Monday, November 29, 2010

Music Theory For Poets #1

There are a lot of musical terms in The Spring Ghazals—makes sense: in addition to being a poet, I’m also a musician & music teacher.  When writing lyric poetry I believe the poet’s senses should be engaged, & music is certainly one of the things I hear the most.

However, with some exceptions, the musical references that come up in The Spring Ghazals have less to do with “songs” than with musical moments or musical figures.  In particular, it has to do with chords & scales—after all, these are the building blocks from which music is made.

When talking about chords & scales, one can toss a lot of numbers & letters around.  This is true because a scale, in addition to being do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do can also be expressed in the numbers 1 thru 8; it can also be expressed alphebtically in letters between A & G, with & without sharps & flats.  & since chords are based on various scales, they also are expressed in letters & numbers.

But this is music theory for poets (& if you’re not a self-professed poet, that’s ok—we’re glad to have you along).  Let’s not worry so much about the theories involving various intervals, & instead let’s concentrate on what things sound like.

For instance, one chord that gets mentioned a few times is a chord called a “major 7.”  Here are the examples:

Grace #2

—& here comes another star & it’s just as you say the stars are shattered glass like a C major 7 chord that won’t stop ringing

Helix #5

A flock of guinea hens cackling in the cottonwood
A C major seven a D minor seven transposed a major third
A divided highway at 3:00 a.m.


A daydream sweetly dissonant as a major seven chord swelling in a room—

& here’s what the chord C major 7 sounds like:

  C Major 7 by rfrostbanjo

Isn’t that a pretty sound?  There are several ways to play this chord on a guitar, & they all sound nice, but when I was writing the poem I was thinking of the first way of playing it: low on the neck with lots of deep open strings.  I can tell you that there are four unique tones in a major 7 chord: do, mi, sol & ti.  If you’re good at singing do-re-mi you can probably sing this chord.  The fact that it’s a “C major 7” simply means that in this case, “do” is C.  When do becomes a different note, some ways of sounding the chord will seem a bit different—for instance, you can listen to a D major 7, an F major 7 & an A major 7 & hear that there’s something a bit different about each, tho the overall sound quality is the same.  That’s because the notes are sounded in different order in relationship to each other depending on which guitar strings are fretted & which (if any) are left open. 

  Major 7 in different keys by rfrostbanjo

Now this is a “major chord.” We can put aside for a moment the different intervals that distinguish between a major & a minor chord; but if you have any musical background to speak of, you probably know that a major chord sounds—well—more “happy,” more “bright,” more “positive,” while a minor chord sounds more “sad,” more “dark,” more “negative.”  Yet the major 7 chord has a kind of melancholy ring to it, doesn’t it? 

I do think most folks hear this.  It’s a bittersweet chord.  If you listen to bossa nova music, you hear this chord a lot in various keys—just as one example, a major 7 chord is the first chord played in the song “The Girl from Impanema.”

OK, so if this is a major chord, why does it have that bittersweet edge?  I’ll tell you.  Because if you broke the four tones of the chord down into parts & rearranged them, you could make both a full major chord & a full minor chord.  Wild, isn’t it?  In the case of the C maj 7, you have all the constiuents of both a regular old C major chord & a regular old Em chord.  You can hear these—then hear how the C major 7 combines them! 

  C major E minor by rfrostbanjo

That’s enough for today—almost; you can check out yours truly playing the song “Rubato Kangaroo in the final mp3.  I wrote this guitar part several years ago, & guess what?  It starts off with a C major 7 chord!  

  Rubato Kangaroo-guitar by rfrostbanjo 

Next time around (probably Wednesday morning): what makes a major chord “major” & a minor chord “minor?”  Hope to see you then.

All sounds recorded using my well-loved ’58 Harmony archtop as seen in the pic!  Except "Rubato Kangaroo" was recorded with an electric guitar.


  1. what a delightfully educational post...not only in regards to music but equally important ... to your poetry. Gives me a different/deeper listening to your poetry. Thanks John!!!!

  2. Hi Heather: Thanks! So glad you liked it. Since you're under the weather, this can be your lesson for the day. Should have another up on Wednesday on the difference between major & minor.

  3. You've got me singing America's, "Tin Man" now, John. This is a great idea. I really enjoyed it. I know piano music, but guitars are a mystery to me.


  4. Hi Kat: Ah yes, that's definitely got a major 7 in it! So glad you liked the post. I'll keep 'em coming.

  5. Kat's way ahead of me. It's all a mystery to me, but here I am, enlightened on the subject of chords, and waiting to learn more. I'm irresistibly drawn to what I understand least - music and math are high on the list. Thanks for this. The technology of it alone is incredible. Those nifty little bars full of music.

  6. Hi Sheila: More to come on Wednesday--the mysteries of major versus minor! Yes, the Soundcloud embedded players are cool in that they show a slightly compressed image of the actual sound wave.

    I have no mind for math, I really don't. I would like to have studied the sciences more, especially physics. Fortunately in music, if you can count to 8--or maybe 12 or so at the outside--you're in pretty good shape.

    Thanks for stopping by & for publicizing this on Twitter.

  7. This is fascinating. Unfortunately very susceptible to suggestion, I now cannot get "The Girl from Impanema" out of my head.

  8. Hi Jacqueline: Sorry! Eberle has found that singing "Polly Wolly Doodle" will chase out any earworm. Hope that helps!

  9. No, then I get stuck with that for the rest of the day.

  10. Hi Jacqueline: I see your point. Eberle claims that doesn't happen for some reason with Polly Wolly Doodle, but I can understand not wanting to risk it!