Do You Actually KNOW the Song?

Some of you may think you know a song when you can:

  • Play your part (IE guitar line if you’re a guitarist, bassline if you’re a bassists)
  • Play from start to finish without a mistake
  • Play along with the original recording

…but the truth is you can do all of the above and still not KNOW a song.

What does it mean to know a song, completely?

In my opinion, you can’t know a song until you dig into what makes the song tick. A large portion of it is going to involve applying music theory concepts. Some of the things you should look into are:

  • Song structure (repetition and sections)
  • Lyrical theme and structure
  • melody (even if it’s sung by a voice, you should learn it on your instrument)
  • harmony (functional analysis)
  • bassline and chord inversions
  • rhythms
  • the scales or modes being used

Let’s take the song Autumn Leaves for example. By looking at the lyrics, we can understand that the song is about falling autumn leaves reminding us of a love one who has passed. This can guide us through the emotional content of the song and how we might express this emotion with our instruments.

The song form is a common AABC form. This reveals to us that there is a repeated A section at the beginning, with the B and C sections creating contrast. Knowing how the sections are structured can help us memorize large piece of music with less effort.

The rhythm, melody, harmony, and bass are the core musical elements of a song and all of these should be studied on ANY instrument. Yes even bass players should be learning the melody and chords. Drummers too. You can further micro-analyze these elements to identify motifs and smaller structures at play. In Autumn Leaves, there is a very clear four-note melodic motif that opens the song, and is moved in a downward direction. The harmony is based on a circle of fifths movement within the key. In the C section, there are chords that move at a faster harmonic rhythm than the rest of the chords (IE 2 beats per chord vs. a full bar). There is a chromatic bass line in this section as well.

Some songs are quite simple and only stay in one key, but others may modulate. Instead of seeing the song as one continuous progression of chords, identify the different tonal centers that are being used. Autumn Leaves starts in a major key and quickly moves to its relative minor key.

The song is generally played with notes from the major/minor scale of the given key, but at the end of the first A section, the melody is using notes from the melodic minor scale. The presence of a V7b9 chord in the minor key hints at a harmonic minor scale as well.

Why should we study these things? Because while you may be playing someone else’s song, it’s important to put your own identity into it. You cannot do this convincingly without knowing the inner workings of a song. Quite often, the underlying structure will inspire new ideas of how they can be manipulated to create a unique interpretation of any song. Apart from that your musical memory will improve greatly as you discover patterns and structures on the micro and macro level, finding connections between musical elements that first appeared disparate. Finally, it can also inform you on how a great song is written.

Have fun!

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Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!

Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is the Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!