Saturday, January 8, 2011

Music Theory For Poets #1

Happy Saturday!  The schedule here at Robert Frost's Banjo has gone a bit haywire, but I'm jumping into the breach with a series that started on The Spring Ghazals blog & that I've planned on continuing here.  Hope you enjoy it.

There are a lot of musical terms in The Spring Ghazals—makes sense: in addition to being a poet, I’m also a musician & music teacher.  When writing lyric poetry I believe the poet’s senses should be engaged, & music is certainly one of the things I hear the most.

However, with a few exceptions, the musical references that come up in The Spring Ghazals have less to do with “songs” than with musical moments or musical figures.  In particular, it has to do with chords & scales—after all, these are the building blocks from which music is made.

When talking about chords & scales, one can toss a lot of numbers & letters around.  This is true because a scale, in addition to being do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do can also be expressed in the numbers 1 thru 8; it can also be expressed alphebtically in letters between A & G, with & without sharps & flats.  & since chords are based on various scales, they also are expressed in letters & numbers.

But this is music theory for poets (& if you’re not a self-professed poet, that’s ok—we’re glad to have you along).  Let’s not worry so much about the theories involving various intervals, & instead let’s concentrate on what things sound like.

For instance, one chord that gets mentioned a few times is a chord called a “major 7.”  Here are the examples:

Grace #2

—& here comes another star & it’s just as you say the stars are shattered glass like a C major 7 chord that won’t stop ringing

Helix #5

A flock of guinea hens cackling in the cottonwood
A C major seven a D minor seven transposed a major third
A divided highway at 3:00 a.m.


A daydream sweetly dissonant as a major seven chord swelling in a room—

& here’s what the chord C major 7 sounds like:

  C Major 7 by rfrostbanjo

Isn’t that a pretty sound?  There are several ways to play this chord on a guitar, & they all sound nice, but when I was writing the poem I was thinking of the first way of playing it: low on the neck with lots of deep open strings.  I can tell you that there are four unique tones in a major 7 chord: do, mi, sol & ti.  If you’re good at singing do-re-mi you can probably sing this chord.  The fact that it’s a “C major 7” simply means that in this case, “do” is C.  When do becomes a different note, some ways of sounding the chord will seem a bit different—for instance, you can listen to a D major 7, an F major 7 & an A major 7 & hear that there’s something a bit different about each, tho the overall sound quality is the same.  That’s because the notes are sounded in different order in relationship to each other depending on which guitar strings are fretted & which (if any) are left open. 

  Major 7 in different keys by rfrostbanjo

Now this is a “major chord.” We can put aside for a moment the different intervals that distinguish between a major & a minor chord; but if you have any musical background to speak of, you probably know that a major chord sounds—well—more “happy,” more “bright,” more “positive,” while a minor chord sounds more “sad,” more “dark,” more “negative.”  Yet the major 7 chord has a kind of melancholy ring to it, doesn’t it? 

I do think most folks hear this.  It’s a bittersweet chord.  If you listen to bossa nova music, you hear this chord a lot in various keys—just as one example, a major 7 chord is the first chord played in the song “The Girl from Impanema.”

OK, so if this is a major chord, why does it have that bittersweet edge?  I’ll tell you.  Because if you broke the four tones of the chord down into parts & rearranged them, you could make both a full major chord & a full minor chord.  Wild, isn’t it?  In the case of the C maj 7, you have all the constiuents of both a regular old C major chord & a regular old Em chord.  You can hear these—then hear how the C major 7 combines them! 

  C major E minor by rfrostbanjo

That’s enough for today—almost; you can check out yours truly playing the song “Rubato Kangaroo in the final mp3.  I wrote this guitar part several years ago, & guess what?  It starts off with a C major 7 chord!  

  Rubato Kangaroo-guitar by rfrostbanjo 

Next time around: what makes a major chord “major” & a minor chord “minor?”  Hope to see you then.

All sounds recorded using my well-loved ’58 Harmony archtop as seen in the pic!  Except "Rubato Kangaroo" was recorded with an electric guitar.

The Spring Ghazals can be purchased at any of the following online outlets:

Barnes & Noble (new—& a bargain at $11.04 US!)
Amazon UK (£7.94)

Both Amazon & Lulu have the book for $12 US.  


  1. Nice example with the CM/Em switch.

    It's a classic bass player trick--everyone else can be playing a minor chord, and the bass player can change the entire harmony with a single note.

  2. Hi Scotty: Major 7s are interesting chords because they contain both a major & minor triad. Good point about bass playing; this sort of thing can also be done with chord substitution when playing in a combo.

  3. It's a little bit beyond me, musically, but I can see where it fits in with the sounds in poetry.

    By the way, nice haircut!


  4. Hi Kat: Thanks! As far as the haircut goes--I'm actually a bit shaggy right now, but I'll be getting a nice shave & a haircut tomorrow (not a full shave of course, but a good solid trim!) That pic was taken a couple of years ago.


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