Creating Color with Chords, Part 2

Chord sequences contribute with color. They are one of your tools for creating the right emotional ambiance. The workings of this is quite complex. We discuss it in various blogposts. In this one, we’ll focus on one important aspect. A chords placement within the key.

In the previous blogpost we discussed how chord tones are related to scale degrees and how they code for emotional charge. If you haven’t yet red that blogpost, you might want to read it before reading this one.

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Creating Color with Chords,
Part 2

Placement – what do you mean?

The way we hear chords and their color tones is affected by the placement of the chords. By placement, we are not referring to where in time a chord is placed – if it’s the second of the third chord in your sequence. Instead we’re talking about it’s relation to the key. Like this:
A key is based on one of the diatonic scales, most often the major or one of the minor scales. Chords that are found within the key (diatonic chords) are placed on one of the scale degrees (the scale degree acts as its root note) and comprised solely of notes found within the scale.
Chords outside the key can also be placed on one of the scale degrees of the founding scale, but they will contain one, or a few, notes not found in the scale. A bit further away from the key are chords which root notes are not found in the scale.

This you need to know

A color tone (also called a chord extension) is actually not just one singel note – it is an intervall, a distance in pitch between the root note of the chord and the color tone itself. This gives that the tone is dependent on the root note for its color (!). If the root note has a less obvious presence, or has its authority questioned by some other note, the color of the color tone might fade. It might even take on another hue.

So, what about color and placement of chords?

Let’s say that you want to exploit the strong character of a the augmented fourth. You want to use it in your chord to give it lots of color. The augmented fourth carries a dreamlike, slightly eerie feel. You can hear it in the opening chord of Stina Nordenstams tune The Diver, or as the first chord in the Lead Theme From the HBO series Six Feet Under. These example chords are not structured exactly the same but they both feature the augmented fourth as their ”main attraction”. In chords, a fourth is more often called an eleventh, specially in cases where the chord also contains a third. From now on we’ll call the augmented fourth: #11.

In both our music examples the chords containing the #11 tone is the first thing we get to hear, therefore we perceive the root note as being the central tone of the music. There is no other note to rival it, and thus the color of the #11 tone is distinctive, and just as eerie as expected.

Now listen to Jeanette, Isabella by Tori Amos. It’s a song in D major. The tone d is played steadily as the base note the first 40 seconds of the song, which is pendulum movement between the two chords D and G. The intro is actually a variation on the chorus. The first chorus (at 1:14) features the bass playing the root notes of both chord. The G chord (1:17) now features the #11 color tone quite prominently (the note c sharp), but here, the tone no longer creates the ghostly ambience it did in the other two songs discussed. Despite the #11 color tone, the G chord blends in well in the warm atmosphere of the D major key. How can this be?

This is why

The central tone of the key (the note d) rivals the root note of the chord (g) as a reference tone. It radically changes the way we hear the #11 tone of the G chord. The chord creates color all right, but of a different kind. Together with the central tone it forms a major seventh. Some of that color is blended into the overall impression.

The ”weight” of the root note affects the color of the chord extension
The G chord is a diatonic chord. All of its notes, even the #11 tone, can be found within the key. You would think this is the primary reason for why the character of the chord extension is so drastically altered, but it is in fact not. It is quite possible to use the same chord, on the same scale degree, but have it retain most of its characteristic ambience. It all comes down to how much ”weight” is given to the root note of the chord. Preceded by a leading chord progression, the chord can be perceived as a temporal tonic, or possibly a new tonic. The more weight and prominence you give the root note, the more of its original color the chord extension will retain. Ending a song on a chord will also quite often give the chord somewhat of a tonic character.

Learn more

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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