Musical Language - June 26, 1999

Music is a language. Any principle that we know about learning a verbal language applies to music as well. For example, when we first learn to speak a foreign language, we concentrate intently on forming our mouth to make new sounds. We fish through our minds to come up with
the words and to construct the sentences that will express what we want to say. Later, when we are fluent in the language, we don't think about what our tongue, lips, and jaw muscles are doing when we speak. Usually, in normal conversation, we don't think too hard about how to say something; we just say it. When we play guitar, first we go through a process of intense concentration on the fingers, building the strength, coordination, and independence to make them cooperate. We have to think about every note and chord, and sometimes go through complicated computations in our mind to find what we are looking for. As we become more skilled, these processes become more automatic. We have a feeling, that feeling gets translated into a sound, the sound is translated to a place on the guitar, and the fingers respond. It all happens spontaneously and simultaneously. It is a very similar process to speaking. We speak through our instrument. We play.

With this in mind, I believe it is important for the musician to develop reflexes to respond to whatever musical stimuli emerge. Our ear may be the strongest ally we have, because if we hear a sound and can identify it, we can then find the means to play it. If we try to play a piece without being able to hear what is going on, it is similar to trying to learn a speech in a foreign language we don't understand. 

When I talk about "what is going on," I am referring to something even deeper than identifying the intervals. Music is saying something. When I play music, I am aware of an array of abstract feelings, thoughts, and images that flood through the melodies and chords. I hear more than intervals in music; I hear the atmosphere that those intervals create. The following is a list of some of the more basic associations that I make. Please bear in mind that these are only my associations. Yours might be quite different. It's not as if you can say, "A 'C' chord isn't green, you idiot, it's red!" The important thing isn't what your associations are, it's that you have some. (By the way, for the record, a 'C' chord is blue-green.) Anyway, here are some of the associations I make with some some basic chords and intervals:

Root-home. Grounded, secure, no pull to go anywhere.

Major 3rd-light, day.

Minor 3rd-dark, night.

Major 7th-sky, ethereal, floating.

Dominant 7th-earth, tension, blues.

6th-cool, man. 

If a 7th is hot, a six is cool.
Perfect 5th-a plateau, a ledge. Not the top of the mountain, but a level peak, a resting point.
4th-add a 4th to a chord, and you have a suspension. Here is a musical term which truly describes what is going on. A 4th feels suspended.
2nd-another suspension. This one doesn't feel quite so up in the air to me. Maybe you're suspended but you have some kind of lifeline to hang on to, whereas a 4th feels more like hanging out in no man's land. 

These are some of the more basic associations I make with generic chords in no particular context. When you throw them into the musical soup, it can get much more complicated than this. But I use these as examples of the kinds of images that music conjures up for me. What are yours? 



Old School, by Paul Chasman and the "Great Gatleys"


Accompanied by Dan and Laurie Gatley on bass and vocals, Paul Chasman returns with 11 new original tunes that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. With his trademark sparkling guitar at the forefront, Paul’s poetic lyrics contrast life and mortality; grief and celebration; and light that penetrates the dark.