Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, genres, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
S2:E2 – What Makes Country, Country?
At about the same time that poor black people in the South were inventing the blues, poor white people in Appalachia were inventing country music.
The mountains, previously populated by native people, were settled by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants. They brought their music with them but it evolved over the generations.
In the same way that Australia evolved animals that exist nowhere else because it’s an island, the music changed in the isolation of those mountains into something different from the jigs and reels of the British Isles, and different from music anywhere else.
It does share some things with other folk music from around the world. It’s simple music, using only major and minor chords (and sometimes their 7th variations) that anyone can play. I think folk music of all stripes is simple because it wasn’t initially played by professional musicians.
If someone in the family had a guitar, they could spend evenings singing traditional, or soon to be traditional, songs.
Later, some of those singers decided to take it on the road. Playing at church functions and other events would lead the more popular musicians to play live on small radio stations. That’s how the country scene grew and solidified into its own genre.
Like the blues, country often uses only three chords.
Country music is three chords and the truth.Songwriter Harlan Howard
Unlike the blues, it didn’t use the 12 bar blues structure, at least initially. There was some cross-pollination ,and country uses the 12 bar structure here and there.
Consider Hank William’s classic Hey Good Lookin’ and its simple chord structure.
It’s in the key of C major and the three chords are the 1, 2, and 5 chords. However, it doesn’t follow the rules of the music theory created by the great composers of earlier centuries. If it did, the D7 chords would be D minor 7s. The notes in a D7 chord are D, F#, A, and C. That F# is not in the C major scale. (It’s a black key on the piano and the key of C major uses only the white keys.)
In western music theory, it should be an F which would make the chord a D minor 7.
So why did Hank Williams write the song using the “wrong” chord? There are two possibilities.
The first is that he intentionally broke accepted music theory rules to create the atmosphere he intended. That’s something a trained classical or jazz composer would do.
It’s more likely that he was monkeying around with various chords and decided he liked the D7. We know Williams couldn’t read or write music, so he may have been unfamiliar with theory, too. However, musicians who learn through oral tradition have their own kind of intelligence and ingenuity. The ability to write or hear songs and be able to play back takes a kind of talent that doesn’t come from formal education. That, after all, is how music was passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years.
So what makes country different from any other folk music? As the satirical country act Doyle and Debbie sang, “Whine whine, twang twang.”
A lot of it is the limited instrumentation. It’s mostly string instruments: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle (never call it a violin), upright bass, and a few others. Piano and drums are common, too. Brass and woodwinds are rare, and there won’t be a synthesizer unless it’s used to sound like a traditional instrument.
Tradition is important.
In the 1950s and 60s, electric instruments were added. Electric guitars and pedal steels became popular. The Fender Telecaster became the go-to guitar for country players, partly because it was one of the first affordable electric guitars available and partly because, with its pickup close to the bridge, it really twangs.
As an example, here’s Brett Mason and Chuck Ward chicken pickin’ their way through Hot Wired on Telecasters.
Fender and their competitors made another contribution to country music by manufacturing console steel guitars. These were an update of the lap steel guitars which were held, naturally, on the player’s lap. The lap steel is an acoustic instrument and it’s not very loud. The console version was amplified, had legs and could have multiple sets of strings, with each set tuned differently.
Lap steels and pedal steels are played with a slide, which is a rounded piece of metal. While it looks like the “necks” have frets like a guitar, they’re just visual placemarkers. The strings never touch the fretboard. The player moves the slide up and down the length of the strings, and the distance from the bridge to wherever the slide is determines the pitch being played. Additionally, the foot and knee pedals raise or lower the pitch of certain strings, thus creating new chords.
Like the Telecaster, it twangs like all get out. A few rock musicians, like David Gilmore from Pink Floyd and Steve Howe from Yes, play the pedal steel, but it’s primarily a country instrument. Here’s the pedal steel played by Barbara Mandrell in 1975.
It’s worth noting that while country and bluegrass have the same roots and are very similar, bluegrass will never have drums or electric instruments. It also has an emphasis on virtuosity. So much so that bluegrass musicians sometimes play with classical or jazz players. For example, check out Chris Thile’s collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma.
While there are many virtuosic country instrumentalists – Chet Atkins, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, and Roy Clark come to mind – simple songs are usually the key. Performers may impress us, but first and foremost they have to be relatable. The performers have to be ordinary people and not too highfalutin. The songs have to, or appear to, understand our lives and our problems.
The exception to this rule is the costuming and hair. If you’re going to be on stage, give ‘em something to see.
Rhinestone, sequins, and enormous hair and wigs are de rigueur.tnocs.com contributing author and fashion plate bill bois
A lot of what makes country country is in the vocals. While singers in other cultures sing with an open throat, creating a full, round sound, country singers are much more nasal. These voices twang like the Telecaster.
This is only my conjecture and I can’t find any evidence to support or disprove it, but maybe that twangy nasality carried better than an open sound through the hills. If you need someone on the next mountain over, a sound that cuts through the trees and doesn’t sound like birds might work better. Perhaps that’s why country music favors twang.
Part of the twang is singing a little flat and then sliding up to the note. The same thing happens on pedal steel, fiddle, and lead guitar parts. Sometimes this technique sounds off-key to fans of other styles of music, and it drives them crazy.
When vocal harmonies are used, which is often, they are close harmonies. That means all the voices sing notes within an octave of each other. The only exception I can think of is when there’s a low bass voice. He might sing an octave or more lower than everyone else, as heard in Elvira by the Oak Ridge Boys.
Lyrically, country is again similar to the blues:
- Things are bad, we’re poor. We’re being held down by an unfair system.
“You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”
– Sixteen Tons written by Merle Travis, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
- Love fades. “We’ve been thinking about Jackson ever since the fire went out.”
– Jackson written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leber, popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter.
- Life is short. “Don’t blink, you just might miss your babies growing up like mine did.”
– Don’t Blink written by Casey Beathard and Chris Wallin, popularized by Kenny Chesney.
Though some story songs may be fiction, the themes are always about real life. There are no country songs about octopus’s gardens, starship troopers, or the darkest depths of Mordor.
However, where the blues offers hope, country usually offers only commiseration. Your life is hard? So’s mine. If the Good Lord’s willing, we’ll live to see another day. We can complain… but nothing’s going to change.
That’s the message. Whine whine, twang twang, indeed.
Having said that, other important elements are humor and wordplay. They don’t always get used, but country audiences appreciate clever wording.
You’ll note that in the three examples above, the songs were written by someone other than the performers. This is how the recording industry was from Tin Pan Alley up until the 1960s. There were professional songwriters and professional singers, and rarely were they the same people. For example, of the hundreds of songs Frank Sinatra recorded, he only co-wrote seven.
The Beatles came along and changed all that by, eventually, writing their own material.
Almost all rock performers followed suit, but that change didn’t make it over to country music.
There are still professional country songwriters who don’t perform in public.
I live in Nashville and have met a few songwriters with huge hits to their credits. They only get on stage for a writer’s night, or have only been in recording studios to make demos. The guy in the AC/DC t-shirt ahead of me in the Kroger check out line may have written a top ten country hit or two. You never can tell.
That’s a little different from how country started, as family entertainment in the hills far from town. It’s become a huge industry, cranking out product in the same way for decades. In 2013, Tom Petty said current country music is “bad rock with a fiddle,” but he was talking about the major label form of country. There’s a healthy independent country music scene, and you can still find people playing country on their porches and at county fairs, singing honest songs about life’s ups and downs.
Whether it’s homegrown or manufactured, country music is about what the audience, mostly rural white people, have in common.
And it twangs.
Carter Family – Can The Circle Be Unbroken (1935)
Hank Williams- I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1949)
Johnny Cash – I Walk The Line (1936)
Dolly Parton – Jolene (1973)
George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today (1980)
Brad Paisley – Ticks (2007)
Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow (2013)
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