Once Upon a Time

by Mark Dvorak

There is a thing I came upon and worked out so long ago, it has become more like second nature and I guess I have been wrong in assuming that everyone is able to do it and make it work for themselves. Long before the internet, if you wanted to learn a song you had to get the chords from a book or learn them from a friend. Some people I knew had taken actual music lessons to learn things “correctly,” but that’s a whole other can of worms.

Slowly I came to realize that many of the songs I really loved and wanted to learn were off the beaten path, so to speak. No teacher that I knew of could show me how to play them. They weren’t in the songbooks at the store and for the most part my friends hadn’t heard them before and weren’t always sure what I was talking about. I spent time combing the stacks in different libraries in the area. There I found plenty of things to be interested in but little of what I was there to try and hunt down. But back in the car or while walking, or at work, I’d hear them again and again on the inside. I’d hear the songs.

The only course of action remaining was to attempt to learn songs straight from the recordings. LPs in those days. Later cassette tape. I had no idea where or even how to begin. With nobody to watch or ask, the recorded music rushed past my ears so quickly. After a time I began to be able to tell when the chords changed, but stabbing at what I thought they might be and what was coming out of the speakers were often very different things.

One afternoon by chance, I was lying on the bed in my room reading, listening to music, guitar leaning in the corner. The title of the record I was listening to isn’t important, but the side had played through and I stood to flip the disc over on the turntable. Stepping past my guitar I plucked one of the strings out of habit and it rang and I stopped in my tracks. The open G string I had plucked matched perfectly with the echo of the last chord of the last song on the side of the record I happened to be listening to. I sat back down on the bed.

Something had just happened. The urge to pick up my guitar and start fishing around for the chords to the song grew into a sort of panic. If I made another sound on the guitar, what would the odds be that it might lead to something? One the other hand, the odds of me becoming distracted were high and that flailing away on the guitar might wash away forever the thing still in my ear. I plucked the G string again. I decided to play the end last song on the record again. After a few trIes at sounding different strings in hopes of hearing another match I decided to start the record over, this time from the beginning. 

When the guy started singing, I plucked the G string on the very first beat of the measure and continued to pluck G every four counts. Sometimes it seemed my G note agreed with what was happening. Other times not so much. Then there were times when it only sort of did, which was very confounding.

And there I was thinking and analyzing. And I stopped listening. I never made it once through the whole recording with this method, but when the track ended I plucked G again, just as before. Ahh. It ends on G.

Later on I would learn what it means when a song resolves. The song resolves on G. Around that same time I also learned the word tonic. A rather fancy term that has nothing to do with gin and ice or limes. The tonic is the root tone of a given organization of sounds. The song resolves on the tonic, and the tonic is G.

The word diatonic refers to a specific organization of sounds commonly called a key. The G then in the song, is the tonic of the key of G major. Paging through my song books, I took note of the chord each song ended on, and I began to notice a regular coincidence. A song ending on a C chord usually also had an F and a G chord in there. Sometimes others. A song that ended on an A chord, often also had a D and an E. Or E7.

If you’re old enough to remember the film, “The Sound of Music,” you remember Julie Andrews singing, “Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun…” She is singing the major scale without a designated key: Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. Guitarists don’t generally use these syllables to define diatonic scale tones, they usually number them one through eight

In the key of G major then, we can assign the tones starting on G to each of these intervals, like this: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. The seventh tone is F#. For right now try not to worry about why. If you can play a G major scale on your guitar, or any instrument, do it. You’ll notice that F# matches the “ti” in Julie Andrews song. A regular F note, or F natural, doesn’t work in that situation. No drink, no jam, no bread.

So I wrote all of this out on a piece of paper. The numbers one through eight over the scale tones G though octave G. And then I looked at it for a long time. What was missing was the knowledge that a chord can be built from each of these scale tones. What was missing was the knowledge of how chords are built.

For now it’s important to know that the collection of tones built upon G in the key of G major, create a chord also called G major. That’s the tonic. The next interval tone in the scale is A. The collection of tones from the G major scale starting with A create a chord called A minor, or Am. The tones built upon a B in the key of G major create B minor. And so on:

(1)G, (2)Am, (3)Bm, (4)C, (5)D, (6)Em, (7)F#º, (8)G

So now I had the information and the tools to begin the detective work of finding the chord progression to the song. I knew now that it ended on a G major chord, and as it turns out, the  song also began on a G major chord. As I replayed the record listening for the place where the first chord change came, I strummed out first an Am chord. Nope. Then Bm. Nope. And the rest of them until one seemed to match. I wrote that down. The chord built from the seventh tone, F# diminished is pretty hard to finger so at that time I decided to ignore it. I suspected the song I was working on was built more simply and wouldn’t require something that sounded so exotic or wasn’t so difficult to play.

Then I listened for the next chord change and went through the sequence again. Pure detective work. Somewhere in the middle of the progression it returned to G and I was able to hear it. As I played the track over and over again it became easier to imitate the strum I was hearing on the recorded performance, and it became easier to hear when the chords I was playing matched what what was coming out of the speakers.

Songs constructed to simple progressions often only use chords built from the first scale tone, the fourth scale tone and the fifth scale tone. These are commonly referred to as the One, Four and Five. A lot of times you’ll see them written out in Roman numerals: I, IV, V.

Sixteen measures is a very common structure for a chord progression. Sometimes eight measures, other times thirty-two. Sixteen is the most common and there are thousands and thousands of songs which only use the One, Four, Five chords. The next most common chord is the chord built from the sixth scale tone, called the relative minor, and you’ll hear it used in all sorts of songs from country to rock to pop and folk.

Like a good story, every song begins with some form of “Once upon a time…” Maybe it’s an introduction or a melodic figure. Maybe it’s a chord phrase or some rhythmic pattern. “Once upon a time…” gets the listener into the narrative of the song, musically or lyrically. Soon other characters are introduced and other circumstances begin to emerge. We journey through changing chord systems and key changes. We are carried through unexpected melodic turns and are lifted by dramatic tension and released back into familiar balance and repetition. On the bones of a diatonic scale chord tones become colors, language and instrumentation the heartbeat and breathing of a newborn song. That heartbeat and breathing are yours and no one else’s, and they have been there all along, since the beginning of time.

And when it’s time to  begin looking for that heartbeat and breathing, start looking for the tonic. You won’t always find it in “Once upon a time…” but you can almost always find it in “…and they lived happily ever after.”


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