Can we please make more happy music?
Power Chord Purgatory
There are dozens of interesting and emotionally charged harmonic structures in Western music. So why is so much of our current popular music dominated by this one particular type of chord?
I've been teaching guitar for almost 25 years. It's been very good to me and I still enjoy the heck out of it. I love music and I like to think I've had a positive influence on literally thousands of young musicians. But some days, I gotta' tell ya', it can get pretty depressing. After a whole afternoon of teaching hard rock and heavy metal, I sometimes feel like I've been beaten bloody with a battle axe. I'm stuck in Power Chord Purgatory.
If you know anything about music, you know there are dozens of different types of chords. One of the things that interests me most about these diverse harmonic structures is their ability to express the whole range of human emotions. It starts with the triads. Most people would agree that major sounds happy, minor sounds sad, augmented can sound like a question or surprise and diminished can sound like fear or dread. We can add additional notes to these simple structures and enhance the mood even further. Add 6 and 9 to a major triad and you get a Major 6 add 9 chord which can sound like ecstasy. Add b5 and b7 to a minor triad and it sounds positively tragic.
The music that interests me most is that which contains a variety of different moods ... kinda' like life itself. It has it's ups and downs. Ya' gotta' take the good with the bad. There are blessings to be celebrated and heart breaks to endure. That's what keeps life interesting. Music that expresses the range of human experience is the stuff you never get tired of. Happy music can lift us up out of despair and sad music can keep us in touch with the reality that life can indeed be difficult sometimes. In more sophisticated music we see these moods expressed with a wide variety of different chord types all working together.
And then there is hard rock and heavy metal. Doesn't it always have about the same emotional tenor ... cold, stark, angry, bitter? That may well be because these types of songs are almost exclusively populated by one type of chord ... a 5 Chord ... popularly known as a "power chord". If I had to characterize the emotional feel of these chords, I would say they sound hard, cold, and angry. Stomp your distortion pedal on and it can sound downright evil. Is that why metal always sounds that way? Ya' think?
So why is this stuff so enormously popular? Many of my students are positively addicted to it. If it doesn't have that "bad ass" edge to it, they aren't interested. Do we have a greater hunger for more negatively charged music? Many would say that art is a reflection of our culture. Does life suck so bad these days that all we want to hear is the dark stuff? Does more positively charged music somehow reflect a naivete better left to the dreamers among us? I don't think so.
Power chord music is just easy to play ... period.
Any idiot can string a bunch of 5 Chords together and call it a song. How do I know? I've seen it a million times among my private students. A new kid comes in for guitar lessons. He's been playing guitar for a couple of years. He can move his fingers OK but he knows absolutely nothing about music (and he'll admit that). None the less, he's in a band. What kind of music do they play? Heavy Metal.
Power chords (I'm going to call them PCs from here on) always have the same basic finger shape. You just move them around to different positions on your guitar neck. God forbid you should have to learn to rearrange your fingers into different shapes to actually play different types of chords! That might actually take some work! "Oh my god ... I might actually have to practice. So called "Drop D Tuning" simplifies playing PCs even more. Now you can do it with just one finger!
In many ways, PCs often function more like single notes than like conventional chords. I'll spare you the physics, but it's a readily observable phenomenon. As an example, consider Iron Man by Black Sabbath. You all know that classic PC riff ... right? In the instrumental sections, Tony plays the riff with PCs. But when Ozzy starts singing, he switches to playing the riff with single notes. Have you ever even noticed that? NO? That's because they sound so much the same that you hardly notice when those other notes go away.
I'm sure you can see that creating a musical phrase utilizing several different chords would be significantly more difficult than creating a phrase with single notes ... the more so if those chords had complex structures. You could never mistake a string of 7 Chords for a string of single notes. Combining more complex chords into cohesive phrases requires much more knowledge and effort ... but with our modern "instant gratification" mind set, a lot of aspiring young guitar players just don't wanna' know. That's sad because these more complex chords are so cool sounding! They can express so many more moods and emotions. They can bring so many interesting images into the minds eye. Ya' gotta' figure that the only reason a player wouldn't use them is ... they simply don't know how to!
I have a young student named Mike. He's very bright and one of the most naturally gifted guitar students I've ever had. I blew his mind a few weeks back when I pointed out to him that he was playing Iron Man just about as well as Black Sabbath does after only studying guitar for like 3 months! How hard can it be? Think you could learn to play like Pat Metheny in 3 months? How about 3 years ... maybe more like 5 to 10?
But that still doesn't explain why PC music has become so hugely popular. Some seem to think that PCs are some new kind of chord that Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix invented in the late 60s. The funny thing is, they are among the most ancient of all harmonic structures. I suspect cave men knew about PCs. Gregorian Chants utilize these most basic and central patterns. Is that part of their attraction? Do they tie us into some ancient shared cultural memory of some kind? Could be. One thing is for sure. They got a wicked "face lift" when humans invented the distortion circuit for the electric guitar amplifier!
But mostly I think it has to do with big business again. I know you're all sick of me telling you this. All taste is acquired. We learn to like what we're exposed to and what our peer group allows us to embrace. Accept it. We're herd animals! You weren't born to love PC music. There is nothing unique to PC music that would make you love it above all else. It's just that once it got started, it somehow acquired a cultural momentum that propelled it into our current aesthetic perspective. You like it because you hear it. It's all around you. Your dad liked Cream. Your older brother dug Nirvana. Your best friend listens to Korn all day. The record companies smell the money. They send their scouts out looking for the next big metal band (and god knows there are enough of them out there because, as I said before, any idiot can play power chords). Soon there's a huge media campaign promoting the new geniuses of hard rock. They're on the cover of Guitar Player Magazine! They must be awesome guitar players! We buy it all, hook line and sinker.
It's all about what you're exposed to. Here's another story. About 10 years ago, I had a guitar student from Brazil named Eduardo. He's like 15. I tell all my students that I will help them learn to play any music they like (even metal). Most of them are listening to Nirvana, Sound Garden, Green Day, Metallica. Eduardo brings in CDs of his favorite Brazilian popular music. I put a disc in the player and hit the play button expecting more of the same, but with a Spanish accent or something.
But I'm surprised by what I hear. This stuff is like interesting. It's like smart, modern, cool jazz. I say "Hey man. This is jazz ... not pop music." He says "What are you talking about? This is what we listen to everyday on the radio in Brazil." I said "Really? What about Nirvana ... Metallica?" He says "Well they're OK I guess, but my friends and I aren't really into them or anything."
I have no problem with folks liking hard rock and heavy metal. I'm 58 years old. I've watched this whole thing evolve. I listened to Cream, Hendrix and Zeppelin in high school. I actually bought the first Black Sabbath album. I heard all those 80s and 90s bands. I enjoyed hearing how the genre evolved. Nirvana had a certain presence . There were some truly great songs and guitar players along the way.
I think it just frustrates me that there are so many truly interesting guitar players that can be all but overlooked because of America's public fixation on PC music. These are talented, hard working and knowledgeable musicians who often struggle for years developing their skills and exploring broader areas of musical expression only to be lost in obscurity. It's not just their loss. It's our loss. Many of them live right in your town. Rise above the hero worship media hype and you find there are great players everywhere. You could be one of them if you free your mind and allow yourself to see beyond the confines of the "corporate" music scene. Understand that it is going to take real effort on your part. Music is like a language and it takes time and dedication to learn any new language. Find yourself a good program and stick with it. Resist the temptation to take the easy way out. There is more to music than just power chords.
-Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program