• What My 4-Year Old Could Teach You About Chord Placement

    in Chords & Progressions,Experienced players,Piano

    I knew I had to share this story because there are some lessons about chord placement here.

    So Jadyn, our oldest daughter, comes in our room this morning and while I never noticed, Sarah says “Jadyn, you have on your little sister’s pajamas!” Jadyn hadn’t realized it either and we all busted out in laughter.

    Now, Layla, our youngest daughter is cute and chunky! Probably in the ninety percentile weight and height for 1 year olds so I’m not surprised Jadyn could fit into her pajama pants.

    How does this relate to chord placement?

    A few ways…

    Chord placement tips


    1) You’d be surprised what chords you can “fit in” between common patterns.

    Just like Jadyn was able to turn Layla’s pajamas into capri pants, you too can turn smaller progressions into bigger ones if you understand this concept of chord placement.

    For example, a song progressing from the 1 to the 4 can easily be expanded by using a “5-1” progression in between. So instead of going directly from the 1 to the 4, you go: 1 > 5 > 1 > 4.

    For more experienced players, you may also think of this as a “2-5-1” of the 4. That’s when you temporarily treat the 4-chord as “home base.” So if we were in the key of C major, the 4 is F. In the key of F, a 2-5-1 uses the bass notes G > C > F. All we’re doing is borrowing that and using it in C major: C > G > C > F (aka – “1-5-1-4” or 1 > “2-5-1 of 4” … different ways to say the same thing).

    I always say, “playing by ear is all about having options” and that “the ear is the final judge.” For all I knew, those were Jadyn’s pajama “shorts.” Your audience never knows what you intend… as long as it sounds good and acceptable to them.

    2) What’s intended for one purpose can be used for another

    I find this is the biggest breakthrough in musicians’ playing — when they start putting chords they’d normally only play in certain situations in totally new places. Or they start employing chords they’d normally only play in one key in other “foreign” keys. This is the art of chord placement.

    Like putting a major9 chord on the 6th tone (which is normally “minor”) or putting a dominant7 #9#5 (popular altered chord) on the 7th tone, or even b5 tone (to lead to the 7th tone)… or even on the b2 to lead to the b5, which leads to the 7. As you can see, this can get really crazy! This is chord placement gone wild.

    More Chord Placement Tips

    3) Sometimes, you CAN do too much! Only get in where you fit in! (Another “hearandplayism” quote)

    As they say, “less is sometimes more.” And sometimes, it’s obvious you’re trying to do too much. To Sarah, she was obviously in Layla’s clothes.

    Jeremy Jeffers, from our all-new Musician Breakthrough series, says it best: “Music is a conversation… you talk, and you listen… you breathe.”

    Some of us ought to give up them old blue jeans from the 90’s. They don’t fit anymore! They cut off circulation to the point where we can’t breathe. Are you suffocating your music?

    Chord placement isn’t about “how many chords you can place” but rather what QUALITY placements you can make. Our Musician Breakthrough series, featuring 7 of the craziest west coast musicians, shows chord placement at its best. Check out the video clips to see chord placement at a mastery level.

    4) Some progressions and patterns allow for flexible chord placement, others don’t.

    Undoubtedly, there’s some articles of Layla that Jadyn could definitely not fit in. But these particular pajama pants were a little loose-fitting so they worked.

    In music, you get progressions that ought not be touched… but you also get flexible progressions that can almost always be altered, embellished, expanded, etc.

    Jason White, from our Ministry Musician course, relies on the melody to find as many chords as he can that has that same melody note on top. It need not matter what the bass notes are either because your ear will be the final judge. You may know 25 chords that have “Eb” on top. In the research and experimentation part of your practice, simply go through all those chords looking for possible matches… “trial-and-error” style. It’s perfectly okay to be wrong 24 times but when you come across that ONE unorthodox chord that works, it will turn the heads of the BEST musicians. This is a very popular chord placement discovery technique.

    (That previous paragraph was a gem. It’s how the best of them find chords. You’d think there was a theoretical, organized process. Really, it’s trial and error, TIME, and the process of elimination.)

    One Final Chord Placement Tip

    5) Borrowing is good!

    Staying on this blog, being a member of GMTC (where you get weekly chords, patterns, chord placement ideas, etc), and shedding with other players will build up your chordal vocabulary.

    Remember, what one musician uses one particular way, you can take, “FLIP IT,” and use it a totally different way. Jadyn turned pants into shorts. I bet there will come a day when Layla will turn Jadyn’s shorts into pants or roll up the legs and wear them like they’re hers.

    With your knowledge of chords, theory, substitutions, and placement, you can do the same. Sheet music is written in stone… playing by ear is not. You have the choice to do whatever you want… as long as it sounds good, you’re staying true to the melody, and not over-deviating to the detriment of the song.

    So there you have it… chord placement lessons from a 4-year old, and her daddy :-).

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    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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