bit lost when trying to follow the terminology this close to the deep end. Often one bit of jargon is defined using three other jargon words, and there’s only so long I’m willing to chase my tail on Wikipedia before I give up and invent my own names for things. I call them the “perfect” chordsThis is probably a terrible term for them, since the word perfect is already used elsewhere in music terminology. This series is called “Bad and Wrong Music Lessons” for a reason!.

There are other chords, of course, but these three are the perfect ones. In my experience, you can do no wrong with them. As long as you’re building on one of these, you can play notes all over the place and it all sounds good. In contrast, other chords – the “less perfect” ones – are a little more difficult to handle.

Let’s imagine we have two instruments in our song. One is a piano, slowly hammering out simple chords. The other is (let’s say) a singer, who is doing nothing but belting out scales. (Maybe she’s a showoff.) Up and down the scales she goesNote that she’s sticking to our 7 notes..

If we’re playing a perfect chord, then all is good. Our singer runs the scales and we play our chord on the piano. Maybe I’m playing a chord with C-E-G in it, and she’s singing a D. That’s fine. But if I’m playing an imperfect chord, then at certain points she will sound dissonant with my piano. I don’t have the ear to nail down which notes cause problems or why, but I always run into this problem when using imperfect chords: I have to make sure all the instruments in the arrangement are using notes from our chord, which is kind of limiting.

People talk about the fact that most pop songs only use four chords. I’m sure that’s why mashups like 6 Songs Collide are possible. But I can’t even get four chords into my music. I always stick the the three perfect ones. In A minor this means my chords are A-D-E. Since iI make songs in 4/4 time, I end up with A-D-E-A as my chord progressionWe need to be doing things in groups of 4.. I’ll usually move some or all of the second A chord to a different octave, just to keep it from sounding too monotonous.

My latest effort is yet another 3-chord song in A minor:

I think we’re getting to the end of this musical adventure. I seem to be at the limits of my ability, and it would take a pretty serious investment of time to break out of this rut and go to the next level.

Also, my Oculus Rift Devkit 2 will ship this week, so I imagine I’m about to lose interest in music.



[1] Music nerds, I KNOW you want to nitpick this. I’m watching you.

[2] Truthfully, I enjoy the expanded explanations from people who know music, but just be aware that I’m over-simplifying on purpose here.

[3] They have a special name for everything, but good luck keeping it all straight.

[4] This is probably a terrible term for them, since the word perfect is already used elsewhere in music terminology. This series is called “Bad and Wrong Music Lessons” for a reason!

[5] Note that she’s sticking to our 7 notes.

[6] We need to be doing things in groups of 4.

From The Archives:

33 thoughts on “Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, Part 4

  1. Trainzack says:

    I find that the secret is to use both major and minor chords. And to change keys often.

  2. Ben Anderson says:

    Without going into the theory of why this is the case, another good combination would be:
    A-F (major) – D – E (this will give the bass line more of a walking feel)

    Also, it can be fun to switch from a minor key to the major key (A minor to A major). This can give some contrast to different secitons, like moving from sorrowful to happy. The transition may look something like:
    A (minor) – F (major) – Esus (The notes for this are E A and B) – E major. Then you go to A major and continue in the major key.

    Another option for changing from major to minor is to have a repeating melody line and then change from using the notes in the major scale to using the notes in the minor scale (or vice versa). You would have to change the chords to something that goes along with the melody.

  3. Dan says:

    Not sure if this was covered in your earlier posts on this topic, but have you ever seen Kung Pow? Is that the reference in the title?

  4. Joe Informatico says:

    I guess all Shamus needs are a red-and-white visual representation of a keyboard, three chords, and something approaching The Truth.

  5. Joe Informatico says:

    Another trick is, you can try and substitute in for those three chords the chords from that key that share two notes with them. So you can use the ii chord for the IV chord, the iii chord for the V chord, and the vi chord for the I chord. For C major, this would be:

    For I:C major (C E G), sub vi:A minor (A C E)
    For IV:F major (F A C), sub ii:D minor (D F A)
    For V:G major (G B D), sub iii:E minor (E G B)

    It would take a lot of words to explain this, and there are plenty of sites out there that would do a better job, so I’d recommend just taking your three chord song, and then subbing in the alternatives here and there and see if they make any of the existing phrases sound better.

    Or you can rip off the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Everyone else does.

    1. Zukhramm says:

      Further, out of this three, the easiest one to work into anything is probably the one relating to chord named after the scale your in (the tonic if you the term). So if you’re in C major, A minor, and if you’re in A minor, C major.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    That rammstein code tweet is great.I wonder what other songs can be turned into code like that.

  7. Felblood says:

    IF you’re thinking about trying another music program still, I can vouch for LMMS (Linux Muli-Media Studio, but I use it in Windows).

    My little brother turned me onto it because it has a great interface for linking the volume of individual instrument tracks to various spline and sine curves, but I like it becasue it allows we to right click on the piano roll and tell it to highlight specific scales on the editor pane.

    So, basically it gives you a display with the redded-out keys, such as above. It’s blue and gray instead of gray and red, but it looks disturbingly like the environment I work in, rotated 90 degrees.

    1. Felblood says:

      Oh, I forgot to mention the biggest plus for a person who isn’t sure they’re still goign to be using this software in a week.

      It is free. That’s important.

      It’s surprisingly stable compared to most of the free music software I’ve used. Though there are a couple of plug-ins that can lead to frequent crashes, they are clearly marked as such, so you know to avoid using thme unless you absolutely need them.

  8. silver Harloe says:

    To preface: I know less about music than Shamus.

    I vaguely remember reading or hearing something about how you can tell what genre music falls into by the chord progressions used?
    Or is that completely not a thing?
    What IS the difference between country and rock(*)? between those and folk? between those and jazz? etc. Can it be spelled out, or is it a “know it when I hear it?” thing, or choice of instruments (but I’ve heard rock on violins), or something in chords used, or …?

    (*) is there some basis for saying the Eagles are a country/rock fusion band? Or just self-identification or what?

    1. Caricature says:

      Well, it depends (because of course it couldn’t be easy.)

      Jazz/blues often rely on a special set of chords called dominant chords/7th chords which have a more subdued tone, as opposed to Shamus’ perfect chords which have very strong tones. When it comes to country/rock/folk, it can have more to do with instrumentation, tone, and rhythm than the chords themselves. Country and rock music usually pull from the same sets of chords (which Shamus is using), but country usually has more twangy instruments for lack of a better word, although not always. It’s more prone to acoustic instruments and, well, country singers. Rock more often has harsher sounding singers/instruments and a favouritism for electric instruments, although this is not absolute either. I know nothing about folk music, but it usually has a very distinct rhythm while being quite similar to country. And then there’s this thing called bluegrass, which… I’m gonna shut up before I confuse myself now.

      Anyways, in direct response, all of the above.

    2. Zukhramm says:

      Going just by chord progression might work sometimes but it’s hardly the only part of genre.

      In blues a common chord progression is a 12-bar blues, but it can be found in jazz and rock (Johnny B. Goode seems the most obvious example here) as well. When it comes to distinguishing rock and country, rock has, at least historically, that blues influence.

      In jazz you’ll probably find lots of chords with more than three notes. You might find a couple of four note chords (7th), but in jazz, you’ll find pretty much anything. It’s probably hard to describe them since it’s pretty subjective, but I find that many of these chords tend to sound “soft” in some sense, at the same time, jazz is a lot more willing to have chords that are dissonant. What keeps it from being absolute chaos is the idea of chord substitutions. In a progression, a chord tends to have a kind of direction, it wants your next chord to be some specific chord. If you can find other chords with the same behavior, you can play that instead, while still keeping your progression intact. Those chords you substitutes in might even be outside the key you’re actually in. That, and the fact that these chords tend to be build up by more than three notes can give jazz a feeling of not having as large, discrete “movement” in it’s chord changes.

      Now folk. That’s hard to say anything specific about because it varies based on location. But it might or might not be more or less concerned with these specific keys or progressions.

      There, I just explained all of music. Of course this is just about the chord progressions and there’s a lot more to it than that. In blues for example, a commonly used scale contains both notes outside the key, but it’s also a minor scale, but it’s usually played over major chords. But you asked about chord progressions so that’s what you get. And besides, I don’t really actually know anything about any of this.

  9. swenson says:

    The problem with the singer sounding off is that the singer needs to be doing scales with the bad keys too, and then it will sound good. :)

    I knowww this is getting into the territory you don’t want to get into, but to put this in simple terms–if the key isn’t allowed when you’re doing your chords with the “bad” keys, then it’s not allowed when you’re doing the scale either!

  10. Caricature says:

    I’m not fantastic with music theory either, but I do know that in a key there are supposed to be 7 commonly used chords that share their starting notes with the notes of a scale, arranged in the following order:

    I:Major II: Minor III:Minor IV:Major V: Major VI:Minor VII:Diminished (these ones sound intentionally terrible/ominous, don’t worry about them)

    If in a major key, the first chord should line up with the note named by the key. If in a minor key, the sixth chord should line up with the note named by the key. This should line up perfectly with all the rules you’ve established. This way, you’ll still only be using “perfect” chords but you have an extra couple of chords in your toolbox, so to speak. I don’t know much about piano (i’m translating from guitar) but these rules should still apply.

  11. David F says:

    Instead of building chords the way you are doing so by counting from all 12 notes, you can build chords using just the 7 notes in your key. You can do this by picking any starting note from your key, and selecting every other note until you have a stack of 3. This way, you aren’t limited to just the 3 chords you’re calling “perfect”, but you’re still sticking with chords that will sound decent for your song.

    Also, the 3 chords that you’re calling “perfect” are actually based on the 3 notes in the scale which music people call “perfect”, so your choice of terminology is, well, perfect.

  12. Henson says:

    If we keep within the seven notes of the scale, there are still some more neat sounds you can make. For instance, you’ve noticed that you can have someone singing D while you’re doing a CEG chord. Now make that D part of the actual chord: CDEG. It’s a pretty neat sound.

    I’m also partial to a CEGA chord: sounds jazzy.

    Finally, you’ll note that your music (and music in general) usually moves from a GBD directly to CEG. This is a progression that GBD is pushing toward, since the B is only one note away from C, the base of the key. Now, take that GBD chord and add F. The F gives the chord an extra push to CEG, since F is also only one note away from E, part of the CEG chord. (in music, this last one is called a Dominant Seventh, but we just call it that to scare people away).

  13. VelCthulhu says:

    Use of notes that aren’t part of the current chord is actually an area music theory can help with pretty easily, so it might be worth your while to read the wikipedia page for it:

    The intro paragraph appears to be written in self-referential jargon so dense you’d need a machete to get through it, but if you skip past that to the list of common non-chord tones, they’re explained pretty clearly and with examples for you to listen to. Might be helpful to anyone interested.

  14. Klay F. says:

    That song really reminded me of the music from Sim City 2000. Thats pretty amazing. :)

  15. Cuthalion says:

    We land on a red key, making this an invalid spot to have a chord. If you climb up the entire scale and try every spot, you'll find exactly 3 spots where you can fit a chord with this particular shape. Music majors have a special name for these three chords[3]. I think the proper name in this case is triad.

    So close! A triad is a chord made from three notes. So, each of those three are triads.

    I think.

    A lot of contemporary churchy music is written with just the three major chords of a given key. G-C-D-C for a song in G major is pretty popular.

    Enjoying the bad and wrong music lessons. :D

  16. Paul Spooner says:

    Here’s a segue you can use to transition from music to VR. (Yes, I know it’s out of tune. Sorry, but I’m just not that good at intuiting harmonies. I’m working on recording a better version in collaboration on the forum.)

    1. Shamus says:


      That’s Doofinshmirtz, yes? Hilarious.

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        Yes! 8)
        Glad you liked it.

  17. Alexander The 1st says:

    Don’t worry Shamus – if 3 chords are all you can get to sound good, at least you’re more original than anyone who can do 4 chords. :p

  18. Mark says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve studied this, so I’m bound to get some details here egregiously wrong. I welcome any corrections!

    There are three kinds of minor scale: natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. If you’re playing in a minor, then here’s what those scales look like:
    Natural: A B C D E F G A G F E D C B A
    Harmonic: A B C D E F G♯ A G♯ F E D C B A
    Melodic: A B C D E F♯ G♯ A Gâ™® Fâ™® E D C B A – note that this differs based on whether the you’re ascending or descending!
    There are some other types of major scale, too, like the harmonic major scale:
    C D E F G Aâ™­ B C – check out how the intervals on this scale are only one off from the harmonic minor.

    The harmonic minor scale gets its name from the interesting properties of the triads that occur within it, and the melodic minor scale gets its name from how those properties aren’t really suitable for melodic arts.

    Check out the four kinds of triads:
    Major: C E G
    Minor: C Eâ™­ G, or A C E
    Diminished: C Eâ™­ Gâ™­, or B D F
    Augmented: C E♮ G♯, intervals which do not occur in any natural scale
    Diminished and augmented triads sound noticeably more dissonant than major and minor triads, and you can use this fact. (Later I may explain where the dissonance comes from.) Dissonant chords seem to “want” to precede consonant ones. That’s how you get some momentum going in your music. These four terms describe a chord’s “quality.” Major, minor, diminished, and augmented are chord qualities.

    Anyway, take the key you’re in. To make things easy, we’ll start with C Major. Assign a roman numeral to each note in the scale, so that C is I, D is II, etc. Play a natural triad with each of those notes as the root. You’ll notice that the I triad is major, II and III are minor, IV and V are major, VI is minor, and VII is diminished. To make this clearer, we’ll add some annotation to indicate the chords’ qualities. We’ll put the minor ones in lower-case, and we’ll also add a ° symbol annotation to the diminished ones. So it looks like this:
    I ii iii IV V vi vii° I

    However, if you’re playing in C harmonic major, like I listed above, this changes. Anything with an the sixth note (A) in it – the second, fourth, and sixth triads – is now different. Specifically, ii is now diminished (ii°), IV is now minor (iv), and vi is now augmented, so we’ll render it VI+. So it looks like this:
    I ii° iii iv VI+ vii° I

    Now, you can do something similar with a minor scale. We’ll number the triads rooted at each note of the natural minor, and find that we get this:
    i ii° III iv v VI VII i
    Which, of course, is the same pattern of chord quality that you find if you start from the sixth note of a major scale – which you noticed in an earlier post.

    Now, check out how this works on the harmonic minor scale. The seventh note is raised one semitone, so that affects the third, fifth, and seventh triads (in a minor, anything with a G in it):
    i ii° III+ iv V VI vii° i

    The important thing to note here is that by switching to a harmonic minor key, the fifth triad has changed from a minor triad to a major triad. The fifth chord of a scale is usually the most commonly used after the tonic. This means that a harmonic minor scale makes it easier to use both major and minor chords in your song without having to borrow chords from a different key. Additionally, the presence of an augmented chord and an additional diminished chord gives you additional opportunities to use their dissonant qualities in your song, if you want. Of course, sometimes the natural minor is more appropriate. What this means in the context of the melodic minor scale is left as an exercise to the reader.

    Here are some interesting chord progressions that you may recognize (try transposing one or more of the notes in them up or down an octave to make them more familiar if needed)
    IV – V – I
    I – vi – ii – V
    I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – IV – I – I
    i – VII – VI – V
    In these, make sure that you’re referring to how the capitalization indicates the quality of the chord!

    1. noahpocalypse says:


      *punches face*

    2. Majromax says:

      > We'll put the minor ones in lower-case, and we'll also add a ° symbol annotation to the diminished ones. So it looks like this:

      … you are *awesome*. I’d looked this stuff up on Wikipedia and such before, but the information goes straight from “here’s some scales you dummy” to tone-o-babble. I’ve never, ever seen before just what the cord notation means.

  19. MrPyro says:

    Let's imagine we have two instruments in our song. One is a piano, slowly hammering out simple chords. The other is (let's say) a singer, who is doing nothing but belting out scales. (Maybe she's a showoff.) Up and down the scales she goes

    But what if the piano player wants to play in F Major, but the singer wants to sing in F Sharp?

  20. Steve C says:

    All this talk of music reminded me I need a Mp3 player for podcasts. Anyone got any recommendations for something cheap? I only need want it to listen to podcasts (not music) in the shower (via computer speakers) or vacuuming or on my pre-usb car stereo.

    1. urs says:

      I could make some warblewhoosh sounds representing time-travel and recommend the thing I still have in use after eight years (mainly as an USB stick) but that wouldn’t be of any use, right?

  21. Ilseroth says:

    Honestly, I am a little sad that the schools I went to didn’t really cover any of the theory that is being covered here on your website.

    While you (Shamus) are using simple logic and patterns to intuit a lot of theory; the posts from people who are more traditionally knowledgeable on the subject has really helped me put together why the chords I use do or don’t work together.

    Honestly I should get to writing some songs myself. I have been playing guitar for a couple years now (on top of school experience in trumpet), but rather then focus on learning songs instead I have just drilled myself on technical capabilities (Scales, chords, strumming techniques, ect. ect. ect.)

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      The voice is the instrument you always have with you, and you can invent songs on the fly no matter where you are. If one sticks with you for long enough, then write it down. Sing! Sing and never stop!

  22. William says:

    Qualifications: I play guitar and bass at a professional level, and am currently attending a jazz conservatory in Berkeley, CA. The attached website is a band I currently belong to, with whom I play bass. I’m the one on the right with the shades, not looking at the camera like a punk.

    I’ve been reading this blog pretty consistently for about six years now, and I have to say I’m absolutely appalled by your apathy. For someone that writes a program that generates cityscapes, then an entirely different one for terrain, just for funsies, I’m disappointed by your blissful, confident, ignorance. You’re better than this.

    Music, along with spoken language, are the only two things that have continuously existed in human civilization. Pygmy tribes living deep in the African jungle, in a location that plenty of scientists point to as the origin of the human race, have a musical tradition that dates back as far as their existence. Their unbroken lineage of music is, without question, the single oldest artifact on the planet. Some studies even suggest the language of music predates language itself, given its function in our brains.

    Point being; music is much more important than you’re giving it credit for. Right now, judging from your compositions, you’re going about this entirely the wrong way. I absolutely don’t expect anyone to understand music theory without context. You have to speak before you can write, and right now you’re doing the lingual equivalent of throwing a bunch of conjunctions together and then trying to analyze this jumble for character development.

    My advice to you is:
    1. Get a real, actual, physical piano.
    2. Get it tuned.
    3. Screw around on it. What may sound off and dissonant on a MIDI keyboard going through your headphones sounds much more complex and nuanced on a real instrument. Hearing different overtones bouncing off from different parts of the room is something no amount of technology can reproduce.

    4. Get some absolute-beginner music and teach yourself. I know you’re a smart guy, you can figure it out. When your fingers loosen up and get to know the keys a bit better, get some beginner arrangements of tunes you enjoy (be it Led Zeppelin or Raffi) and learn it. If it’s already in your head, you pick it up a lot quicker and it’s a lot more fun.

    If you choose to complete these steps, you will begin to see patterns in the excellent explanations of theory provided earlier in the comments of these articles.

    This requires reading notation, however, something that seems to not have been given a fair shake thus far in your series (with one of my fellow readers going so far as to say ‘all the musicians I know play by numbers, not letter notes”, which is never a good sign).

    Notation is crucial to understanding music simply because of its structure. Sure it’s been around for hundreds of years and uses thus uses archaic terminology, but it has evolved to be this way through natural selection. It’s the reason a orchestra of 120 LA studio musicians can sightread a piece of music down under the pressure of recording with absolutely no mistakes. It exists to be interpreted, how the notes are grouped informs so much about how the melody is supposed to sound, where the notes are on the staff corresponds so much with the instrument you’re playing. Sharps and flats really mean something and are absolutely necessary. These crucial nuances are things that a keyboard roll (that sideways piano with the blue bars from the second article) will never tell you.

    Nowadays, music is a commodity. Something that exists as wallpaper to a setting, something used to sell a product, or talk over while eating dinner. That is how it has been treated in this series so far, something that is manufactured with a program, with the intent of filling the silence that would otherwise accompany a menu or loading screen. The only reason one would learn to play is to get chicks (good luck).

    Music should be a part of life, not only can we amplify our emotions or feel new ones, but the process of learning and playing music tells us so much about ourselves. Even if you’re playing a piece someone else wrote, you’re still creating something. The satisfaction from mastering a piece is something that cannot be recreated; there is no shortcut, there is no easy way out.

    As a long time reader making a first post I felt motivated to write this because I truly believe that these things are important. Learning music should be respected like learning any other language. Music really does make you smarter.

    I don’t mean to be mean, I’m just trying to set the record straight.

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