Answers to your musical and theoretical issues.
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Slash ’n’ burn Dear Theory Godmother
I still don’t really understand the concept behind slash chords. If a chord is written out with a different root, how come it doesn’t just change the nature of the chord completely? If, as an example, you have a C major chord followed by a C over E, then why can’t the second chord be some kind of E chord instead? Surely this would be tidier on the page and less ambiguous?
Mel The idea of chord symbols in a piece of music is to keep the harmonic movement clearly defined. So if there’s a variation on the I chord in C major as you suggest, then a slash chord remains the easiest way of pointing this out. All that’s happening in a C/E chord (Ex1) is that we’ve inverted the chord so that it has its 3rd in the bass instead of a root. Typically this: CEG EGC
Cmaj: C/E: 135 351 The nature of the chord and the role it plays in the ongoing harmony hasn’t changed at all; we’ve just mixed up the notes a little to offer a slightly different flavour to the same basic idea. The most important thing is that it remains a I chord and it’s clear that the harmony hasn’t shifted away from the root.
If we tried to analyse the same chord from the point of view of its revised bass note –E– then we’d end up with some kind of E minor b6th which would send out confusing and potentially calamitous signals to anyone trying to play along. So, while the slash chord might not always be the perfect shorthand for what’s happening within a song, it’s universally understood and the best means we have available.
Pine Fresh? Dear Theory Godmother
My question relates to the famous song Where Did You Sleep Last Night? by Kurt Cobain. I am aware that this song is in the key of E minor. Armed with this knowledge I decided to confidently attack the fretboard knowing that the key of Em will only allow me to employ the following chords: Em, F#dim, G, Am, Bm, C and D. I was wrong. When I began playing the second chord of the song directed me towards Am (the IV chord of Em). This sounded horribly wrong but when I changed it to a major chord, everything resolved itself. Basically, I would just like to ask why the A major works in this situation?
Niall First of all this song was not written by Kurt Cobain, although Nirvana’s version is certainly one of the better known. The song exists with at least three different titles, too, including In The Pines and Black Girl. It’s a traditional American folk song dating from the 19th century and was a hit for blues legend Leadbelly in the 1940s, but the original composer is unknown. So the song and its chord arrangement belong to the folk tradition so it might just break a few musical rules, simply because the rules wouldn’t have been an issue with whoever wrote it.
Secondly, I’ve scampered about the internet and found a few different versions and I’m pretty sure that the key is E major and not E minor. The chords to the song are one continuous repetitive sequence comprising E,A,G and B and so, if we take the E, A and B to be the standard I IV V chord arrangement in E major, then it’s really the G that is the odd one out.
Part of the confusion is that in the Nirvana Unplugged video, Kurt is playing the E and A chords as ‘5’ or ‘power’ chords (Ex 2) as opposed to their fuller versions. So a lot of people are not hearing any 3rd and assuming that it’s minor because of the bluesy nature of the melody. But, not only are we talking folk, we’re also talking blues, because Leadbelly’s version was certainly in that stylistic region. And a great many blues tunes have very minor-sounding melodies strung over major chords. Depressingly, I’ve found several You Tube videos out there, some done by seemingly ‘official’ guitar