Most guitarists begin playing by learning a few chords. We all remember the thrill of playing our first song after discovering how to form our fingers into distinct shapes and then placing them on the appropriate frets. From that point on, the song list may grow and the chords may become more varied or complex, but the thrill of turning chord shapes into music never dies.
Opening the door to chords and song playing on an instrument as complex as the guitar unfortunately carries no guarantee of an intimate relationship with harmony. However long the list of memorized chord shapes becomes, the notes within the chords may remain a mystery and attempting to determine which chords are in a song can feel like nothing more than an exercise in frustration. What is it about harmony that is so alluring and yet so elusive?
Aspects of the Principal Elements of Music
Of the three principal elements of music (melody, harmony and rhythm), melody boldly claims the leading role. Melody is the part of the music that you hum or whistle. It is the part that sticks in your head (whether you want it to or not!) and the part that most often embodies the selling points of a song. When you want to bring a song to mind for a friend, you sing the tune, or melody. If a song has lyrics, they will ride on the melody, attaching in such a way that the emotions of each become inseparable from the other. No one fails to notice a melody.
The next element in terms of strength is rhythm. Rhythm is visceral and primal. It requires little effort to perceive, as it seeks and steals our attention. Rhythm provides a foundation and support for the whole of a song. Without rhythm, melody becomes vague and difficult, if not impossible, to catch, hold or comprehend. Rhythm is what gets you on your feet at a concert, motivates you toward energetic action in your household chores or prompts you to drum unselfconsciously on the steering wheel of your car at the stoplight. Rhythm is what grooves, swings or rocks!
Harmony, however, is more subtle and complex than the other two principal elements and may therefore be overlooked or underrated by the untrained ear. Harmony is more than a decoration or dressing for the song – it is a fundamental aspect of the structure. But while fulfilling the weighty role of a structural component, harmony is likely be received by the listener as an emotional or sensual quality – one which evokes feelings such as fullness, sweetness, lightness, darkness or any range of moods. Harmony in music is like that taste in a dish that although difficult to identify, is responsible for binding and refining the more obvious flavors, thereby sparking both a need to unravel the mystery of the recipe and a desire to indulge more deeply in its richness.
Where and How Do You Find It?
When you listen to guitar accompaniment or the vocal tracks on a song you are listening to harmony – but how do you hone your ability to extract the individual notes for analysis, study or replication? The key is to open into the right brain, hone your concentration on a single harmonic line and sing what you hear! Singing a note allows you to find and confirm it. In order to achieve efficiency, consistency and accuracy in the search for a note or musical line, singing must precede playing on the instrument.
I realize that not every guitar player embraces the idea of singing. If you resist singing, keep in mind that in order to learn to hear harmony you don’t need good vocal tone, an extensive range or impressive breath control. In fact, it is not necessary for your singing to be heard by any ears but your own. It is necessary, however, to learn to match pitches with your voice (a skill that you will need for lead playing, as well) and to allow your voice to search out and identify chord tones. Some very concrete pathways toward hearing and singing pitches exist and they are yours to use at any time in your musical life.
An Informal Education: Mom, the School Chorus and a Stack of Vinyl
I grew up in a house filled with good records. In addition, I was fortunate to have both a mother with a musically developed ear and a generous elementary school music teacher. Those two talented women taught me to sing harmony at an early age, which, combined with my own patience and tenacity, led to my ability to pick out chords on the guitar, create solo guitar arrangements, invent leads and more.
Although you may not share the benefit of having learned harmony through childhood experiences, there are many ways to receive a natural – and often free – aural education. My mother was unique in her combined abilities to hear and impart musical pitches in a casual, unstructured way, but any person who can sing harmony can assist you in hearing specific pitches. Just ask someone you know who sings harmony to stop at any given point of a song and feed you one or more of the notes in the harmonic line. Better yet, ask that singer to teach you a complete harmony part to a simple, familiar song. After you learn one part and can sing it accurately (and along with the melody), practice it until you are able to do so comfortably without assistance. By the time you’ve gone through this process with a few songs, you will begin to feel confident and adventuresome!
If you don’t know someone who can give you individual attention (or even if you do and just want to put more fun into your life), join a choir! The Condit Elementary School Chorus did wonders for me! Expanding beyond that humble group, I began performing at the age of nine in an a capella vocal trio that my sister, our friend and I formed. (Read about The Starlettes here, where you can also hear us nonchalantly wrap our 10 year-old voices around some pretty sophisticated three-part harmonies!) The time invested in singing harmony over a two year period proved to be more valuable to me than I might have imagined!
Singing in a choir may not seem like an exciting or even relevant venture for a guitar player, but trust me – it is. It’s also a free musical education in more ways than one. The instruction that my ear received in elementary school allowed me to teach myself how to play guitar by sitting for hours at the record player and concentrating, chord by chord, on the songs I wanted to play. Not only did I learn to play guitar, with time and study I was able to acquire other marketable skills, such as composition, transcription and arrangement – all from putting my ear to the speakers and singing what I heard.
The Value of Structured Study
Regardless of your past experience, musical aspirations or current level, you will deepen your knowledge and accelerate your progress through the study of music. As a young adult, I committed to a curriculum that I created toward my own goals. As a result, I experienced a dramatic increase in my ability to quickly and accurately play on my guitar the sounds that I heard on recordings or in my head. You can enjoy the same success by turning your focus to an efficient and relevant study of ear training and music theory. Do the practice (which is actually a lot of fun!) and marvel at your expanded guitar skills!