In my private lessons, I’ve been talking a lot about spotting chords in the tunes my students are learning. I’ve written in previous blogs about how I believe that knowing the shapes of the chords in tunes can help your ear training. Tunes are full of arpeggiated chords and chords form shapes on the fingerboard. Being able to recognize a chord-type melodic fragment and associating it with a finger pattern can help you nail down tunes quicker. You will know what type of frame the melody produces on the finger board. We inherently learn a lot of these shapes just by learning many tunes over time. However, practicing arpeggios is a good suppliment to nailing down these shapes.
This reel, Spey is Spate by the great Scottish composer James Scott Skinner, is a great example of tune containing arpreggios. Not all tunes contain as many blatent arpeggios as this, but most contain a significant amount of chord shapes whether as a direct arpeggio or hidden with some passing tones. It’s in the key of D major. The main chord shapes a tune in this key will spell out are
D major: D F# A
E minor: E G B
G major: G B D
A or A7: A C# E (G)
Before looking at the tune for chords, acquaint yourself in the key of D major by playing through the arpeggios I outlined above. Listen to the mp3 of the tune. Do you hear these chords in the tune?
Let’s work through the first four bars of the tune:
In the first bar we have a straight ahead D major arpeggio. In the third bar, we find the notes of the Em arpeggio. And in the fourth bar, the notes of the A7 arpeggio. After practicing these arpeggios and getting used to the sounds and shapes of them, see if you can find them in the rest of the tune.
My last post about using the melodies of tunes as guides to finding chords generated a lot of feedback. The questions I heard most were ‘How do I learn what notes are in the chords?’ and ‘How do I know what chords are in what key?’
A good place to start learning chords is to work within a particular key – maybe a key that you know a lot of tunes in or are learning tunes in. If you are not sure how to find the chords within a key, I’ll give you a start here with how to find the chords in a major key.
For the chords we are concerned with here, they all come from the notes in the scale. Let’s use A major as an example:
If we stack the notes vertically in thirds, we get our triads in the key. You’ll notice that I assigned each note in the scale a roman numeral. This is why you hear musicians talk about the ‘one chord’ or ‘five chord’, etc. They are referring to it’s place within a key. In A major, the one chord is A major. It’s the chord built from the first note in the scale. The five chord is E major. It’s the chord built from the fifth note in the scale. Thinking of chords in this way allows you to easily transpose.
The pattern of the quality of the chords is always the same for major keys.
I is major
ii is minor
iii is minor
For tunes in a major key, the chords we are most concerned with are the I, the IV, the V and the ii. So in A major, this is A, D, E and B minor. No matter what instrument you play, a good place to start learning these chords is to play the arpeggios. That way, you really begin to understand what the chord tones are for each chord. Once you begin to get those under your fingers, you will soon see these arpeggios in the tunes. Some tunes are more arpeggiated then others but they all contain them in some form.
You can do this for any major key:
Write out the scale
Stack the notes vertically in thirds (make sure you include all sharps and flats)
Play the arpeggios of the I, IV, V and ii chords.
Hope this post gives you a start in learning chords!