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
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 develop an 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

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!

(A Guitar Player’s Guide to Music Theory and A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training are
both efficient and relevant ways to become musically fluent. Also, feel free to
contact me for individual help with any aspect of your playing. I am happy to assist
you in person or by webcam)

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