Think of your favorite song and I promise you it has some dissonance. Dissonance is a somewhat “off-putting” feeling or sound that you experience in a song. The only way dissonance works is that it resolves to something non-dissonant. Music is just like life, it just simply can’t be all smooth and perfect.
There is nothing better than tension in a song. Properly paired with words, a dissonant tension can really grab you and make you feel connected with the song.
Here are some examples of dissonance in a few songs.
- Neil Youngs “Old Man”. The tune starts off this the dissonance before resolving to the D (I chord).
- The Doors “Not to Touch the Earth”. Each verse is dissonant. Listen to the first 45 seconds of the song before the dissonance resolves into the refrain
- Soul Pigeons “From the Mountain”. The main riff of our song has a flat 7th note as it descends and resolves back to the riff
CLICK HERE to hear a playlist of these songs
The most common places to use dissonances is in a bridge or musical transition into a lead. For example, a V7 chord is a chord that naturally wants to resolve to the I chord. By substituting a diminished chord for the V7 you instantly create a very displeasing tension that begs resolution.
I would wager that every one of your favorite songs are using V7 chords that resolve to the 1 chord!
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There are some truly brilliant songwriters out there who are coming up with amazing songs using the most basic chords out there.
Musically, I like to hear something fresh and not the same three chords (I, IV, V). There are a few songwriters that really deliver. Paul Simon would be one songwriter that comes to mind. Paul seems to write amazing songs that have a real breath of musical expression well past the basic three chords! Songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Still Crazy After All These Years.
Then there are plenty of examples of songs with only three chords that take a fresh approach to those basic chords. Using Paul Simon again as an example listen to the song Cecilia. That song only has the three basic chords in G (G, C, and D) but it sounds innovative.
So do the chords make the song? Absolutely not!! Technically a musical works copyright to a song only covers the words and the melody line. The chord structure is not copyrighted. Why is that? Because it’s simply not necessary and, more importantly, it’s not possible. In any given musical key there are only 7 chords. If chord progressions were able to be copyrighted we would only have 1 or 2 songs from the 50’s and 60’s rock and roll era!!! Nearly every rock and roll song uses a I, IV, V or I, vi, IV, V progression.
Lastly consider jazz as a musical form. Many jazz artists take a classic melody and change the chord structure behind the music. One perfect example is John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. This amazing version is considered a legal cover of the original song written by Rogers and Hammerstein.
So there you have it, chords mean absolutely nothing to the basic composition except musical accompaniment. Chords do, however, make it far more interesting! Take a listen to Shoe Commercial by Soul Pigeon for an example of a basic three chord progression but with added voicings to the chords.