Chords For Dummies

Often while reading musical reviews or discussions of Ilaiyaraaja (or any genre of music that evolved in the past 50 years for that matter) a popular 'hip' word that one comes across is Chord. While a formal definition or a technical description of that word is available all over the internet, you are expected to be musically 'educated' or at least be aware of the basic anatomy of music to understand those references. Getting more confused, you would usually run for cover to your flamboyant 'expert' next door on the internet. Since he is often throwing this fancy word at you and proclaims to no end that "Wow..What Superb Chords..", you ask him "What exactly is this 'chord' thing? Can you pin point?" or "I am terrified by these Major 7th or minor 9th chords that you mentioned? what are they?", you will most likely see faces that resemble a rabbit caught under the headlamps midway down the road and receive "Hee Hee... Oh.. Adhuva..!!" as the answer.

Many years ago as a novice Carnatic initiated when I started hearing these terms, at least that's the response I received from the umpteen number of guys whom I approached thinking that they were 'Genius' (because of the way how they presented themselves and fooled around innocent people with their Jargon laden talks)

That was the time when I was scared to death by the western classical music in general and the concept of Chords in particular.. With no reliable guidance, with no internet and with no means to practice, all I had was Raaja's songs and loads of determination.. The quality of music tracks then was not of as much crystal clear quality as today, nor did I had these super gadgets of "bass boosting" players or "noise reduction" headphones or "rip off" softwares to eliminate unwanted tracks and just listen to the sound you want in isolation. With a worn-out 2 in one cassette player (which, to copy the popular comical Tamil Adage - would not even fetch me any date fruits!!) and with my ears pressed against its speakers in a manner that would put water tight Swiss watches to shame, I would rewind any given Raaja song at least a hundred times just to play back phrases of two seconds again and again until that exotic chord was fished out of the abyss from deep beneath the vocals and rhythm and the recording noise..

I had many such Raaja songs that served as personal companions to overcome my Chordophobia" :-) The lesser known "Vaanengum Thanga Veen Meengal" from the movie 'Moondram Pirai' is one such song..

As a beginner, You just have to listen to the prelude of this song to get your first direct rendezvous with the Chords..

What you keep hearing in the Prelude of this song until the Flute starts are all nothing but chords.. (Well, the chords continue in the background after the flute starts as well.. but in the first few bars you hear pure unadulterated sound of how a chord feels)

(I already used a term called 'BAR'.. Lets assume a person with little technical background of music hears this song. To initiate him/ her as well as to bolster everyone's basics, lets proceed using some simple non-technical words; So I split this post into two halfs.. Beginner's lounge is the main blog post and I leave the 'technical' stuff separately on the Appendix so that the main post remains lucid)

Part I - Chords For Dummies:

Stage 1: Identify a 'Bar'

The song starts with plain guitar sound played periodically..That is, in the prelude of this song, if you simply start counting 1 2 3 4 along with the song's speed, you will here this. As you go on and hear the prelude you will also realize that there is a repeating pattern to this guitar sound.. And you will 'feel' this repetition involuntarily after every 4 counts..

Hearing that clip again you can recap to be sure that what you heard lasted for 4 counts. This is called One Bar, or rather this lasted for the duration of one Bar. (Please note that a Bar doesn't always last for 4 counts universally in all songs. Songs with 3 counts, 5 Counts, 6 counts and 7 Counts bar are also common in Indian/ World music, although not as common as 4 count based Bars.)
Exercise 1:
Listen to this prelude bit. How Many Bars did you listen?

Stage 2: How does a given Chord Actually 'sound'?

Lets take the same reference bit used for illustration of stage 1. In this one bar of music, you heard a SAME guitar sound through out (although on your 4th count you heard two sounds played fastly. But Lets ignore how that 4th count was divided for the moment)

What you just heard is nothing but a MAJOR CHORD played each time when you counted 1 or 2 or 3 or (the two quick sounds on) 4 . This is an example in isolation, of how a given Chord 'Sounds'.. (a given major chord in this case)
Exercise 2:
Listen to this famous song. Except for the Janaki's voice, what else did you notice in the background?

Stage 2b: Something Extra
Having known how a chord actually sounds, now lets go to the next challenge. That is to identify a slightly more complex 'sound'. "Vaanengum" was the song that helped me grasp the concept of Major 7th chords.. So I would like to continue with it for the illustration..

(For your ready reference, here is the the First bar again.) Now you can already notice that when the second bar starts, the 'sound' of music (!) slightly changed.

Second bar = counts 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 = Guitar in the same PATTERN as the 1st bar.. but the SOUND OF THE CHORD IS DIFFERENT


What you just heard during the counts 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 is nothing but a MAJOR 7th CHORD..

So dear readers, again as I noted before, the objective here is not to get you technically savvy of a Major 7th chord's anatomy. But just to enable you to listen to a (relatively) 'special' type of chord in isolation. That's all.

Mini coffee break:
So now Raaja conducts a revision to you so that you can understand doubly for sure what you have learnt now .. Because the whole stuff is neatly repeated for you..

So here are the first 4 bars of this mystical song.
You have already mastered the first 2 bars.
Third Bar = same as First bar (Feel the sound of a chord.. note where the bar ends)
Fourth bar = Same as Second bar (You started a new beat cycle now.. What you are hearing is a relatively special chord);
Exercise 3:
Hear to this bit. (This is the prelude of the song "Kiss Me" from the band 'Six pence none the richer')
Please focus on the first two bars. What is the similarity that you noticed with the "Vaanengum" Song?
Additional Q: How many bars did you listen now ? ;-)

Closing Note:
I want to close by saying that, its very easy to learn the concept of chords just by following Raaja's songs.. No other source is needed.. I for one am eternally thankful to Raaja for this..

I am still scared to death by these concepts and by no means capable of dissecting and analyzing each and every chord of Raaja's songs..But now the difference is that at least I know 'what' I am scared off.. I know the face of this mysterious force, as opposed to get chickened out by the fear of the unknown..

I feel this post's objective is met if you also sign off with the same feeling..

With Love

PS: For the 'Key' of all exercises, refer to the bottom of this post.. If you got them right please pat yourself at the back and of course please do let me know how you fared.

Appendix - An inside view:
This is more of an 'Absolute' interpretation of the samples used so that the musically initiated readers can take home more. Please don't bother yourself with it if you think its too much of information.

1. The First bar of Vaanengum is actually a F# Major chord.
(To be specific, one can feel this chord already relates to the Aadhara Shruthi of the song.. so this chord is nothing but the the Root major of the song.. i.e., the song's key signature is F#). To be more technically correct its played with the omission of the Major third (i.e., A#) on one track and with the inversion of "5 + 1 + 3" (instead of "1+3+5") in another faint track. The bass is played on the alternating half count and is touching the root note F#.

2. The Second bar of Vaanengum is actually the M7th of the ROOT. i.e., its the F# Major 7th chord which in turn is nothing but the F# Major chord + its 7th note on the major scale which is 'F'. (Major 7ths are also noted as M7th for simplification). As a matter of fact the prominent chord sound that you heard in the bar appear more like the minor triad of the Major Third (i.e., A# minor). Its the bass which still anchors at F# which reassures the final Major 7th delivery (i.e., Bass of F# note + the A# minor traid = F# Major 7th)

(Extended) Stage 3 : Chord progressions:

Now lets go to the next step called CHORD PROGRESSION, which is not exactly worth loosing your sleep right now if you are a beginner. On the other hand, now that you know how a chord sounds, you may still follow this section to merely know the "Changing of Chords" in a bar/ set of bars.

Fifth Bar = G#m G#m G#m F#/C# = minor Triad of the major second (i.e., G# minor traid for 3 counts) and the root F# major on the last count of this bar. (Please note that the last F# major is notated as F#/C# since its played with the inversion of 5+1+3 suggesting that its F# major chord played with the inversion of bass note as C#) .
So this is Second Progression Down

Sixth Bar = B B B C# = Perfect Major fourth on first 3 counts and perfect Major 5th on the last count.. So right from the beginning of prelude the progression can be (roughly) summarized as: F# - G#m - F# (With the emphasize on A#) - B - C# .
This is a lucid Fifth Progression UP that loops back to the root when the flute starts..

This is relatively a heavy topic.. So lets park it for now..

Key for the exercises:

Exercise 1:
4 bars

Exercise 2:
Chords.. Chords.. மேலும் Chords:-)
(To be exact, the chords that you heard are of the sequence:
Am F A| A Dm - F|Em G C Am|F E Am||)

Exercise 3: The similarity between Vaanengum and Kiss Me is that:
First Bar = Root Major chord
Second Bar = Root Major 7th chord
i.e., the chords of the opening two bars are of same make. Even though the key signature of both the songs is different (Vaanengum is F# and Kiss me is D), similarity can be clearly felt in respective 'relative' descents. Kiss Me's progression is: Root - Major7th - 7th - Major 7th (i.e., D - DM7th - D7th - DM7th). So if this helped you to make the 'connection' and 'receive' the 'sound' of a major chord and its major seventh together, then you cracked it..
Additional Q: There were 8 bars in that original Exercise 3 question.

Note: we discussed about just the Major7th in this post. We didn't touch upon the dominant seventh (a.k.a 'THE' 7th) type of chords (that I mentioned in Kiss Me's progression); There are various types of chords and each of them has a distinct character. We just touched upon two (popular) variety. Thats all.. If there is enough interest, lets see if we can extend this exercise to each of the known types using Raaja's songs.

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