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Had a conversation with Igor and Bill during the Undercover Blues Band rehearsal last Friday that I really wish a number of my students had been able to witness. I was introducing one of the new pieces I’ve been working on, so I needed to show them the form in a hurry.
I said, “It’s in D. At least I think it is, until I hear myself singing. We may have to change that,” and then I began playing the little rhythmic/harmonic figure that goes through the first half of the verse. They fell in. We just repeated it for a minute or two, giving the two of them an opportunity to figure out what the feel of the piece is, and to find their own way into it. Then I said (more or less) this:
“Okay, it’s the I chord for three bars. In Bar 4 we go to V for one bar, then back to I for two more bars. We stop on the downbeat of Bar 7, for 6 beats. There will be a vocal fill there. We come back in after the break, on IV for two bars, back to I for two bars, then V for a bar, stop with a IV chord on the downbeat of next bar, for 4 beats (another vocal fill), and then come back with a 2-bar I-IV-I-V turnaround. Two verses, and then a guitar solo. During the solo we just revert to a straight up 12-bar blues. Solo will be 2 or 3 choruses, and then we’re back for 1 more verse, in the original form. Out at the end of that verse.”I showed them the intro I’ve been working on, counted it in, and we played it. Down in one take, except that I hadn’t told them about the specific rhythmic kicks on the final bar. We took a minute to work that out, I counted it in and we played it again. Bill said it was too short. Always better than the alternative. We’ll have to review it at tomorrow’s rehearsal, but basically we got it.
I am fairly certain that my students often feel my insistence that they learn at least a little something about harmony is kind of a bother. Why say “I IV I V” when “C F C G” is more specific. But it’s not. The beauty of that conversation was that I was able to communicate everything necessary to play the piece. For Bill, who is a well trained and experienced all around musician who happens to be playing drums in this group, the chord names are unhelpful. But the form is significant. I could have been specific about the chords. But if I had said that in Bar 4 we go to A7, it is only information. In a piece of music, going to the V chord has a very specific significance. In a blues tune, going to the V chord in Bar 4 is an unusual thing to do, so this is something that immediately stands out for us, and commands our attention. Bill doesn’t care that it’s an A7, and to tell the truth neither do Igor and I. But it’s a V chord where we wouldn’t ordinarily expect it, and that is something that is going to catch the ear, and we need to pay attention. Relationships are universal, names are transitory. In terms of understanding the song, this is informationally rich.
Plus, if after that first runthrough I had realized that the key of D was totally wrong for my voice and we had needed to transpose it on the fly, relationships are transferrable. In a chord name world, if we had needed to take it down to C for my voice, the conversation would have been, “Okay, instead of D7 play C7, instead of A7 play G7, and where we used to play G7s, make them F7s.” In my world the conversation would have been, “Okay, let’s try that in C and see if it suits my voice better. 1-2-3-4…”