Pat Pattison has a brilliant reduction for the elements of story:
Unstable . . .
Pivoting between these two states is the engine of story, (excepting exceptionally dull stories). You could frame this idea as tension and release as well. A pithy saying which expresses a similar idea is; “If it can’t happen (stability), it must (instability).”
This is known to obsessive watchers of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or any other bingeworthy TV. Is there a greater harbinger of disaster, [instability], than a character saying, “Great plan. It can’t fail.” [Stability].
Music is story which is told with sound. Without stability and instability, tension and release, pattern and “surprise!” music is exceptionally dull. Just like a story. Chords tell story. Are you familiar with the rules? Do you know how to create stability and instability?
Almost no one will tell you this, but one of the classic stories is embedded in the standard tuning of the guitar’s bottom three strings. It’s there to see, plain as dry toast. Take a look:
Standard tuning on the guitar can seem like it was designed by a cruel madman. It’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing. (Also, the B string is usually out of tune). But standard tuning evolved to help tell chord stories. The story on the E, A, & D strings is basic but flexible and full of possibilities. It’s could be a lot like the story boy meets girl who already has a boy. In it E, A, & D all represent the major chords their named after.
Here’s a plot summary: A major is the hero of the story, named Amanda. Amanda lives in a house across the street from her best friend Derek (the D Major chord). They have a lot of fun together. Derek’s place is great to hang out at but since Amanda is the hero of the story, going back to Amanda’s house always feel like home. Edgar (the E chord) is an older neighbor who lives next door to Derek. He’s mostly nice but he’s not happy when they’re in his yard. Obviously, it’s great fun to find excuses to be in Edgar’s yard, it feels slightly risky and daring. After Going into Edgar’s yard Amanda feels safest returning home to the A chord.
That is close the most basic chord story there is. (There two chords songs out there though). A is the hero and feels stable. D is the best friend and if feels fun to go to his place. E feels a little tense and makes you want to return home, to the A chord. Following these guidelines, how might you make a calming chord story? How might you make chord story that feels more tense or exciting? There are 1000’s of three chord songs in the world that all create stability and instability following and breaking the rules of that story.
This story is as movable as your capo. Clamp a capo on the third fret and the principles are the same but the chord names will change. (The chord shapes will remain the same).
C becomes the main character, the hero
F becomes the best friend
G becomes the antagonist
Do the same thing at Fret 7 and you’ll end up with the chords to a classic E major blues.
E is the hero
A is the friend
B is the antagonist
I can hear you complaining. Do I really have to know the notes on the guitar at the 7th fret? –Nah.
I mean, it’s not the worst idea, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ve got you covered. Though the answer could be unsettling. You must go to the of the fifth circle of hell. Just kidding. It’s worse than that. You have to use the circle of fifths.
I know. I hate the circle of fifths too. But it’s exceptionally useful as a guide to chords stories. (Has anyone told you that? They never mentioned it to me. I’m a little bitter).
You now know that A, D, & E major are the hero, best friend, and antagonist of a classic chord story. Take a look at the circle of fifths, can you see those letter together on it?
Do you see it? Here’s what I’m talking about:
The principle is this, assume all the letters on the circle of fifths are major chords. Take any three in a row and you’ve got yourself an antagonist, a hero, and a best friend. The main characters in a chord story. Translated into theory jargon that’s the I (the hero), IV (the best friend of I) and V (the antagonist) of a key. It works for any key. The I chord, the hero will be in the middle. The antagonist (or V chord) with be clockwise from the hero. The best (or IV chord) friend will sit counterclockwise from the hero.
I hear you again. Do I really have to learn the circle of fifths? –Nah.
Learn this instead: B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow
That’s a mnemonic for the Circle of Fifths in reverse, or B, E, A, D, G, C, F. Oddly, this is the better way for guitarists, (and perhaps everyone), to understand it. That’s because chords “like” to resolve down a fifth. B, E, A, D, G, C, F is only 7 pieces of the circle of fifths though. The other part is B, E, A, D, G*, again, but all flatted. Then you’ve come full circle. That’s it.
*Gb can also be named F#, depending on the context. If that’s confusing, ignore it for now.