Music Class Part 3: Stuff I Learned

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Dec 3, 2019

Filed under: Music 50 comments

First I complained about the Monthly platform. Then I shared some of my work. Now I want to talk about what I learned while taking Andrew Huang’s class.

As with my Bad and Wrong Music Lessons, you should take all of this with a grain of salt. I’m figuring this stuff out as I go, and I’m likely getting lots of details wrong. Also, in the past I’ve noticed that posting Wrong Stuff about music is a great way to get musicians to show up and give me a bunch of education for free. It’s the classic internet problem. Ask a question…

“What’s a good chord progression?”

… and aside from people telling you to “Google it“, you’ll get ignored because people have better things to do than answer questions for lazy info-beggars. But if you make an assertion…

“In A minor, the a-F-C-G chord progression is pretty much the only one anyone uses.”

…then lots of people will stop and tell you how terribly wrong you are. Some of them will even stop to explain why! It’s free knowledge! All you need is a lack of self-respect!

Annyway, here are some of the most interesting things I learned:

1. You can just mash chords together like, whatever.

Apparently you can just do this and nobody will call the music police on you.
Apparently you can just do this and nobody will call the music police on you.

This didn’t come directly from the instruction and it wasn’t really part of the class, but it’s something I stumbled across in two different places on YouTube while I was working on the class and I want to talk about it here.

Assuming you’re working in a traditional genre and not messing around with strange experimental stuff, then your song is going to have a chord progression. For example: A minor, F major, C major, E minor, which is sometimes annotated as a-F-C-eLowercase for minor chords, uppercase for major chords.. But whatever. In pop music, having three or four chords in your pattern is pretty standard. Fewer than that and it will feel (even more) repetitive, and if you have too many then it might be hard for the listener to detect the pattern and the song might feel aimlessAs always, there are exceptions.. You play your chords, in the chosen order, over and over again, and then maybe you change things up a bit when you get to the verse / chorus / breakdown and play some other chord pattern so the listener doesn’t get bored.

The important thing here is that I really thought you were limited to one chord at a time. I’ve had occasional mishaps where I accidentally played two chords at once and got the “cat walking on a piano” vibe, so I figured that was a bad thing. But then I ran into this video:


Link (YouTube)

In that videoSkip to the 40 second mark to see the bit I’m talking about.A video that gets right into the information without a lot of preamble? I wish I could give it more than just one thumbs up., the producer has a standard chord progression, but on top of it they’re just playing D power chordsA power chord is a one with the top and bottom notes, but is missing the middle note.. Like, through the whole song. I wasn’t sure why that worked. After some experimentation I found that this works best if you keep this “bonus” chord on a different octave. Maybe put it way up high on the scale so it doesn’t get mixed in with the main chords?

That was useful, but I didn’t really get why it worked or which chords would be useful until I ran into this video a few weeks later:


Link (YouTube)

And that’s where it all clicked for me. It’s a video for guitar players – a group which doesn’t include meI put “a guitar” on my wishlist for Santa this year. We’ll see if he brings me one. – but it presents some theory that helped me understand why this works, and gave me a way to intuit which chords will work and which ones might result in Cat On Keyboard syndrome.

2. Structure

Everyone has their own color-coding system for organizing tracks. Personally I make bass parts purple and then go through the rainbow, making higher parts closer to the red end of the color spectrum. (Drums are grey / white.) I'm curious what color schemes other people use. Also, you can hear this track at the end of this post.
Everyone has their own color-coding system for organizing tracks. Personally I make bass parts purple and then go through the rainbow, making higher parts closer to the red end of the color spectrum. (Drums are grey / white.) I'm curious what color schemes other people use. Also, you can hear this track at the end of this post.

In his class, Huang talks a lot about production. In the class, he conceptually divides tracks into five parts:

  • Foundation: This is the drums and bass, establishing a rhythm (drums) and providing a bridge between the rhythm and the melodic sections (bass) of the song.
  • Pads: Long sustained chords and atmospheric stuff.
  • Rhythm: Rhythm is any instrument that plays off of the Foundation’s pulse. A good example would be a guitar that plays on the off beat.
  • Lead: This is normally a singer, but in my music it’s usually the loudest synthesizer.
  • Fills: Little details that break up the patterns in order to keep things interesting. This can be sudden musical stings, a brief change in the drum pattern, or an audio sample of someone shouting “Yeah!” Whatever. Something that is both novel and yet fitting.

I come from a programming background where there are a lot of hard rules. Don’t free a NULL pointer. Don’t reach beyond the boundary of an array. Always sanitize your database inputs. And so on. The rules in music are a lot more… mushy. As far as I can tell, there aren’t actually any rules – just guidelines of varying importance and flexibility. The above 5-part model isn’t some concrete truth of music production. It’s just a handy way to think about the structure of a project. I’ve found it immensely useful.

Different producers will have different mental models of how to arrange their tracks, but for an amateur like me, just having a model is a good step.

3. Mixing Tips

I don't know what these knobs do, but there's got to be SOME combination that will turn this crap into a hit song.
I don't know what these knobs do, but there's got to be SOME combination that will turn this crap into a hit song.

This was the meat of the course for me. This is the stuff I really wanted to improve. Huang is really good at mixing / production, and it’s always been my weakest area.

A lot of the tips were too technical or esoteric to explain here without needing to provide pages of context, but a few of the simple ideas were things like:

  1. Don’t make your bass instruments too “spacious”. That is, don’t make them feel far away using reverb and don’t give them a lot of stereo separation. If you have to, make the bassline mono. In popular music, bass is often a bridge between the melodic and rhythmic. It’s playing notes like the musical stuff, but it’s also keeping the beat like your drums. Bass notes should start with a punch rather than fading in, and they should end clean rather than trailing off or fading out.
  2. Nearly all instruments make some degree of low-frequency noise. If you look at your lead or your drums with a visualizer, you’ll see a lot of activity on the low end of the spectrum. Specifically, you’ll see a bunch of garbage noise in the 50-200hz range, which is where your kick drum lives. This low-end noise isn’t enough to be appreciated by the listener, but once you get all the various song parts stacked up you’ll have enough residual noise to make things muddy. Then your kick drum will fade into the mix instead of punching through. I struggled with this for ages. The solution is to cull those low frequencies from instruments that aren’t using them.
  3. Related to the above: Sometimes you’ll have an instrument that sits in the middle of the mix, but it sounds really good if you let it keep the low frequencies. That’s fine! Use automation (the process of having the software turn knobs for you when the song is playing) to adjust how much of the low end you let through. Leave the low frequencies in when that instrument is playing alone so it can sound rich and full, but then get rid of those frequencies when things get busy and you need to make room for the bass / kick drum.

Huang also had a bunch of advice on how to construct basslines. I follow multiple bass players on YouTube, but I’d somehow never run into the basic lesson of “How do you make a good bassline?” I’d been getting by with simply imitating stuff I liked, but it was really nice to have the various techniques mapped out.

Wrapping Up

Yeah, yeah. Don’t quit my day job. I know. Still, this is a fun hobby and I’m grateful my mostly gaming + programming audience will tolerate these posts once in a while.

Here’s one last track. I made this last week. I guess we can think of it as my attempt to apply everything I’ve learned. It’s not mixed professionally, but I think this is the first track I’ve produced that wasn’t mixed incompetently. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. One criticism I have is that I lingered a little too long in the middle. I was fiddling around with different instruments and FX. That’s fun, but for the listener it probably still feels like the song gets stuck in a rut. A track this long really needs a key change or a steady supply of fresh chord progressions.

That’s enough music nonsense for now. 2019 is winding down and we have end-of-year nitpicks to cover.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Lowercase for minor chords, uppercase for major chords.

[2] As always, there are exceptions.

[3] Skip to the 40 second mark to see the bit I’m talking about.

[4] A video that gets right into the information without a lot of preamble? I wish I could give it more than just one thumbs up.

[5] A power chord is a one with the top and bottom notes, but is missing the middle note.

[6] I put “a guitar” on my wishlist for Santa this year. We’ll see if he brings me one.



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50 thoughts on “Music Class Part 3: Stuff I Learned

  1. I learned how to read music when I was about 5 years old. I can read complex piano music as easily as I can read an English novel.

    I am now trying to learn the German language at the age of 53. It is HARD AS HELL! I have struggled every step of the way.

    Be kind to yourself. Music is a language, and some languages take more time than others to learn. I enjoy your compositions and I enjoy reading about your journey through the learning process.

    Question: What is the outro music for the Diecast episodes? I really like it and a search of Google and your blog gives me nothing. Can you please put a permanent link to it somewhere on the blog? Thank you!

    1. Lino says:

      +1 on the Diecast outro song – I think it’s the best song of his that I’ve heard. And yeah, I’ve been learning to play classical guitar for about twelve years (with some interruptions), and from my limited experience of writing music, I have to say that unless you’re very talented, it’s a very difficult skill to acquire.

      1. Duoae says:

        It’s from Good Robot, no? I can’t remember the actual song title but I think I remember it in the game. Maybe I’m confusing memories! ¬_¬*

        1. Duoae says:

          Yeah, I just loaded the game up and it’s in the first “real” level. You can buy the soundtrack on steam as well!

          https://store.steampowered.com/app/439690/Good_Robot_Soundtrack/

          1. Lino says:

            Thanks for sharing! I’ve been looking for it for some time now :)

        2. Steve C says:

          Other way around. Fairly sure that song predated Good Robot. It was first used in the Diecast. But ya.

          1. Duoae says:

            Ah, fair enough. I don’t think I started listening to the diecast until after I played Good Robot.

    2. Kathryn says:

      Leslee – you may enjoy Mark Twain’s essay on “The Awful German Language”, which is linked in my name. It should be taken with a grain of salt (e.g., tomcat is der Kater, which granted is an archaic word, but when’s the last time you heard someone say tomcat in English either?), but it’s still pretty funny.

      1. Oh, that is SO funny! And really encapsulates what it feels like to learn Deutsch. Thank you for sharing.

      2. baud says:

        Tomcat’s a pretty common tool when doing web development with Java, so it’s still sometime used in that context.

      3. Nimrandir says:

        . . . when’s the last time you heard someone say tomcat in English either?

        Thanks for bringing up how no one talks about Top Gun.

      4. coleusrattus says:

        As a native German speaker, I can assure you that “Kater” is not archaic. It is used when referring to an individual male feline. “Katze” (grammatically the female form) is used when referring to cats in general or to specific furballs of undetermined gender, which I think Mr. Twain was hinting at.

        Haven’t read the whole essay, but the only thing that changed in German that I came across – save a few spelling oddities in his example, which could have also been honest mistakes – is that in the Dativ Case, we ommitted the -e suffix.

        1. Kathryn says:

          I was told it was by a different native German speaker – glad to hear it’s not as I like having a variety of vocabulary to draw from :-) What I was getting at is that there’s a point where Twain is translating a passage as literally as possible in order to make it sound silly in English, and he translates what is obviously Katze as tomcat, whereas there is an actual German word that is the equivalent of tomcat. There are a couple (OK, a lot) of other exaggerations in the essay. But it is still funny.

          For fairness, my favorite illustration of the ridiculousness of English is a poem called “The Chaos” (link in name).

    3. GargamelLenoir says:

      Cue Shamus being confused as why people keep praising a piece of music he put together in a rush :D

  2. Mac says:

    Shamus said

    Don’t free a NULL pointer.

    Coward! Live a little.

    Seriously though, as a technical person (software engineer) who’s trying to get into music, I’m really enjoying this series.

    1. Rod says:

      free(NULL);
      is well-defined as having no effect.

      (I tried to put a /pedant tag here, but the editor chomped it.)

      1. Mac says:

        Hah, I read that (and copy-pasted it) and somehow still thought it said *dereference* a nullptr. Possibly I took the context (“this is bad stuff”) and autocorrected…

  3. Chris says:

    The layered power chord trick works because that instrument is effectively acting like percussion. It sounds good for the same reason a hihat pattern does.

    It also works because power chords are very neutral sounding without that major or minor interval in the middle. If you poke through presets on a mono synth, you’ll see patches where one oscillator is tuned 7 semitones from the others, which essentially makes every single note a power chord.

  4. Lethal Guitar says:

    Did you switch to Ableton Live, Shamus? Would be curious to hear your thoughts on it compared to other software you’ve used before.

    1. Chris says:

      I am not a Shamus, but I do use Ableton Live. All the major DAWs (Ableton, Cubase, FL Studio, Pro Tools, Reason, etc) are pretty similar in capability these days, so it really comes down to which one best fits your particular work flow. Ableton fits me nicely, but there are plenty of good options. Many audio interfaces come bundled with lite versions of several DAWs. I recommend trying them all.

  5. pseudonym says:

    I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

    I am glad the happiness in making music has returned! (EDIT: Well, in the first post in this series it sounded like you were not having that much fun anymore, but I might have misinterpreted that.)

    I have to say that this track is indeed much better than anything else you put out before in terms of production quality. The tracks before could be fun and interesting, but there were always a few things that were a bit jarring (not annoyingly so, but still). This track is smooth with a capital S. I can listen to this while programming and have some enjoyable sensory input. Thanks!

    Do you plan to follow-up with more music lessons in the future? (Guitar lessons maybe?)

  6. Jeff says:

    While I have no interest in the actual topic at hand, it’s interesting to see you occasionally apply your writing/analytical approach to topics aside from programming/gaming.

    Kind of like watching a NASA astronaut play Kerbal. I’m not really interested enough in either individually to watch a video of them, put putting them together is really intriguing.

  7. Abnaxis says:

    Is it stupid that it bugs me that you code the low notes with colors in the high frequency end of the color spectrum and vice versa, instead of doing low frequencies with low frequencies…?

    1. Shamus says:

      You’re right that it would make more sense the other way.

      But… bass MUST be purple. I can’t explain why.

      1. pdk1359 says:

        Sounds like you have a light tinge of synesthesia there…
        I kind of wish I had something more useful to add to my comment; I typed out the above line, realized the pun and got distracted. Added an ellipsis.
        These articles are cool?

      2. Echo Tango says:

        On normal Earth-human conditions (i.e. not a physics lab or outer space) red / orange / yellow are the “high-energy” stuff – fire, lightning, red-hot coals. The purple end is the “low-energy” – frozen water is blue, and dark night has many purples. I mean, English literally uses “red-hot” as a phrase, but anyone who’s worked with an acetylene torch or other more powerful, dangerous, or science-y device, would know the higher-energy stuff is on the blue end of the spectrum, not the red end. Our culture and language evolved before we knew this stuff, so there’s some conflicting colors/energies here. Purple as a “low energy” thing makes total sense.

        1. Duoae says:

          Well, with respect to the term “red hot” a red-white poker or piece or iron or steel is the reference there…. That phrase specifically originates from “strike whilst the iron is red hot” and became more general from that point forward. Of course, heat is a mixture of infrared and visual spectrum wavelengths…. and if you look at a “hot iron” you will see white/red hues.

          So, the phrase is both literally and technically correct…. it doesn’t correlate specifically to the energy of a system but to the time frame of working with the system. It shouldn’t be used with relation to “higher wavelength” = more power.

          No one says, “blue hot” because there was no saying, “turn the oxygen knob until the flame is blue”.

          On the last item… since purple is on the blue end of the spectrum but has social connotations with “low end” due, I think*, to black lights. Hence a bass is also in the background. I can’t think of any sayings or other cultural touchstones that would put purple as low-energy as you describe.

          Actually, most people in their 40s-50s would have come into contact with a bunsen burner in science class (moreso than younger people) and they would know that bluer flames mean higher energy… so I don’t see the corrolation there.

          *That’s my personal conjecture – I’ve never seen any evidence of that in social commentary.

          1. Echo Tango says:

            I’ve never heard anyone say “while the iron is red hot”, only “while the iron is hot” and Google only shows the phrase without a color. Do you have a source for that phrasing? I’m pretty sure most metal-working doesn’t require you to wait until the metal has cooled down that much, and everything I’ve seen (YouTube videos of people making swords) had everyone rushing to finish before it’s cooled down.

            As for middle-aged people…the phrases are centuries old. Created by dead people, not people who haven’t even retired yet.

            1. Duoae says:

              You know, that’s an interesting thing. I remember learning this idiom and the short hand “whilst the iron is hot” but, like you I can’t see it via google in full except for very recent (maximum 2002) uses. Similarly, I don’t see ANY “whilst”, it’s all “while”…. :/

              However, dictionary.com show:

              […]the smith can shape iron only by striking it with his hammer when it is red hot.

              and wiktionary refers to a “red hot iron” – which is my understanding of the concept. Since iron might not be worked at white-hot temperatures – if you ignore the “strike by the” then iron working is generally referred to as “red hot”.

              This seems to be a good chart of colour/temperature.

              Regarding older people, my point was that it’s now a phrase that is not generally used by younger people and that during the technological revolution of the 20th century (i.e. the generations that would use acetylene torches and such) have much more exposure to the old saying than a “blue” saying… which we know never occurred…. so there was no attachment of the colour to the energy – that was my point in that part of the comment. i.e. if there was going to be a “blue/purple” attachement of the concept, it would have happened with the graduates from that schooling period.

      3. John says:

        Bass is the funkiest instrument. Purple is the funkiest color. It checks out.

  8. David Rolsky says:

    There are a couple ways to think of the “power chords” (outside of pop music we’d call that a fifth ;)

    As one commenter noted, without the third this ends up sounding pretty percussive, so you can think of it as additional percussion.

    In jazz harmony, it’s quite common to include the 7th, 9th, 11th, etc. So a D power chord on top of E minor adds a 7th (D) and 11th (A). The other chords in your progression function similarly with the power chord, because the D & A are all part of their 7th+ tones. If you were to use D flat and A flag it’d sound much more dissonant.

    In modern classical music, there’s a concept called polytonality, where you have music in two keys at once. Depending on the keys chosen, this can range from “mildly exotic” to “insanely dissonant”. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is full of polytonality (specifically bitonality).

    I’d suggest listening to more than just pop and rock music to open up your ears. Jazz and classical (especially from the modern and contemporary periods) is full of fascinating sounds you can draw from.

  9. Olivier FAURE says:

    Don’t free a NULL pointer.

    What are you talking about?

    Freeing a null pointer is a perfectly safe operation, which is defined in the C standard as doing nothing. It’s freeing an invalid non-null pointer, or a pointer you already freed, which can really mess up your program.

    EDIT: Aaaaand ninja’ed.

    1. Shamus says:

      Obviously I haven’t done it many times, not recently, and never on purpose, but I was sure that free (NULL) would throw an error.

      You mean you can free (NULL) and your program ought to continue gracefully?

      Huh.

      Maybe I’m thinking of running under the debugger? I don’t know.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        I mean, you never want to follow/dereference a null pointer, because you don’t have access to that memory range (the OS does).

      2. Sven says:

        The ANSI C99 standard (which is the latest version I have access to at the moment, but the only significant thing that might have changed in later versions is probably the paragraph number) says, in paragraph 7.20.3.2 (emphasis mine):

        The free function causes the space pointed to by ptr to be deallocated, that is, made available for further allocation. If ptr is a null pointer, no action occurs. Otherwise, if the argument does not match a pointer earlier returned by the calloc, malloc, or realloc function, or if the space has been deallocated by a call to free or realloc, the behavior is undefined.

        So yeah, it’s explicitly allowed. The same is true for “delete nullptr” in C++, I believe. :)

        1. Kyrillos says:

          It seems that the “never free a nullptr” might been a “this is pointless” lesson, not a “this is dangerous” one.

  10. Duoae says:

    I enjoyed Healthy Stimulation. I’m not really into this genre of music but it was well-mixed and not offensive to my ears – I listened to it all the way through. I still rate Velocilator above it but I think I’m predisposed to that sort of thing since I like this track and that has some similar elements that apply to the way it’s constructed.

  11. Warclam says:

    I seem to have the opposite response to vocals than you do. A fully lyricized song I can have in the background while I work (though it’s a bit less background-y than a pure instrumental piece), but the vocal snippets I find extremely jarring.

    Like, I’m listening to the song in this post—which I quite like, by the way—and then suddenly some woman says “hugging and kissing” and I’ve entirely lost any train of thought I might have had.

  12. Paul Spooner says:

    Yeah! “Healthy stimulation” is pretty good. I think I prefer a bit more complexity in the chord structure or something, but on the whole it’s very listenable. Only objection is the gasp, as it seems incongruously intense in the context of “hugging and kissing”.

  13. Syal says:

    Fun and silly, but I don’t think the slow de-rhythming fits. We go from “hugging and kissing” to “My heart is giving out my time on earth is ending”, and then back.

  14. LCF says:

    “Healthy Stimulation” is nicely done. I was listening to DOOM 2016 ‘s OST, so I was in quite a different mood, but still it was nice to listen to.
    Keep learning, it’ll keep doing you good.

  15. Joe Informatico says:

    Yeah, I’m starting to see music theory not as a set of hard rules, but more as a serious attempt to systematize best practices so developing musicians don’t have to reinvent the wheel as they progress through their musical journey. E.g., a big chunk of Western classical music theory can be described as WWJSBD* (What Would Johann Sebastian Bach Do [*95% of the time]), but there are so many exceptions, especially as you get closer to the late 19th century. Why does a I – V – vi – IV chord progression sound comfortable and right? Because centuries of popular music have used it. Why do you generally want the bass drum hitting on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on 2 and 4? It’s what made early jazz music “swing” so most popular music since has followed suit.

    Rick Beato has been a professor of jazz guitar, a struggling rock musician, a songwriter, and a producer and thus has one of the broadest knowledge bases of music YouTubers. His series “What Makes This Song Great?” breaks down rock and pop hits from a production and composition standpoint. On one Nirvana song he said something like “Do I think Kurt Cobain knew he was singing in D Mixolydian? No, he probably didn’t. He probably sang what he thought sounded good. But I know it and now I’m telling you and now you know it!” That’s basic music theory in a nutshell to me.

  16. DeadlyDark says:

    I recommend to look up Shredmaster Scott and his videos on Bach versus and other series. It’s about metal guitars, but he gives a lot of music theory

  17. Erik says:

    There’s another video just out that covers similar territory (What Key is Sweet Home Alabama in?), and if you don’t know Adam Neely you probably should. He’s a jazz composer/bassist who does some of the best jobs I’ve seen of making theory accessible and comprehensible to someone like me who loves music but doesn’t have the formal training.

    This video explores how the melody and chord structure of “Sweet Home Alabama” seem to be in two different keys, but they (obviously) came together in a hugely successful song. Check it out.

  18. Matt says:

    The rabbit hole you can really go down with regards to “playing two different chords simultaneously” is called Chord Substitution. I wont post links (spam filters), but go to youtube, look up youtuber “Music with Miles”, and find the video “substitute dominants” to get started.

    If you want to go deep enough to cross your eyes, look up “reharmonization” which is the advanced version of what you’re talking about.

    It’s really cool watching you unlock the infinite complexity of music composition while starting from first principles. I got my grad degree in Pop Music Composition, and watching you find things out in real time gives me these awesome “oooh! He discovered THIS and will find out about THAT next!” moments.

    If you ever have any questions, I used to teach some of this stuff, and would love to help if you want it.

  19. Tonich says:

    As people have already mentioned here, you can’t just mash chords randomly, there is a certain logic to that – like, the notes should preferably belong to the current scale, unless you specifically want it to sound eerie. You can also have a similar effect by keeping the same chord in the high/mid range and altering the bass, or just keep a single note through the chord progression instead of a power chord (I think that’s called a “drone” – someone please correct me if I’m misusing this term).
    I kinda discovered it all on my own and now I tend to use it in my music a lot. It’s also really easy to pull off on guitar (which is my main instrument) – you just leave one of the strings open. :) For example, in this song I kept playing open 1st string (E1) in d minor scale – which, I think, gave the song a much more “cold and distant” feel.

    (hope it’s not taboo to post own music in the post about Shamus’s music, haha)

    As for Healthy Stimulation, I really liked both the song and the production, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling of it sounding a lot like Shoji Meguro’s Striptease dungeon theme from Persona 4, complete with the gasp / lusty voice. :)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMMlK6eqe_o

    1. Tonich says:

      Hmm, the soundcloud link didn’t embed for some reason (maybe there IS a taboo after all? :)). Here’s the track I was talking about:
      https://soundcloud.com/tonich-1/the-heckfish-i-speak-to-the-moon

  20. aitrus says:

    Nice job with those synth notes at 3 minutes in. Don’t know the technical term but it’s the thing where the notes are played equidistant from each other but are not aligned to the main beat. Sounds nice!

    I have to say though, as someone who’s been playing music their whole life, reading your interpretation of music theory is incredibly frustrating! But I don’t think it would be productive of me to point out all the million ways you’re wrong, because at this point in your musical journey it wouldn’t make a difference. I will point out that it’s really interesting and relieving to see you unlearn some of the things you thought were true when you first started writing about music.

  21. Urthman says:

    What you discovered with the power chords is called a pedal point, where you sort of anchor the chords against a bass note, which gives you nice tension the further away the chords get from the power chord. Bach uses it in his music all the time (though usually just with a bass note rather than a power chord). Here’s an explanation for people who don’t know much music theory:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynmh1Ngo2Fk

    Make sure you read the video notes too:

    Pop songs using pedal points include “Fly like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, and “Crazy” by Seal. The progressive rock band Genesis often used a “pedal-point groove”, in which the “bass remains static on the tonic as chords move above the bass at varying speeds,” with the Genesis songs “Cinema Show” and “Apocalypse in 9/8” being examples of this. “By the late 1970s and early 1980s, pedal-point grooves such as this had become a well-worn cliché of progressive rock as they had of funk (James Brown’s “Sex Machine”), and were already making frequent appearances in more commercial styles such as stadium rock (Van Halen’s ‘Jump’) and synth-pop (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’).”

  22. Urthman says:

    I just found that guy googling pedal points, but looking at his channel, it seems like he might have a lot of stuff that would be both useful to you, Shamus, in the kind of composing you do and also comprehensible for a beginner who doesn’t know much music theory. Like this video on “Super Octaves” has some tricks that I think you might find useful:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brgs6VAHUsI

    Or this one discussing a bunch of possible chords that you can stick between two basic chords (like what can you put between a C chord and an F chord that sounds good but less boring):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0xz0DrvZ9A

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