Thursday, October 22, 2009

Starting in your home chord

You want to give a singer as much guidance as you can when they're kicking off a song.
When you're firing up the beginning of an improvised song, you can make some choices that can help or hinder your singer. A rule I nearly always stick to is to start in the home chord when the singer comes in. If I'm vamping around, I'll start the vamp on the home chord, and I'll use a progression that still points its way home again. I like to give a strong implication that I'll be returning to that home chord when the time comes.

I've collected a bunch of examples to illustrate progressively more difficult starting points.

My Freeze Ray from Dr Horrible, and Five For Fighting's The Riddle, are examples of songs with a nice, simple, repeating vamp. The repeated phrase starts on the home chord each time, which in an improvised song would lead the singer in very neatly.

Two songs that stay well away from the home chord are Lisa Loeb's Fools Like Me, and Sara Bareilles' Love Song. Fools Like Me does start on the home chord, but the bass is playing a third, so it's sort of flirting around that home chord to make it feel a little off balance. (Not that it's a bad thing, I love it in that song.) The song doesn't hit its home chord until about 44 seconds in. Similarly, Love Song's vamp starts away from the home chord, and tromps around until it lands nicely just before the phrase ends.

For both of those songs, if you're already familiar with the progression, it's easy to pick how the vocal will start. The first time you hear them, though, you might feel a little off balance.

An extreme example is Crash Test Dummies' Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm. The intro doesn't give a clue as to what key the song might be in, and the verse starts waaay over there in a weird spot. (This song stumps me; I can hear most songs and understand how they're put together, but the intro to Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm defies that skill.) Don't get me wrong, I love the song... I just can't imagine pulling anything like that off for an improvised show.

Photo by Zen

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