Monthly Archives: February 2014

Modes and Moods

A composition in A minor

A composition in A

What do we perceive as happy or sad in music? Is it the notes, chords, pattern of notes, pattern of chords, tempo, rhythm, arrangement or all of it taken together?

As a keyboardist, the first answer that comes to my mind is musical mode or scale. Everyone thinks that Major mode=Happy and Minor mode=Sad. No tempo, rhythm or arrangement has such a consistent interpretation.

It would be great if we could equate other Western modes or scales to an emotion/mood too. However, even though the happiness of the Major mode and the tragedy of the Minor mode is almost universally agreed upon, I don’t think the same would work for all the remaining modes. For instance, I know many happy and sad songs in the Blues scale – a scale which allows for a lot of diversity.

In spite of this confusion, people have attempted such a classification. Here is an impressive blog post with a nearly exhaustive list of scales/modes and their emotional content. I must say that such a list is extremely useful for an ameteur composer.

While such classifications are good, they leave a more basic and interesting question unanswered : What aspects of a mode gives rise to its characteristic mood? What is it that your brain interprets as happy or sad?

I will try to answer this question from a musical point of view.

The most popular explanation for the influence of modes on moods is : It’s the collection of notes that color a composition. The collection of notes in a mode, by virtue of their musical intervals, are of course happy or sad in their own right. If the ingredients are happy, as in the case of the Major mode, then any structure or pattern made out of those happy elements will turn out to be happy.

The wonderful simplicity of this logic fooled me (and many of my friends) for a long time. Anyone would agree that Collection of Notes=Mood is quite the elegant solution. In fact, I believed and advocated this idea until very recently.

Unfortunately this pretty piece of logic is wrong. I am sorry to say that the truth (which they say is stranger than fiction) seems to be the opposite.

Notes in a scale do not have any emotional content.

Let me draw your attention to four facts which conclusively prove this.

1. Seven distinct Western modes/scales can be played on the same
set of notes

2. The definition of scale is widely misunderstood. Scales work
because of cadences, chord domination and few other rules and not
because they have a cerain set of notes in them

3. There are examples of distinct Eastern modes which have the same
set of notes and the same tonic!

4. Atonal music, which lacks a tone center, sounds like nothing you
have heard before!

Some of these facts are quite astonishing. It will do us good to discuss in detail and find out what these four facts really mean. I hope that at the end of it, you will appreciate that notes are quite irrelevant to the emotional content of a musical piece and find out what it is that (what aspect of scales) invokes emotion in music.

Seven distinct Western modes can be played on the same set of notes:

There are seven commonly known modes in Western music.

Ionian (Major)
Aeolian (Minor)

Most popular compositions are based on the Aeolian and the Ionian modes because they support harmony best. The rest of the Modes are not so commonly used. It is well known that each of these modes have their own individual flavor and basic mood. The Ionian for example is usually happy and the Aeolian sad.

The most well known scale in music (partly because of how music is taught) is the C Ionian or Major mode which has the notes {CDEFGAB}.

C Ionian mode

C Ionian mode

The surprising (and much less known because it requires knowledge of Modes) fact is that the ingredients of D Dorian is also {CDEFGAB}. E Phrygian consists of (yes! you guessed it!) {CDEFGAB} too! And this pattern goes on till B Locrian. Of course, each mode has its own characteristic mood. Same notes make up different modes and give rise to different moods. Turning the argument around : all seven moods corresponding to the seven modes can be played on the same set of notes {CDEFGAB}. A pianist would recognize that these are the white keys of the piano.

You might ask: What about C Dorian (C Dorian for example has the notes {CDEbFBABb}) or C Phrygian? Shouldn’t we consider them? What moods do they convey?

The answer is no, you don’t need to consider them separately. Moodwise, C Dorian is the same as D dorian. As long as you are using the same mode, the absolute frequency does not matter. It can be freely transposed. This freedom is extensively used in Indian classical music where modal compositions are not set in any root such as C or D or E. The vocalist sounds the root note as per his convenience and the stringed accompaniemnts (usually only one or two instruments) set their frequencies relatively starting from the root.

2. What makes modes (scales) work :

If all the modes can be played by using the same notes, then how does a composer convey what mode (and hence what root or tonal center) he is using? Not by the notes that he plays as we discovered in the previous section. It turns out that in the Western system this is done via two well known rules :

Sections end with a cadence : A cadence is a series of two or more chords which ends at the root chord of the scale. This is most commonly implemented via a V-I chord progression. IV-I or VII-I are some of the alternate cadences that are used in practice. Thus if you are primarily using notes of the scale {CDEFGAB} and your cadence consists of a G Major chord to a C Major chord, then you can be said to have established the C Ionian or Major mode which sounds happy. If instead your cadence consists of a E minor going to a A minor chord, then you have effectively established the A Aeolian or Minor mode which sounds sad. For more on cadences, check out this YouTube video.

Which chords dominate? : In each of the seven modes, different chords (I am not talking about chord degrees here but the absolute chord name) will dominate. For example, C Major, G Major and F Major will dominate a composition in C major. Eminor, D minor and A minor will dominate in the A minor scale. These three sets of chords are the first, fourth and fifth relative to the root or tonic C and A of the scales C Major and A minor respectively. Is it always the first, fourth and fifth that dominate? No, because in the B Locrian mode, for instance, the first degree is B diminished, which is a highly unstable chord. Only a foolish classical composer will let a diminished chord dominate his composition. In fact it turns out that modal composition in Locrian is almost impossible for this reason.

Cadence and chord domination are techniques employed by the composer to give the audience a feeling of being in scale. Compositions derive their scales not from the notes of the composition, but on these techniques. Hence it is not stupid to expect that the mood of the composition is colored not by the notes themselves in their own right, but on how those techniques embed notes within the composition..

Are these rules complete? I don’t think so. Many known classical compositions take quite a long time to come to the cadence or explicitly show chord domination, probably with an intent to fool the listener. Listeners with an acute musical ear sadly cannot be fooled this way. It turns out that they can easily tell you the scale before the cadence finally arrives unless there is a significant mood change after the prediction. This raises the questions: What unwritten rules are the listeners using? What unwritten rules did the composers use subconsciously which gave them away? These are unanswered questions as far as Western music is concerned. The same is not true for the Indian Classical system, where the rules are stricter. It will do us good if we digress for a moment and examine the rules that are laid out for modal compositions in the Oriental system of classical music.

Modes or Ragas in Indian Classical music:

Indian classical music performance

Indian classical music (here is a typical performance on the flute) is a melody driven way of music where harmony takes a dusty back seat. In fact the only harmony that you will find in a Oriental classical music performance is an ever present and unchanging drone on a stringed instrument called the Tanpura which sounds a few major notes (usually the tonic and the fifth) of the scale. The maestro performs over this drone with the accompaniment of a percussion instrument.

Lack of harmony in Indian classical music

The lack of harmony in Indian classical music is not due to the limitation of knowledge. It is because the emphasis on melody has been taken Indian music in such a direction that harmony is not even possible in most cases. This can be understood by a comparison with the Locrian mode in the western system which does not support harmony because the tonic chord is a diminished and hence unstable. Loosely speaking, Indians have 200 modes while there are only 7 commonly known (but not all are commonly used) modes in Western music. No wonder Indians cannot harmonise their melodic music!

Fusion music

In modern days, many groups have tried to fuse Western and Indian music (this is a great example from Coke Studio) to make new music. The funny thing is most of these compositions are still based on the Aeolian or Ionian modes. It is fusion music because they follow the other Oriental modal rules (which we will come to in a moment) in their composition. But theoretically, this is not new music, because the mode is still Western or an Indian equivalent of a Western mode.

Rules in Indian modal compositions

The closest equivalent of a mode in the Indian classical system is called Ragas on which compositions are based. Each Raga, like a mode, consists of seven notes (swaras) derived from a tonic or root. So far this sounds exactly similar to the Western system. However the sequence of notes does not make up the mode by themselves. There are additional compositional rules and recommendations which are absent in the Western system. These rules are:

Ascent in the Raga (Arohona): While ascending upward the notes are to be used in a specific sequence ONLY. These rules sometimes call for retrograde motion, jumps or complete omission of notes while ascending.

Descent in the Raga (Avorohana): While descending downward the notes are to be used in a specific sequence (which may not be derived from the rules for ascending). These rules sometimes call for retrograde motion, jumps or complete omission of notes while descending.

An example will make this clearer. For example the Raga Jaunpuri with the tonic at C has the notes {CDEbFGAbBb} which seems to be the C minor scale. However the ascent and descent in this Raga are strictly:

Ascent: CDFGAbFGAbBbC’

Descent: C’BbAbGAbFGEbDC

which gives it a flavor of its own.

In addition to specifying strict rules for ascending and descending on the scale, the Oriental system also specifies the notes that are to be emphasized in a composition in terms of “king” (Vadi), “queen” (Samavadi) and “other” (anuvadi) notes. For example in Raga Jaunpuri , the Vadi note is Ab and the Samavadi note is Eb. Weird because you would have expected the tonic C to be important!

Finally there is something called a Pakad or Raga Roopa, which conceptwise, is similar to theme in Western music. It is a very short section of music that sets the mood of that Raga. Every Raga has its own (but not always unique) Pakad(s). For example in Jaunpuri, the Pakad can be as simple as

Pakad in Jaunpuri: FG BbAbG Ab FGEb DFG

This completes the description of rules in the Indian system and this is what I meant by saying that the Indians have gone a long way in classifying music and moods than its Western brother has.

3. Same notes, same tonic, but different Ragas and different moods:

Remember how we constructed the different Modes out of the same set of notes {CDEFGAB} in the Western system? We did this by establishing a tonal center or a tonic. When C was used as the tonic, we got the C Major scale and when A was used as the tonic, we got the A minor scale. Once the tonic is established, this sets up the intervals of the musical scale. For example, in terms of semitone intervals, C major is the ORDERED set WWHWWWH while A minor is the ordered set WHWWHWW. We say that the musical intervals wrt the tonic is different for the major and minor modes.

Indian Classical music offers a very interesting example in which the Ragas are considered different even though the musical interval with respect to the tonic is the same! One of these Ragas is Jaunpuri (video here) , the one you met in the last section. The other one is Darbari Kanada (video here) whose notes, ascent, descent, Vadi notes, Samavadi notes and Pakad is given next to distinguish it from Jaunpuri.

Notes: {CDEbFGAbBb}

Ascent: BbC, DEbDC, FG, Ab Bb C’

Descent: C’ Ab Bb G FG EbFDC

Vadi note: D

Samavadi note: G

Pakad: Eb D C Ab BbC DC

This example is a jewel because it is our first encounter with a system that distinguishes music performed in the same mode based on the way the music is played.

4. Atonal music, the Western jewel:

While the Indian classical system has mostly been an embodiment of discipline encouraging students to keep theoretical experimentation to a minimum, the Western classical system has given way to change more easily. This is not unexpected as there were only two written down rules to begin with. This means there already was a lot of freedom around in the Classical and Romantic eras. This freedom failed to satisfy the likes of Arnold Schoenberg who decided that tonality or the presence of a tone center is not “natural” but “historically imposed” and should be done away with. This gave birth to truly new music which came to be called Atonal, which means lack of tone center. One of the styles of atonal music, called Dodecaphony, for example, is based on the concept that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale {CDbDEbFF#GAbABbB} should get equal importance and presence in a composition.

Atonal music is a wonderfully daring and original concept. Unfortunately it sounds terrible to the uninitiated listener which is why it never gained popularity in the mainstream. The Wikipedia page on atonal music, in a bid to remain neutral, gives us an extremely subtle warning about this fact.

Wikipedia page on Atonal music

Wikipedia page on Atonal music

If you are curious about how Atonal music sounds, take a listen to this Schoenberg symphony. It is indeed surprising to note how abolishing a few rules and giving way to the rules might completely change the nature of music and its emotional content.

There are some excellent material available on the web on Atonal music. This YouTube video on Dodecaphony or 12 tones is one of the most delightful YouTube videos that I have seen in recent times.

When I was introduced to Atonal music for the first time, the first thing that came to my mind is “Oh my God! I have heard this before in Tom and Jerry!”. I later confirmed that the background score of Tom and Jerry indeed employed Atonal music extensively. Take a look at this this website and this episode from Tom and Jerry (starting at 4.00 mins to 5.20 mins) for an example. This means we were all exposed to this little known 20th century musical revolution when we were kids. Isnt that amusing?

This short introduction on Atonal music wraps up our discussion on the four facts that were mentioned at the outset. I understand that after such a long read it is possible that you have lost track of the main theme and the thread of argument. So I will briefly summarize.

1. Seven different modes with different moods can be played on the same set of notes. So the notes themselves cannot be said to be responsible for setting up a mood and having an emotional content independent of performance.

2. Scale of a musical piece are established by the composer with the use of cadences and selective preference to chords. In the Indian Classical system, rules are stricter and includes in addition to the interval specification, instructions on ascending and descending on the scale, relative importance of notes and a theme. This seems to mean that the mood of a musical piece is more a result of musical performance than the basic raw materials which are notes.

3. The same interval gives different modes in the Indian Classical system when the instructions on how to play them changes. This can be considered as the ultimate proof that it is the performance/rules followed in the performance that is responsible for moods.

4. If the tone center is done away with, music takes a new form known as Atonal music which sounds very different from conventional music. This strongly supports point 2 which claimed that establishing a tonal center was key in setting up the mood.

I hope you will agree that these four examples taken together imply only one thing: notes do not decide moods, how the notes are used within a composition decide it.

What fascinates me even further is the second part of point 2 which concerns the Indian Classical system. It seems to be telling us much more than the conclusion I was aiming for. It seems that the Indians have written down finitely many rules that completely specifies the mood of hour long compositions. In fact, any one familiar with Indian Classical music knows that it is an improvisational performing art and performances last several hours. However, no matter how much the performer improvises on a given Raga, the basic mood always remains the one that was established in the Pakad. It seems the nucleus of all melodic music can be summarized in a few written down rules!

In fact, if you are mathematically inclined and you know Markov chains, you might notice that ascending and descending on a scale in a certain manner only means a very restricted transition matrix of successive notes. This again raises the questions: Are moods mathematically expressable in this form? Why hasn’t anyone studied for presence of such correlations in Western music? Maybe when a composer writes music, he implements such correlations subconsciously to drive at a certain mood which he is trying to express?

I hope these interesting questions get answered very soon!

“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic far beyond all we do here!”
-Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone


Are ideas living?


What is the definition of life? I remember a conference of the scientific elite that sought to answer that question. Is an enzyme alive? Is a virus alive? Is a cell alive? After many hours of launching promising balloons that defined life in a sentence, followed by equally conclusive punctures of these balloons, a solution seemed at hand: “The ability to reproduce—that is the essential characteristic of life,” said one statesman of science. Everyone nodded in agreement that the essential of a life was the ability to reproduce, until one small voice was heard. “Then one rabbit is dead. Two rabbits— a male and female— are alive but either one alone is dead.” At that point, we all became convinced that although everyone knows what life is there is no simple definition of life. [Koshland, DE. 2002. The Seven Pillars of Life. Science 295: 2215-2216.]

Lately I have been putting myself in the shoes of ideas and trying to see if I can find how it feels like to be an idea. After much thought, I have concluded that if I were an idea, I would be convinced that I am a living being. Ideas do not have to be brought to life, I realized. They are already alive!

Before I go any deeper into this fantastic claim, I wish to discuss a few things first. The first of them concerns the definition for life so that we can be sure that we agree on the same foundations.

The only reasonable definition of life that I know of is due to Daniel Koshland, who was the Chairman of the Biochemistry department at the University of California. In an article in Science, Daniel defines life based on seven essential qualities that it must possess. These are called the “pillars of life”. It is his conviction that life, wherever it originates, Earth or elsewhere, will be founded on these pillars.

The seven pillars of life are Program, Improvisation, Compartmentalization, Energy, Regeneration, Adaptability and Seclusion or PICERAS to be brief. Daniel’s original article discusses these seven concepts in detail and I will quote extensively from this article to build ideas’s case for life.

We must also agree on what we mean by ideas. I will define ideas as any set of concepts that have a collective name. For example, Communism, the Theory of Relativity, Rock music are all ideas. The statement “The car is red”, on the other hand, is not an idea. Let me also be clear in that I am being limiting in my definition of ideas simply because it is easier to deal with simple definitions.

The name of an idea can be thought of as a collective concept which classifies ideas into species. Your concept of Rock music, for example, is an individual that belongs to the species “Rock music”.

Finally, let us agree that ideas are essentially made of two important parts. The first deals with the set of ideas and principles that define the idea and the second is the set of examples and links with other ideas that are bundled along with it.

If we agree on this much, the rest should go smoothly. To begin, put yourself in the shoe of an idea reading Daniel’s article. We will consider each pillar but in a different order.

Regeneration: According to Daniel, regeneration includes both reproduction and repair.

I think no one will deny that ideas reproduce. When you read a book, it reproduces in binary. In political rallies, it creates thousands of copies at the same time.

However, ideas get modified every time they reproduce. This is akin to genetic mutations. This happens because the idea has to make a lot of connections with preexisting ideas and life experiences in a persons head to be relevant or appealing. An idea often becomes more appealing if it changes its “meaning” slightly.

Are ideas capable of repair? Suppose you are Communism and you suddenly find that you are missing a hand, the hand that told you about censorship of art in a Communist society. Will you sit quiet? No! You will nag the person who has stored you in his head until he asks someone/reads from a book about your lost hand. And voila! Now you have a new one!

Energy: We can think of energy as the ability to perform work, or better yet, as the ability to bring about specific changes. Since living organisms are constantly undergoing change (be it transport of molecules, chemical reactions or locomotion) the need for energy is fundamental.

Ideas need energy for two of its most basic life functions. If you are an idea, you must firstly sustain and secondly reproduce when the opportunity presents itself. In order to sustain, the various neuronal connections that support linkage between ideas and experiences must be reinforced. This needs energy. To reproduce, new neuronal connections must be made (in the case of transmission from human to human or media to human). Reproduction from media to media requires energy too.

Where does this energy come from? From nowhere other than human bodies of course! Effectively, ideas are in a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with humans. In this video you will find a more aggressive take on this idea.

Program: According to Daniel

It is an organized plan that describes both the ingredients themselves and the kinetics of the interactions among ingredients as the living system persists through time. For organisms that we find on Earth, the program is encoded in the DNA.

Among other things, DNA helps us defining species. Organisms that are genetically distant usually belong to different species. Isn’t that also the case with ideas? Ideas that are distant in principles and axioms have different names. Ideas that are close to each other, for example, Classic Rock, Progressive Rock and Hard Rock are usually called by similar names.

This points to the fact that just like DNA is considered to be the program of a living organism on Earth, similarly the set of axioms or principles that define an idea can be called the program or blueprint of that idea.

You might argue that the principles and axioms may be more similar to phenotype rather than genotype. After all, the phenotype of closely linked species are also closely similar. It would be a valid objection. But since all phenotypes demand a genotype, and similarities between phenotype of individuals of a species demand a consistent genotype, you have to concede that this points to the existence of a consistent program for ideas too.

Which brings me to the other point. I think we would be mistaken if we consider the principles or axioms to be the complete program of an idea. Ideas have two parts and the second one is equally important. It tells us how an idea relates to your life experience and other ideas. This part decides how aggressive an idea is and how fast it will spread. What controls this part of an idea? I will leave you to think about this one.

Improvisation: Daniel explains this saying :

Because a living system will inevitably be a small fraction of the larger universe in which it lives, it will not be able to control all the changes and vicissitudes of its environment, so it must have some way to change its program

He is essentially talking about natural selection here. The same applies for ideas. Ideas undergo changes just like living organisms on Earth evolve. Some ideas die off for good, like the grammar of lost languages, some ideas spawn new ones, for example, Metal music was inspired from Rock music. Evolution of ideas point again to changes in the program of ideas.

Compartmentalization: This is what Daniel has to say about compartmentalization:

All the organisms that we consider living are confined to a limited volume, surrounded by a surface that we call a membrane or skin that keeps the ingredients in a defined volume and keeps deleterious chemicals—toxic or diluting—on the outside. Moreover, as organisms become large, they are divided into smaller compartments, which we call cells (or organs, that is, groups of cells), in order to centralize and specialize certain functions within the larger organis

How familiar! Ideas live in compartments like your head or in books or in websites. As ideas get bigger, like the General Theory of Relativity or Evolution, you have whole textbooks with numerous (and several essential) Chapters (read “organs”) for it.

Adaptability: Even though this might sound similar to Improvisation, it is not. Daniel explains this saying:

…behavioral manifestations of adaptability are a development of feedback and feedforward responses at the molecular level and are responses of living systems that allow survival in quickly changing environment

He is essentially talking about homeostasis. Ideas do this too. For example, if you see a ghost, your scientific ideas may try to adapt to the life experience by providing possible rational explanations to the sighting.

Seclusion:The concept of seclusion is not as easy to understand as the rest of the pillars because it relates to biological pathways and their inherent specificity. The section on seclusion in Daniel’s article says:

By seclusion, in this context, I mean something rather like privacy in the social world of our universe. It is essential for a metabolizing system with many reactions going on at the same time, to prevent the chemicals in pathway 1 (A→B→C→D for example) from being metabolized by the catalysts of pathway 2 (R→S→T→U). Our living system does this by a crucial property of life—the specificity of enzymes that work only on the molecules for which they were designed and are not confused by collisions with miscellaneous molecules from other pathways. In a sense this property is like insulating an electrically conducting wire so it isn’t short-circuited by contact with another wire. The seclusion of the biological system is not absolute. It can be interrupted by feedback and feedforward messages, but only messages that have specifically arranged conduits can be received. There is also specificity in DNA and RNA interactions. It is this seclusion of pathways that allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volumes of a living cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.

Though this pillar is useful for metabolizing systems, which need to run several life sustaining processes at the same time, it is not so for non-metabolizing systems like ideas which do not need to run a lot of biochemical processes at the same time. Ideas, in general, do not respond directly to things like temperature, toxicity etc. They might respond indirectly. They might make you run and think at the same time in case of a fire. Then one might argue that they are performing locomotion and operations on the mind at the same time. But inherently, they have only one job: to relate to other ideas and life experiences. To form the relevant connections.

Since ideas needs to run this single process to sustain, they are trivially secluded. This single process, however, responds to stimuli in a highly specific manner. Stimuli, in this case, might be a simple question, like “What is the best economic policy for this country?”. A certain moderate ideology may answer this question saying:

1. Create infrastructure
2. Privatize
3. Promote foreign investment
4. Subsidize below the poverty line
5. Win elections by hook or by crook

This response is highly specific. The answer to the question “How do I assure goodwill of the minority?” will obviously be very different.

Finally, it is a well known fact that when we sleep, our brain becomes very active. A lot of new neuronal connections are made and many connections are reinforced. It is clear that our ideas do a lot of gymnastics when we are asleep. However not much is known about such processes, so I would not discuss them while I discuss seclusion.

If you have read this far, I hope I have been able to convince you that ideas share many of the essential characters of life as we can best define it. It has a Program, can Improvise, stays in Compartments, uses Energy, can Regenerate, can Adapt, and is trivially Secluded. It is thus not unreasonable to expect, that ideas might indeed be living.

This, if true, has profound implications and I plan to discuss them in later posts. For now, I’ve written a lot, and I am tired. I just want to digress a little bit before I finish and tell you what made me think of this.

We often wonder about our purpose and the meaning of existence. Religion provides answers. Rational thinking provides some too. Personally I find most of this answers begging more answers, and hence not very satisfying. If you similarly suffer, you have a friend here.

Many people give up. They say: there is no meaning. But that doesn’t work for me. I like to think that we have a part to play in the grand conspiracy of life and the universe but we are simply not in on it. It’s like we are small time agents working full-time on a highly classified project with something at its head.

What? God? Well, that’s just a word to me. I don’t know how He looks like. I haven’t heard him speak. Haven’t felt him either.

Religious people have felt Him apparently. They  seem to speak of God as a sentient being, just like us humans. The only difference is : His motives are not human, so we have a hard time making sense of things. He does not seem to be very keen on sharing His motives with us either. It’s classified, you see.

I think if you were an idea, your predicament would be similar. You would have no inkling as to why you exist and why you do what you do. And maybe, just maybe, you would also think that you have a role in some grand plot directed by none other than …

You guessed it, humans!

Chords of life


I thought guitar playing was tough. I tried the guitar a few years back and gave it up eventually. It made no sense. I learnt plenty of chord shapes but I could not figure out any system, any organization in what I was learning. It soon got very overwhelming. Maybe if I had a teacher, he could have told me. But I prefer self teaching, so I did not take help. It almost always never works for me. Result: I gave it up.

Recently, one of my friends kept his guitar at my house for our jamming sessions (I am a keyboardist). Since old habits die hard, I got the guitar out every night and fiddled with it. I restricted myself to playing chords on the top four strings in the standard tuning because this is what metal riffs are usually made of. I was also hoping that with the confusion of six strings gone for a while, I might find an organization to chords on the first few strings. Soon it became very clear to me that I should have gone through this exercise a few years back when I gave up.

I found the organization that I was looking for, thanks to the first four strings, and this is what I want to share here.

Chords on the first three strings: The open chord shapes used to nag me earlier because the shapes were so different across chords. Open major chords on different roots would have quite dissimilar shapes. Take Cmaj and Gmaj for example.

Learning the shapes were a huge pain. But you know what’s worse? That would be hearing metalcore bands change chords at their supersonic speeds. It demoralized me enough to give up playing the guitar. I thought I’d never reach that level.

The advantage of playing chords on the first three strings is that the patterns are no longer so complicated and that they remain fixed. They are easy to memorize and easy to change. This means: speed, baby!

There are only a few such basic patterns. You can play them anywhere on the fretboard. The root of the chord changes as you shift. This is why I have labeled the chords with numbers so that you know where the root is (the root is labeled by the number 1). The numbers will also tell you the rest of the notes (relative to the root) that are being used in the pattern.

There are ten patterns in total though most of them can be derived from the first two.

Shape 1 : Major (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _3_ ___ ___|

Shape 2 : Major (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ _3_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 3: Can be used as major or minor (Root is on the first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 4 : Minor derived from shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ 3b_ ___|

Shape 5 : Minor derived from shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1  ___ ___ 3b_ ___ ___|
String 2  ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3  ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 6: Diminished (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ 3b_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ 5b_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ _1_ ___ ___|

Shape 7 : Diminished (Root is in first and third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ 5b_ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

Shape 8 : Sus2 derived from Shape 2 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _5_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|

Shape 9: Sus4 derived from Shape 1 (Root is in the second string)

String 1 ___ _5_ ___ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|
String 3 ___ _4_ ___ ___ ___|

Notice how Shape 8 and 9 are identical!

Shape 10: Sus4 derived from Shape 3 (Root is in the third string)

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _1_ ___|
String 2 ___ ___ ___ _4_ ___|
String 3 ___ _1_ ___ ___ ___|

That’s it! 10 shapes and now you have all common triads! Chords which have added notes (for example 7, Maj7, min7, dim7 etc) can derived from these shapes by adding the extra note in the fourth string.

Chords in the second, third and fourth strings: Now here’s the fun. The shapes stay the same! You don’t have to learn anything extra. Just take the shapes as they are and shift them down one string. The same formulas apply.

When you will become familiar with all the patterns, the next thing to master is chord progressions. For that you need to learn one more thing. Scales.

If you know scale shapes (I’ll draw one below), then to play the right chords in the scale you will need to use successive notes as the root. That’s it.

To illustrate, a certain shape of the major scale on the first three strings look like:

String 1 ___ ___ ___ _2_ ___ _1_ ___ ___|
String 2 ___ _6_ ___ _5_ ___ _4_ _3_ ___|
String 3 ___ ___ ___ _1_ _7_ ___ ___ ___|

Now go through these notes playing in succession shapes 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 4, 6 (Maj, min, min, Maj, Maj, min, dim) using the note as the root. Those are the triads of the major scale played in succession.

This formula holds no matter which scale root (for example C or Db) you are on. The 1 in the scale diagram above marks the root of the scale. But even if you choose a different scale, chord shapes and scale shapes will remain fixed.

I’ll conclude with a tip. If you are trying to find the chord progressions of a song, the best way is to play the melody and then use the notes of the melody as roots. Of course this does not work all the time. But it works in most cases. If you do it , you’ll find that your life has suddenly become a whole lot simpler.

I did this to find the chords for the chorus of Blackbird by Alterbridge tonight and got it within a few minutes.