The Tyranny of Chord Symbols

Jelly Roll Morton was quite the inventor. Besides inventing jazz, he invented waffle cones, stainless steel cutlery, easy mac with bacon, snuggies, segways, caipirinhas, the mini moog, camelbacks, the double down sandwich, the long play record, and matchbox cars, just to name a few. And somehow, in the midst of all that inventing of all of that stuff, he had time to invent chord symbols. Behold his fruitless labor.

D-7(b5,11) Dbmaj7(9,13) | Abmaj7(9)/C B7(9,#11) |Bb-7(11) A7 (#9,#11) | G7(#9)/Ab Ab6/9 |

Chord symbols originated from the need to have a system for musicians to easily assimilate all the information necessary from a piece of music to improvise around it. Instead of a series of 4 to 5 part piano voicings drawn out in an arrangement, you had just a series of symbols – D6 Em7 A7 D6. There was a certain elegance in this simplification, because now virtually all popular song could be reduced on paper to a melody and some symbols, much like baroque style figured bass. Generations of musicians grew up with and played with chord symbols, and they remain the best source of information about a piece of music. How else are you supposed to know “the changes?” Read a notated score? How inefficient, pah!

There is, of course, a flaw with chord symbols, and it comes from the fact that they were originally designed for use in popular song. They are a purely tertian construct, and often times very simple harmonic structures require complex specifications as a chord symbol. The quartal stack C F Bb is best notated as the somewhat convoluted “C7sus4(omit 5)”, for example. Other structures are virtually impossible to make sense out of, like the segundal stack C Db E F#. Would anybody seriously call that C(add b2, add #4, omit 5)?

I had a composition teacher at Berklee who spoke of the “Tyranny of Chord Symbols” for this very reason.

Because of their ubiquity, chord symbols often compel composers and arrangers to force their harmonies into a Procrustean bed. What is relatively simple and quantifiable on the written page can result in some horrific looking chord symbols. Because of this, and because of the desire to communicate clearly to the improviser or the accompanist, he often did not write chord symbols at all and instead wrote scales, pitch collections and notated voicings.

During my fantastical musical romp through the world that is AHM, I stumbled upon something interesting. If you take any conceivable harmonic structure that does not have consecutive half steps (tone clusters) among any of its “chord tones,” you can analyze it in terms of a chord scale relationship to at least one of a very small subset of parent scales and modes. What do I mean by that? Voila.

Non-Symmetric

Major
Melodic Minor
Harmonic Minor
Harmonic Major

Symmetric

Diminished
Augmented
Whole Tone

If you take the 7 modes of each of the 4 non-symmetric scales and add them to the 2 modes each of the diminished and augmented scales plus the 1 possible mode of the whole tone scale you get a grand total of 33 chord-modes. If we take any harmonic structure that doesn’t have consecutive half-steps, like “D Ab F G B,” we can analyze it in terms of a Pitch Collection originally derived from one of the above parent scales instead of trying to find some unusual chord symbol to fit it. In this case, we could analyze the derivation of this pitch collection as D Dorian b5 (Harmonic Major mode II) or D Locrian natural 6 (Harmonic Minor mode II). In theory, then, there could be another sort of system of shorthand for harmony that involved notating these root chord-modes when the harmony is too complex or otherwise inappropriate for traditional notation.

There are some important problems with this, of course. The first is the fact that, unless otherwise directed, the improviser/accompanist will make use of the whole scale when it may not be appropriate to context or if the composer does not particularly want that effect of the whole scale. For example, a minor pentatonic harmony might have the analysis of a “Dorian” root scale, but it could totally ruin the effect if notes outside of the 5-note pentatonic were included.

Second, by ironing out the harmony into a horizontal line of pitches, all context is lost regarding any potential hierarchy of the pitches in terms of “chord function” or register. For example, in the previous example of D Ab F G B, the pitch Ab clearly has a “lower chord tone” function to the G, the same way the root of a tertian chord would have a “lower chord tone” function to the 9th. This understanding of the harmony and the intervallic makeup of the chord is lost.

Still, thinking in this hyper-local way with chord-modes can provide a nice counter-balance to the great tyranny of the chord symbol. If you simply notate the pitch collection, or better yet, also include a standard notation version of the harmony for the improviser, all ambiguity will be removed and the improviser will know exactly what you as a composer/arranger have provided for them.

On a side note…33? How on earth did our 12-tone system generate that number under the constraints of no consecutive half-steps? It’s not really a number that pops up often in…well…anything. I just had to research the number a little bit more and came up with some shocking discoveries. Brace yourself.

33 is the coming of age year for Hobbits.
33 is one of the symbols of Ku Klux Klan (K is the 11th number of the alphabet, 3 times 11 is 33, KKK)
33 is printed on all Rolling Rock labels for no known reason
33 is the title of the first episode of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica franchise
33 was the jersey number for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
33 was how old Jesus was when he died.

Coincidence!?1 I think not.

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6 Responses to “The Tyranny of Chord Symbols”


  1. 1 Jack Nurling August 29, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Adam:

    I wanted to point up obliquely through your initial point concerning “popular song” at the place where most musicians I have worked with (myself included, though somewhat less) exist as a consequence of illiteracy — or better (pun intended) — perhaps illiteracy is only symptomatic of a much more fundamental cultural process.

    “…There was a certain elegance in this simplification, because now virtually all popular song could be reduced on paper to a melody and some symbols, much like baroque style figured bass. Generations of musicians grew up with and played with chord symbols…”

    Perhaps this simplification has contributed to the general decline of musical literacy.

    “…There is, of course, a flaw with chord symbols, and it comes from the fact that they were originally designed for use in popular song. They are a purely tertian construct, and often times very simple harmonic structures require complex specifications as a chord symbol….”

    I recall a work of Harry Partch, “Genesis of a Music.” Philosophical and structural difficulties with the twelve-tone as a stricture are explored. A case is made for consideration of the modulation range of the ‘popular speaking voice of the people’ as the proper exploratory place for a possible recreation of the true popular or common Western music, lost or subsumed by the tyranny of twelve-tone imposition.

    Of course, application of Partch’s ideas are [were] anything but popular. Perhaps this is an artifact of the twelve-tone imposition he postulates. If so, we are in a bad situation culturally. Consider ‘No More Masterpieces,’ the essay by Antonin Artaud. Maybe we should abandon the masterpieces of the past. It certainly seems like what passes for popular music (and culture) is hell-bent on not only embracing but enforcing such a direction. Devolution may be a ubiquitous and unstoppable process endemic to this so-called culture.

    Aside: I very much enjoyed the “noise” section here on your site.

    I had an interesting cultural experience earlier today. A friend asked me to set-up audio for a church service he wished to hear. I did so. I could not help but listen to some of the music, it intruded so deeply into my ear. There is to me something horrifically, majestically frightening at hearing a large group of people singing truncated melodies in unison. Is this the ‘voice of the people’ Partch refers to? By definition? Or merely another artifact of the twelve-tone imposition?

    When I say ‘truncated melodies,’ I easily imagine the actual melody filtered through to a new, ‘low-resolution universe,’ and that I, as listener, am transported to it against my will. Something important of ‘melodic resolution’ is lost in performance of a crowd singing in unison. It was obvious to me that there was no score, that if there were if would be of no use, and I doubt that even the words were available to all of the singers. Yet, they sang. Something was very much lost, yet something was also gained. I think somewhere close to this area lies the horrible majesty referred to above.

    I have been interested in this concept for some time. I use a hierarchy of exercises I call “read predicting” in order to develop spontaneity in performers I work with at the creative level. It is simply this: a suitably complex text is selected at random and is seen and read by one member aloud. During the reading, it is intended that the other members, as nearly simultaneously as possible, say in unison the same words. Maybe twenty minutes of this, alternating readers. Next, take up instruments. One member is the analogue of the reader, (not playing any prepared piece, however,) and the others play with, though not necessarily in unison, as nearly simultaneously as possible. Maybe a half hour of this. Next rehearsal, rinse, repeat. Rehearsal after rehearsal. Undertaken to consume only 1/3 of rehearsal time, the results are astounding.

    -33-

    By the way, Frank Zappa did a song ’bout Jelly Roll…

    -j

    • 2 Adam Neely August 29, 2010 at 9:01 pm

      “Perhaps this simplification has contributed to the general decline of musical literacy.”

      Perhaps, but like I said, there is a certain beauty in this simplicity. Musical notation can be reduced to a bare essence, but what musicians can do with that in interpreting the score and giving it new life in new contexts is astounding. It is difficult to reharmonize and develop a piece of music on the stop when the accompaniment is rendered in standard notation. It is easy (relatively) and expedient to do so when there is just chord symbols.

      “I have been interested in this concept for some time. I use a hierarchy of exercises I call “read predicting” in order to develop spontaneity in performers I work with at the creative level. It is simply this: a suitably complex text is selected at random and is seen and read by one member aloud. During the reading, it is intended that the other members, as nearly simultaneously as possible, say in unison the same words. Maybe twenty minutes of this, alternating readers. Next, take up instruments. One member is the analogue of the reader, (not playing any prepared piece, however,) and the others play with, though not necessarily in unison, as nearly simultaneously as possible. Maybe a half hour of this. Next rehearsal, rinse, repeat. Rehearsal after rehearsal. Undertaken to consume only 1/3 of rehearsal time, the results are astounding. ”

      Very interesting, this is a phenomenon I’ve known about for a long long while. I first caught on to it in church, in fact, where about 1/4 of the people actually know the words and melody and everybody matches them a split second later. I used to confuse/annoy everybody sitting around me in high school when I softly speak the words of the teacher’s lecture verbatim in unison for long periods of time. I had never thought to use it as a teaching tool in a musical situation, so thanks for sharing that, that’s really cool.

      A couple things, to add to that, though. One, the “speaker” or “performer” (so I’d imagine) has to dictate very clearly and concisely with a certain confidence, otherwise it becomes difficult to follow. If you try to read predict somebody who is talking with an informal, conversational cadence, complete with starts and stops and “uh’s” and “um’s,” its hard to mimic. If you were doing it in a musical context, it would seem like the performer would have to be very clear with their phrases and have to literally or figuratively “breathe” in the same way that a speaker would in order to let people know what’s coming next. This is, of course, a good thing in a lot of circumstances, but it might be limiting, I don’t know.

      Two, read predicting is based solely upon creating sound and being able to mimic the sound that’s coming out of a person’s mouth as its happening – it’s not based on any sort of analysis of the content or context of the words. You could speak nonsense sentences of random words with no grammatical structure, like, “Love into portcullis zealous but often does,” and read predict it just fine. The ramifications of this are that somebody read predicting on an instrument is putting no thought into the actual musical content of what they are mimicing – they are simply intent on mimicing it.

      Three, read predicting comes pretty easily to the human voice because we are naturally able to repeat a word/phrase/sentence said to us back without any problem. It requires a good deal of training or experience to be able to do the same thing on our instruments, and so I’d imagine it would take a while to develop the read predicting skill musically with the same fluidity that is achieved with the human voice. Again, I don’t know since I’ve never worked with it before in that context, but I’m just throwing it out there.

      Thanks for posting.

  2. 3 Jack Nurling August 30, 2010 at 1:38 am

    Adam:

    “…It is difficult to reharmonize and develop a piece of music on the stop when the accompaniment is rendered in standard notation. It is easy (relatively) and expedient to do so when there is just chord symbols….”

    Lacking training, I sometimes am frustrated by something that I feel should ‘fit’ or work but just does not and I am at a loss to explain the difficulty in any coherent sense to my own satisfaction.

    I have experienced this ‘ease.’ A consequence of short-hand-like abstraction, that of the chord more easily understood and worked with when viewed as an easily interpreted symbol. Beautiful simplicity, indeed.

    “…One, the “speaker” or “performer” (so I’d imagine) has to dictate very clearly and concisely with a certain confidence, otherwise it becomes difficult to follow….”

    Yes. This is discovered quickly as a natural consequence of alternating reader/performer-leaders. However, difficulty can be useful also. The readers/players adjust and adapt. It is mutual exploration and develops spontaneity.

    “…If you were doing it in a musical context, it would seem like the performer would have to be very clear with their phrases and have to literally or figuratively “breathe” in the same way that a speaker would in order to let people know what’s coming…”

    While I feel that “doing it in a musical context” involves the same physical areas of the brain used both with language and phrasing in music, it seems subtly different in a musical context than doing it with just plain language. For instance, interesting grooves arise as the players look to the past few moments of the performer-leaders’ playing and modify their next-moment future choices to more closely match or play with what might be coming next. It is difficult to keep from breaking away from the exercise and doubly difficult to resist exploration of the beautiful possibilities that arise — but that was the whole point of the exercise, so at some point it must be abandoned as an exercise.

    “…Two, read predicting is based solely upon creating sound and being able to mimic the sound that’s coming out of a person’s mouth as its happening – it’s not based on any sort of analysis of the content or context of the words….”

    It could be based solely on sound but not necessarily. Consider this: I used the reading part of the exercise with a group of performers live and we were presented with a prepared text where the author, using isolated and mis-connected phonemes (mis-connected word-wise — such as: “th ef ol lo ng wo ur dz me kn oh ess en ess” i.e. “the following words make no sense”) rendered the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It was interesting. The reader (I was the reader) did not know what he was phonetically rendering and the piece just seemed to gather life of its own and take off and fly away as the others one by one and then in full cascade to avalanche realized what had just happened. It was a blast.

    Again, it could be based solely on sound but not necessarily. I liked to read the exercise from newspapers or novels. They are usually the most commonly available material at rehearsals. Grammar and semantics restrict the words (and therefore the next possible phoneme) which may arise in such material. So at some point, a flow may develop based on what is generally possible to expect based on what has already preceded. If nonsense syllables are injected, it changes the character but does not entirely destroy the exercise. Nonsense syllables, reading backward, up, down or sideways, or reading from Finnegans Wake, for instance, does tend to limit and allow a more easy degeneration of the exercise into simple mimicry. If used in performance, a lot of the final experience depends on the players’ taste, experience, ability, and the direction in which they are constrained to be led.

    “…It requires a good deal of training or experience to be able to do the same thing on our instruments, and so I’d imagine it would take a while to develop the read predicting skill musically with the same fluidity that is achieved with the human voice….”

    Players with even just the requisite level of interest are difficult to find in the wild. I haven’t run into any who are available after nearly a year of looking. I am thankful to be able to perform live several times a month.

    Thanks, Adam. I once again have much more to think about musically. It’s great.

    -j

  3. 4 chronowarp August 31, 2010 at 5:08 am

    Adam, let me rant for a minute, then you can ignore me or respond.

    What do you think about developing and standardizing symbols that represent specific sonorities? Obviously, our current chord naming system is based almost exclusively on forcing chords to fit into the mold of tertian harmony (like you discussed). 6/9’s and 7sus chords are obviously quartal, but incidentally we can force those into fitting into the convention that presently exists.

    What if we took each unique chord scale, or at least the common ones, and developed a system that described: a. The root, b. Which chord scale, c. which notes from that chord scale.

    If I had a cluster like C Db E F# (your example): Let’s say functionally it’s a dominant. It’s coming out of the HW diminished scale. It contains degrees: 1, 2, 4, 5.

    Let’s call it C HW(1245).

    Now, I’ve just shot this out of my ass, and I can already see problems with it(it’s not very short, and you probably adequately get across the same message with SN without much more effort, or less). However, it does communicate a few things: the parent chord scale, and specifically which tones to include, and in which order. So it’s voicing specific in addition to being very specific in general.

  4. 5 Jerry Gates November 23, 2010 at 1:09 am

    Hi Adam,

    I was wondering where you learned that Jelly Roll Morton invented chord symbols.

    I was under the impression, perhaps mistakenly, that Ferde Grofe invented chord symbols (as triads) as a way to communicate with banjo players in the pit bands of his time (1920’s/30’s). It makes sense since players of that instrument were often taught by rote (many still are). The symbols, once taught to the players involved, would easily convey the harmonic idea.

    Any thoughts?

    Jerry

  5. 6 Leonice Shinneman August 19, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Hi Adam. The number 33 in the Indian classical tala system is the prime rhythmic calculation form. It is a harmonic structure. 3 phrases starting on one and resolving on one in multiples of 4’s. 32 + 1= sum . Also (3 1 3 1 3) x 3 or 11x 3. Three inside of three. Everyone plays it All the time. Best. Leonice. Tabla specialist Jazz drummer


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Welcome to Adam Neely's blog/website. Check out his compositions, links, and information about lessons on the top bar, and enjoy the music!

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