~ Americana harmony ~

'the simultaneous occurrence of musical tones'

'... streamlining the process of learning our harmonic spectrum of colors with basic nuts and bolts theory and movable shapes ...'

Americana harmony. How lucky we musicians are to have such a system of tuned up harmony at our fingertips. Mathematically built right into our guitars, we really get the best of both; flexibility tuning single note melody pitches with the precision tuned pitches for chords.

For in our Americana musics we can express with single notes ideas that lean towards the pitches of the natural scale and its blue hue, while we can have supportive chords whose stacked pitches require a high precision of tuning to properly function. This gives the artist a consistent aural rock to rub their natural pitches up against. And in this rub we create the emotionality of our own expressiveness.

blues hue
a precision of tuning
 

A theory nutshell. All of the 'modern' Americana harmonies we enjoy today come about thanks to, what was still into the 1600's, a rather complex mathematics that creates our equal temper tuning. Based on the division of the octave interval in 12 exactly equal parts, it is this and only this 'equality of the pitches' that allows us to stack pitches one atop another to sound any variety of chords that are all in tune. Any chord in any key center sounds in tune with any chord in any other key center. So, anything from anywhere? Yep, that's the idea. It is the math of equal temper tuning applied to the natural organization of pitches from nature that energizes our full spectrum array of modern harmony.

tuning the pitches
equal temper tuning
anything from anywhere

Our 'modern' American harmonies, all of the wide variety of amazing chords we can create today, are sourced from our European ancestors' side of our Americana family music tree. These Euro cats, through centuries of trial and error and even more in some cases, invented, perfected and then imported for us the whole tamale of the functional harmony. Thus, we on this side of the pond have enjoyed 'the changes' for the last couple of hundred years or so. So up to this very day, and now with all of the MIDI potentials based on the same tuning mathematics, we'll probably have all this harmony and more, well on into the future come what may.

modern harmonies
Americana music tree
whole tamale
functional harmony

So thanks to luthiers who can build this mathematic precision of equal temper tuning into our various guitars, many which that play like butter, there are no real bounds to creating chords on our guitars. From the triadic groups backing folk and rock songs through the 7th's and 9th's of blues, pop and funk to the 11th and 13th's of bossa and jazz, all combinations are equally available from each of our 12 unique pitches.

12 pitches

It's a lot of resource once we're hip to the 'che che changes.' Our main theory topics here include; the spelling of chords, chord voicings, chord type, cycles, color tones and rhythm guitar and the evolution of chords through our musical style. And as best we can, maintain our core philosophy that pairs numbers of pitches used to create a chord with the musical style we'd most commonly find it.

Motion to Four and back to One. While there's no limit to the variations for a song and its story will surely go where it needs to go, chances are one of its destinations within will be to Four. So for us theorists, we can think along the lines of musical styles and if there are common ways songs in a style have solved this motion.

So our advantage here as theorists is that in our work, knowing how a couple styles will typically get there, we might need to borrow a chord from another style to solve the puzzle we're working on.

This is the basis of what a modern guitarist, theoretically empowered, has to their advantage. That a song is just a puzzle, sometimes coming to us complete but perhaps just as often not, and thus we search for the missing pieces.

And just as interesting is how songs, once they get to Four, find their way back to One. For some great songs start on Four, or its close diatonic relative Two. So probably just food for thought here, but theory food that might feed the puzzle bulldog and missing pieces.

Scale / arpeggio / chord. Once we've some pitches to work with and begin to organize them into our musics, they most often take the form of a scale, mode or loop of pitches. The ability to diatonically morph any scale into its arpeggio and from arpeggio into chords is for many, enough theory to solve a careers worth of musical riddles thus, well worth the price of admission to this show.

diatonic
scale / arpeggio / chord

Spelling chords. Perhaps one theory step before the last entry, is developing the rote ability to spell chords. This is an absolute game changer in a couple of ways. Our improvs can more readily evolve from working over changes to through them. Spelling a chord in itself becomes and improv idea giving rise to permutation and its near endless possibilities.

improv
spelling chords
permutation

Spelling chords is an easy way into the analysis of any written music really, thus a key to unlocking a vast resource of new ideas. In my own case it was this ability that opened the doors to the vast J.S.Bach library of magic that challenged me at college. This one collection is so chock full of melody and harmony ideas it's beyond overwhelming, so as theorists we might just kick back and enjoy it all through listening, and when we hear something we dig, use our spelling abilities to go through the scores and puzzle out pieces, then find them on our guitars and create our own magics :)

Jacmuse bio
J.S.Bach
scores

Open tunings. Once even a basic understanding of spelling chords is cool, we can readily open tune our guitars to any number of chord possibilities. Instruments open tuned to a chord are a slide players dream come true, especially for the three chords of blues songs.

slide

"Open G." Among the most important open tunings initially for creating the Americana sounds is the open G of the banjo. For its transfer to the guitar in say the 1830's or so, and that's a guess sorry, becomes an orginal tuning for the early blues artists.

open G

Some of our first recordings of the blues from the mid 1930's have songs performed in an open G tuning. Blues is an Americana root and creates the rub we can find somewhere in all of our styles through the generations of players.

the blues

Four essential triads. Triads are created in major and minor thirds, and when built on the same root pitch, we get four and only four possible combinations. Once we rote learn these we are good to go :)

triads
major 3rd
minor 3rd

Adding the 7th. Building chords up beyond the three notes of the triad opens up some new pathways. The tritone bearing V7 chord and the blues chords evolve. The idea of chord type emerges also, a way to categorize chords based on what third and seventh they contain. Once the seventh is added to any chord really, we open up the additional color tones in their diatonic arpeggios, all of which can be altered in some way. Thus, our harmonic universe and musical styles may expand dramatically through this simple addition and evolution.

adding the 7th
tritone bearing V7
blues chords
chord type
color tones
musical styles

The diminished chords. The diminished chords are so named because they 'diminish' the size of the third and fifth intervals of the triad. There's just one diatonic diminished triad and two types of diminished 7th chords. There's a diatonic source of the diminished 7th chord from the harmonic minor scale. We also find this diminished seventh color in the V7b9 chord, which is a clear portal for chord substitution in the jazz language.

diminished 7th chord
harmonic minor scale
half diminished / -7b5
V7 b9

The augmented chords. Augmented chords are constructed with a major third and its perfect fifth is 'augmented' or raised by half step. Its diatonic source, like the diminished seventh chord, is the harmonic minor scale. Also, we find this chord in the symmetrically constructed whole tone scale.

The 'sus' chords. The 'sus' chords contain one or more pitches that have been suspended away from where they would normally occur diatonically. Most common is the 'sus 4.' In this chord the third of the triad is moved up to the fourth, where it creates a feeling of suspension in that the triad is no longer truly major or minor. The 'sus' or suspended chords are cool in that they defy the diatonic sense of tonal gravity and its aural predictability that we find in most of our musics. In the real of classical music and its theories, every possibility, both harmonic and melodic in regards to chord tone / non- chord tone has a label. In our Americana studies here, a simple numerical representation, as the 4-3 mentioned above, is enough of an indication for astute artists.

'sus' chord voicings
melodic suspensions
tonal gravity
aural predictability
chord tone
non chord tone

The diatonic three and three. Surely just a bit of my theory slang. The diatonic three and three is probably more of just a reminder for most of us that; in each of our 12 key centers, we can diatonically generate the One, Four and Five chords for both relative major and minor tonalities.

12 keys
One
Four
Five
relative major / minor

That we weave these six chords into the harmonic progressions for most of our Americana songs is the bit of theory to rote know. For in knowing this bit of the theory, our diatonic improvs take an easier first step in moving from soloing over the changes to soloing through the changes.

improv / soloing
rote learning
over or through

'Three chords and the truth.' Originally, these five words represented a formula for what constitutes a well crafted song in country music. That just three chords and a true story is what is needed. That there are too many gems of songs, across our whole spectrum of styles, written this way to ever probably list is testamony to its accuracy of the idea. It is included here for us composers who might ever think that simplicity in our own work just might not be feeding the bulldog :)

feed the bulldog

Chord progressions. We use this term to talk about the sequences of chords that support our melodies that create our songs. That written songs become our best source for progressions creates the basis of our theory studies here; that we'll follow a numerical evolution of components and just see what shakes loose along the way.

The best source is in the songs you love.

Diatonic backpedaling.

chord progressions
a numerical evolution

Harmonic cadences. In definition; a progression of two or more chords that bring music to a close, stopping point, new section etc. Euro classical artists tend to theory define these way more than we Americanos but either way the results are the same. The written songs and music we each love is probably going to be the best source for ideas to understand this aspect of closure to the musical art we create.

cadential motions

Chords of musical styles. To understand the relationship between chords and musical styles, we take a fairly scientific approach and simply bend it to musical art. Knowing that we can break the rules when necessary to express our ideas, our studies here are again numeric and even a bit close minded if you will. We do this to simply learn the basics that help us to modernize our creative.

modernize our creative

Chord voicings. Chord voicings is simply the way we stack up our pitches to make our chords. We initially look at our pitches the way we understand them from nature and then apply these principles as best we can to the guitar and piano.

chord voicings

Chord inversions. Chords by their very nature have a couple of pitches. The order in which we stack them up is their voicing. Once we have a voicing, we can juxtapose these pitches any way that best expresses the art in our hearts. These various configurations we term a chord's inversions. That our labels follow a numerical evolution makes it easy to undersyand and rote learn. And like most of our theory, once the principle concept is in place, we can apply the exact same theory to any chord in any style.

chord inversions

Chord color tones. This term might be a bit old fashioned now but what it repesents is still the same regardless of the labeling. A chord's color tones are simply the notes we add to our three note triads. And while any notes are possible additions to a triad, there's a systematic approach that organizes the remaining nine pitches (3 + 9 = 12), creating an evolution of sorts. For as the chords evolve as we add color tones, we'll see a corresponding evolution of our musical styles.

color tones
triads
12 pitches
numerical evolution of style

Chord melody. Most probably a slang term in academia, the idea of a 'chord melody' is simply a way to arrange the pitches of a melody to be supported by chords as we perform the song. And while each of us as artists will find our own ways to arrange and present a song's melody and chords together, there's a few established ways to begin the process.

chord melody

Chord type. In theory, the idea that any chord can be a specific 'type' is simply a way to categorize, thus simplify our learning process. This is probably mostly a jazz thing as jazz cats deal with lots and lots of different yet often related chords or not as the case may be, and often in just eight bars or so of music.

chord type

In Essentials, there are only three types of different chords. Rote learning these basics enables us to apply its theory to really any chord. In doing so we place a chord in a category defined by how we use it and where we consistenly find it in our musics.

wiki ~ rote learning

In doing so we streamline our learning process; we no longer have have 12 different root named chords of the same type but one category that they all fit into. We open the portal to chord substitution for initially we'll exchange one chord for another of the same aural qualities. This all leads onward to understanding the historical evolution of our Americana system of harmony.

12 pitches
chord substitution
aural
evolution of Americana harmony

Chord substitution. As the term implies, we're just replacing one chord with another. We mostly do this for variety and to streamline our musics to go faster in tempos. Of course as we do this our musical style might evolve also. Yet, faster tempos can often generate more challenge and excitement, both of our own intellectual process and for listeners. The chord substitution theories included here are quite simple while knowing its basics can dramatically expand our palettes for both performing and composing.

chord substitution
tempos
evolutions of style
palettes
composing

Evolution of Americana harmony. While really a vast topic to sort out, in theory we've a relatively easy task. For we can simply follow our own historical timeline and let our ears decide this evolution.

evolution of harmony

For by using a diatonic basis of 'inside / outside', the theory of our harmonic evolution is a gradual evolutionary process towards chromaticism and the complete degredation of tonal center, tonal gravity and its corresponding sense of aural predictabilty.

diatonic
inside / outside
chromaticism
tonal center
tonal gravity
aural predictability

Also, we Americanos can compare our evolutions here to our Euro bretheren. And in doing so have the benefit of compare and hindsight, two essential benefits that can sure up our own works and artistic directions while being a modern day creative music theory empowered musical artist.

Euro bretheren
your own journey

~ super theory game changer ~

Diatonic chords, One / Four / Five in major and minor. An often overlooked aspect of the basic six diatonic chords, the ones used to create the chord progressions for the vast majority of our songs is that in theory, they are already pre-programmed into being the One / Four and Five chords. The same One / Four / Five chord progression? Yep. The 'three chords and the truth' chords? Yep. The three chords of basic blues songs? Yep. The 'G, C, D'er' of folk and country? Yep.

just a 'G,C,D'er'

One set is major and one is minor and they come from the same group of pitches. Let's extract these chord pitches as three note triads in the relative key pairing of G major / and E natural minor. Example 2a.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
G major
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
G
arpeggio
G
B
D
F#
A
C
E
G
One / G major
G
B
D
.
.
.
.
.
Four / C major
.
.
.
.
.
C
E
G
Five / D major
.
.
D
F#
A
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
E minor
E
F#
G
A
B
C
D
E
arpeggio
E
G
B
D
F#
A
C
E
One / E minor
E
G
B
.
.
.
.
.
Four / A minor
.
.
.
.
.
A
C
E
Five / B minor
.
.
B
D
F#
.
.
.

Ever seen a layout of the pitches in this manner? This is a common way to spell out the pitches of the diatonic chords. Created from the perspective of the G major center, we measure and numerically label each of the pitches from G, which assumes the position of One.

This adding of the numbers to represents letters is nothing short of potentially game changing for the emerging theorist. Using numbers instead of letters allows us to project any theory ideas or principles equally from any of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, advancing our understanding of the entire system.

Cool isn't it? Two sets of One / Four / Five chords, one major, one minor. The ultimate sets of threes for the American harmony mix and match. No end to the chord progressions they might create in all of our styles. Super rote learn these chords for maximum success. Ex. 2b.

Wow, in this graphic we get a variety of theory coolness. Diatonic relative pitches and keys, the upper (major) and lower (minor) case Roman numeral chord degree symbols, standard notation of the pitches, string tab note locators and line grids for chord shapes.

relative keys
Roman numerals
chord degrees
notation

Consider working in some fingerpicking to help locate your single line melodies from within these open chords. Sing, hum or buzz along with your melody to get it just how you want it to sound, feel and flow. Make it all dance :) Bass lines often begin by just playing the roots and using the other diatonic pitches as passing tones between the roots of the chords, creating a story line.

passing tones
roots of the chords

So did you already have these chord shapes under your fingers? Cool. No, then just learn them here if need be. In learning new chord shapes; try to slowly strum each chord a time or two then move to the new shape. Simply back and forth till the new shape is mastered. The strumming is usually the easy part, making the finger change between chord shapes the challenge.

parts of a guitar

OK with the last barre chord B minor? As it is the same core shape as A minor just up two frets, the index finger becoming the barre replacing the nut of the open strings. Evolving open chords to the movable barre chords is often a dramatic step for the evolving guitarist.

evolving barre chords

 

harmony def p. 129