Creating Color with Chords, Part 1

Music is all about emotion. Music can be used in thousands of ways, but music in itself is all about expressing emotion. Chords are one of your more important tools! Learn about how chords create emotion, and you will take a lead forward as a songwriter.

Guest Post from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

Creating Color with Chords,
Part 1

How does music express emotions? Lets start by stating that it’s a complicated matter. The mechanisms by which this works are cultural, so It’s not an exact science. Read more about it in Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics (the chapter One Question for the Oracle). Its important that you listen for yourself to chords and chord extensions and develop a feel for what emotional expressions you can create with them.

And by the way, you might want to read our blogpost on diatonic chords before reading this one.

The basics are pretty straight forward

The major scale contains scale degrees. Together with the first scale degree they all form intervals that codes for pleasant emotions. When you raise or flatten them (depending on what scale degree we’re talking about) things will happen, and they will start coding for negative emotions. Easy to remember and useful when you’re trying out different ways of coloring chords.

How does it work?

In music, we code for emotions in the same fashion that speech sounds code for the various concepts of our languages. In speech, the different sounds are presented one after another. In music, the encoding uses combinations of pitches, what we call intervals. A chord tone is an interval! It gets its meaning in relation to the root note of the chord!

Using Intervals, in chords for instance, we can code for one of the two dimensions of emotions: valence, the pleasantness vs unpleasantness of an emotion. The other dimension: activation, is expressed using tempo, rhythm, timing and other things.

This you know already?

The major triad contain a major third, the interval formed by the first and third scale degree of the major scale. It codes for positive valence. So a major triad gives you a happy feel. If you flatten the third it will sound a bit sadder. This, most people know. However, few songwriters are aware that ALL intervals code for emotions, not just the third. the rest of the intervals are just as powerful and important as the third!

How about the sixth?

If you take the lower note of a third an hoist it up an octave, you get a sixth. so, maybe its not such a big surprise that sixths behave in much the same way as thirds? A minor sixth codes for negative valence.

Try playing a perfect fifth. It sounds tranquil and stable (positive valence). Now add a minor sixth. Does it sound happy or sad? Most people will say it sounds sad.

Try the rest for yourself.

Using an ”empty” perfect fifth and adding different notes is a great way of figuring out what character they contribute with. Also, don’t forget to compare the perfect fifth with the diminished fifth, they both have character!

There is more to it!

As said, the tones of a chord get their meaning in relation to other tones. The root note of the chord is often the most important reference, but other notes can be influential too, as you will see in next week’s blogpost.

Music is all about emotion. Choose chords mindfully and remember to take advantage of the many ways of creating emotional charge. Read more about chords and chord color in the book: Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics. We write about the structure of chords in the first book and devote the lion part of the upcoming sequel to chord sequences.


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