Notes vs. Chords

Thanks to my desire to learn how to improvise jazz (and the work/study involved in that goal), I’m now on the verge of a completely-new personal understanding of the plectrum banjo. More and more lately, I’ve been having brief flashes of insight (some even in my dreams) that seem crystal-clear, but then vanish in another flash when noticed (like trying to catch a shy, wary cat for a trip to the vet). I’m not sure how to describe it, but trying to is part of my effort to break through the ice. I also want to figure out how to teach this to others. If ever I’ve written a “mind-clearing/organizing” blog, this one is it; please bear with me as I struggle for coherent thoughts.

I’ve said a few times in my recent jazz improv lessons that “scales are much more important than chords”; while I whole-heartedly believe this jazz musician’s maxim (I sure as heck didn’t invent it), I’ve had no way to qualify it with reasons other than the over-generalized “because I said so.” All I know is that most jazz guitarists and pianists I’ve known are all over it (along with a few outstanding banjoists who I have observed—most of whom also play guitar). Jazz horn players often know it as well, simply because they cannot play “chords” on their instrument, and thus have to communicate by using single notes. I know that Joe Pass (my favorite jazz guitarist besides Django) has written about this; maybe I need to get his book. If any of my readers already “have it,” I’ll ask for a little patience while this boneheaded banjo player catches up; of course, any advice on the subject would be greatly appreciated.

In my flashes, I realize that it’s not necessarily “scales” per se that are more important, but single notes. Chords of course are made up of single notes organized in very-specific intervals for the sound that the music demands, resulting in easy-to-learn “shapes” (and massive books that show “every” chord possible!). These shapes should be thought of as nothing more than evolutionary place holders, used to get the job done while you continue your lifelong studies on how harmony actually works. Scales are just a handy way of organizing the notes (as are chords), and creating moving harmonies (which in turn result in more chords).

The gradual realization I’m having is that it’s a question of which came first; the notes or the chord? What if, instead of thinking in chord shapes, you think in terms of “using the notes necessary to make the sound that you want,” regardless of prior knowledge or the resulting chord shape? If you hear music really well, you don’t even have to think of the individual note names—just their aural relationships to each other! I’m beginning to work on some lessons that will teach this.

It may be easier to teach a beginner this than a player who has learned and become dependent on chord shapes (like me)! I’ve always said that I have had to unlearn my bad habits in order to develop new, good ones; advancement in anything is often more a process of letting go of the bad than it is of embracing the good. A practical, working knowledge of active harmony—as opposed to static chord shapes (a limited/limiting paradigm literally embodied by the Chord Melody style)—is proving to be the best good habit I could wish for!

There are two paths to this breakthrough: #1, you have no schooling or traditional “knowledge” whatsoever, and just play what your ear tells you is correct; or #2, you have so much schooling or knowledge that you can knowingly choose the notes that you want. I am musically “gifted,” but there are limitations to it; I hear the simple Chord Melody chords really well (and can fake my way through just about anything, using bone head harmonies), but an understanding of more-sophisticated jazz voicings and moving harmonies is requiring some pretty hard work on my part. Maybe I am a “natural” at this after all, and just needed a bit of schooling to break the dam?

I’ve never been very good at the “what chord is that” game; stop me mid-flight and ask “what chord is that,” and you’ll probably have to wait a few minutes for me to figure out what to call it (even having to name simple chords can catch me off guard, sending me into a buzz-killing death spiral)! Realize that a chord’s “name” is often dependent on the context within which it is used; the same group of notes can have several names, only one of which would be “the best answer” for the context (and sometimes best answer is as close as you can get!).

If the notes are “correct” (or at least appropriate), what does it matter if you know the chord name or not? Maybe my sub-conscious mind has kept me from wasting my time learning that stuff, knowing that there was something bigger and better waiting for me around the bend?

After deriding the concept of “just let it happen” in my recent I’ve Tried Everything blog, I’m realizing that the major thing I need to “let happen” is simply the proper note at the proper (or close to) time. This “proper note” can manifest itself either in a single-note line, or in a group of notes (called a “chord” by the less enlightened); learning scales/arpeggios et al is the best physical and mental route to knowing what those notes are and where to find it. Need justification? There it is! Take it or leave it!

Hmm, just thought of an analogy: Writing as a means of deeper understanding (challenging myself in a public forum to find an answer) is exactly like learning a scale; I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I know that buckling down and doing it will lead me to the next step. This method seems to work for me, and I hope that reading my resulting musings works for you. Please comment, so I will know if it does work, and so I can learn from my mistakes. . .er. . .blogs. Of course, short of commenting, knowing how these things relate to your own quest would be of great assistance to my self-teaching educational efforts.

1 comment on “Notes vs. ChordsAdd yours →

  1. Your articles/musings are always helpful and I appreciate the motivation that you provide thru them! They help me to “scale” the repeated block walls that hinder my musical progress on the plectrum banjo! I’ve played bluegrass 5-string for many yrs, some tenor banjo, and uke as well, but i just love the unique qualities that I continue to discover in the plectrum! It really is a versatile instrument!! Your advice has opened many helpful pathways for me! Thanks much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.