Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 14 – why most chords and harmony teaching is stupid

It’s the return of the Kpopalypse music theory class!  Read on for more music theory things!

Way back in episode 6 of this series I talked a bit about major and minor chords.  At that time I mentioned that there were also other chords, and that I would cover them at some point in the future.  Since we are now at “some point in the future” relative to back then, now it’s time to cover these chords!  Note that this episode builds on from episode 6, so if you haven’t read that, or don’t understand anything at all about these “chord” things, you’re really going to want to start there first, and then come to this post when you’re done, which will help it make more sense, even though it probably won’t, because like much of the music theory class, this post gets a little strange.

So.  As previously discussed, we know about diatonic (seven note) major and minor scales.  We also know that each scale has “scale degrees”, which is just a fancy way to say “we put numbers on the notes”.

Fig. 1 – the C major scale

There’s a C major scale, showing distances between each note (T for tone, S for semitone) plus with each note numbered (scale degree).  

Here’s the minor version:

Fig. 2 – the A minor scale

You’ll notice the T-S pattern is different here.  This might be confusing to look at though, because the major and minor examples I’ve used are in different keys (starting notes).  The major scale is in C major and the minor scale is in A minor.  I did this in episode 6 on purpose just so I didn’t have to use sharps or flats, which would have complicated things for that episode, but for what we’re about to do in this episode here it’s probably better if we look at major and minor in the same key so we can see the differences more clearly.

Fig. 3 – the C minor scale

So here’s the C minor scale.  You’ll notice it has the same T-S pattern as the A minor scale above it, but it starts on the C note like the C major scale does.  Here we can see the differences clearly – because of the different minor T-S pattern being applied, the minor scale has the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the scale flattened, or lowered by one semitone.  So in other words, when you’re thinking about minor chords, you don’t need to worry about remembering a whole different scale, just the differences relative to the major scale.

This will now make sense when you look at how major and minor chords are built, because the chords will mirror this aspect – whenever the third, sixith or seventh degree appears, it will be lowered if it’s a minor chord.  So let’s now look at some chords, starting with triads (three note chords).  For each chord I’ll give the tone-semitone distance between each note in the chord, and the scale degrees, and in brackets the suffix that usually denotes this chord in sheet music.

Major chord – TT TS – 1 3 5

Minor chord (m) – TS TT – 1 b3 5

Major and minor chords are the building blocks of most harmony in k-pop songs, about 95% of harmony in k-pop songs are these.

Diminished chord (° or b5 or dim)- TS TS – 1 b3 b5

Augmented chord (+ or #5 or aug)- TT TT – 1 3 #5

Diminished and augmented chords are a lot rarer, because they sound weird.  These type of chords aren’t usually the foundation of a pop song, if they’re used at all it’s usually while quickly transitioning to something else, they’re not chords that a commercial pop song will ever sit on for a long time. Weirder styles, maybe.

Suspended 4th chord (sus4 or sus) – TTS T – 1 4 5

Suspended 2nd chord (sus2) – T TTS – 1 2 5

Suspended chords also aren’t hugely common and tend to be used for transitions.  A future episode will talk about suspensions in more depth.  For now, just know that these are chords that can happen and this is how they are built.

Now you might be thinking “there’s more combinations of three notes than this, right?”  Well, yes – there are.  But there’s two reasons why they don’t have names, or at least, not names that we care about.

Reason number one is that some chords are actually inversions of other chords.  For instance if we look at 1-4-6, this is C F A.  However since the musical scale wraps around (once you reach note 8 you’re actually back at note 1), 1-4-6, 4-6-1 and 6-1-4 are all in fact the same chord.  1-4-6 doesn’t fall into any of the above patterns, and neither does 6-1-4, but 4-6-1 does, that’s F A C in the pattern of TT-TS or in other words, the F major chord.  So we’re really just dealing with an “inversion” of 1-3-5, rather than a new type of chord.

Reason number two is that other three-note chords sound like shit.  There’s no point trying to “make a name” for something like 1-b2-b5 because that particular combination and others like it just sounds ugly. 

Speaking of sounding like shit, now we get into chords with more than three notes in them.

Dominant 7th chord (7) – TT TS TS – 1 3 5 b7 (note: major 3rd but minor 7th, this chord is usually just called “seventh”)

Major 7th chord (maj7 or M7) – TT TS TT – 1 3 5 7

Minor 7th chord (min7 or m7) – TS TT TS – 1 b3 5 b7

Minor-Major 7th chord (mM7) – TS TT TT – 1 b3 5 7 (opposite of dominant 7th)

Half-diminshed 7th chord (ø or m7b5) – TS TS TT – 1 b3 b5 b7

Diminished 7th chord – (°7 or dim7) – TS TS TS 1 b3 b5 bb7

Nobody uses these chords for any more than a fleeting moment in most songs because they frankly suck to listen to.  Only egghead jazz assholes like the sound of this shit.

Oh and here’s a thing – it doesn’t end there.  There’s also 9th, 11th and 13th chords.  You see, music theorists don’t just stop counting when they get to seven but actually wrap around a second time with the scale degrees like this, when making chords with more than four notes in them:

Fig. 4 – the C major scale with extended scale degrees up to degree 13


So that means you get shit like:

9th chord (9) – TT TS TS TT – 1 3 5 b7 9

11th chord (11) – TT TS TS TT TS – 1 3 5 b7 9 11

13th chord (13) – TT TS TS TT TS TT – 1 3 5 b7 9 11 13

Major 9th chord (maj9 or M9) – TT TS TT TS – 1 3 5 7 9

Minor 9th chord (m9 or min9) – TS TT TS TT 1 b3 5 b7 9


Seriously I got so bored of fucking writing this part of the post.  I had to watch so many JAVs just to keep myself motivated.  “Okay for one boring chord I explain I’m going to watch a JAV” was the only way I could even get this far, and even then I quit a bunch of times just because the JAVs were a lot more interesting and kept my brain switched on for far longer, even the ones with the girls in them who weren’t really my body type.  Once’s not inclined to be too fussy about physical body preferences when the alternative is slogging through incredibly boring lists of chords that nobody ever uses.  You can look up this chord bullshit anywhere and I suggest that you look these things up only when you come to them, rather than trying to memorise it all ahead of time, which is just a waste of brain space that could be used for memorising the shade of Ichika Matsumoto’s lip gloss.  None of this chord shit actually matters anyway. Your k-pop faves don’t use half of these chords, and even if they do it’s only for the barest of fleeting seconds before moving onto some other chords that sound better.  So let’s talk about something that matters (besides JAV).

You see, the thing people don’t even realise about harmony, and that no music theory class will ever teach you, is this – chords in the sense that we know them today were never really considered to even be a thing when they were first created, they’re a theoretical construction only.  Mozart didn’t sit down between scat-play sessions, play C E and G together and say to himself “gosh I just played a C major triad”, no.  The reason why he didn’t think that is because the concept of a chord didn’t even exist at that time.  The idea of chord names came about after all the guys of his generation were dead, as a way for people who were studying these supposedly “great” composers to post-rationalise their melodic choices, those folks noticed that certain notes would appear in certain formations commonly, combined it with the limitations of piano playing (where it’s difficult to stretch a hand very far beyond an octave of keys, so clustering harmony together into small three-to-five-note groups makes sense) and built chord theory out of that.  Music theory like this isn’t supposed to be material for people to study and jerk off to, it’s supposed to be a short cut for amateur composers who want to sound like Mozart… but who the fuck wants to sound like Mozart?  I’d rather sound like Rockit Girl.

There’s only one type of “chord” in Rockit Girl’s cover of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, and it’s this:

Power chord (5) – TTTS – 1 5

Everything else is sort of “implied” by the melodic lines, and that’s actually how harmony works.  So if all the chords are just degrees 1 and 5, and the determining aspect of major/minor is degrees  3, 6 or 7, which are missing from the chords, how do we know what key the song is even in?  Well, even though all the guitar chords are power chords, we still hear the song “Like A Virgin” as major because when Leeseul sings, she hits the major third, not the minor third.  Since the position of the third is a distinguishing factor in a major scale, we hear Leeseul imply major by filling in the missing harmony of the third scale degree with her voice, that the “chords” themselves don’t actually have.  Whether it’s a triad or not doesn’t matter – the same effect would happen if she sung a major 6th or major 7th instead of the minor versions.  Therefore we get “major sound” and “minor sound” even when the guitar chords don’t specifically imply either one, a “chord” is actually rationalised by combining what various melodic strands are doing at one time. 

Let’s look at more quality study material.

In the verse of T-ara’s “Roly Poly”, there is no single instrument that is playing a chord at all.  Keyboard chords are only being used to fill the chorus, everything in the verses is monophonic singing, or instruments playing single-note lines.  The “chord” is partly built up from different instruments combining, and partly from the melodic line implying a certain harmonic motion.  The bass playing an A as the lowest note leads the brain to believe we’re playing an A chord of some type, the vocals hitting the G over the A implies that the first chord is A minor, because G is the flattened 7th in the A minor key (see fig. 2).  this is enough for us to know we’re in A minor, we don’t need any instruments to be playing C or E (the 3 and 5 of the A minor chord) because we already have “enough information” to determine that we’re in A minor.  Likewise, if the vocals hit G# instead, then the first chord would be interpreted as A major… even if no instrument is playing a C# or an E (the 3 and 5 of the A major chord).  This mental joining of the dots is how we derive harmony from an incomplete harmonic picture.

Conventional ways of thinking about harmony don’t always apply that well to pop music.  Lets say hypothetically in a piece that the bass player is playing C, and the guitar player is playing E, and the piano player is playing G, then the result combines to C major.  This is where the word “harmony” comes from, multiple instruments, or voices, or voices AND instruments, sounding “harmonious” together.  But, what if you have a violin in the mix as well, and the violin plays a descending line C B A G, then you might get, in four measures of one bar:

Fig. 5 – descending C B A G melody over static 1-3-5 C E G harmony

Does this mean that for the second measure of the bar, the piece’s chord is suddenly C major 7?  Well, technically you could argue yes, because are hitting the 1,3 5 and 7 in that measure (C E G B) but it doesn’t always sound that way to your ear when you hear it fleetingly in a pop song, even though it kind of is that way – your brain separates out the top line as “the melody” and treats it in a separate box to everything else, “the harmony”, even though technically the melody, is actually part of the harmony.  If we were to treat everything as harmony, “Roly Poly” would in fact be full of 7th and 9th chords, the thing should sound like a wacky jazz excursion, but we don’t actually hear it that way, so this is where harmony theory reveals itself to be an inappropriate tool for conceptualising pop music – if the numbers “add up” but the audible result doesn’t reflect this, then that means something is wrong with the method.  It actually makes more sense in terms of how we hear music, to say that all harmony is actually melody first, and harmony second.  A piano piece with triads in the left hand and one-note melody in the right hand actually has four separate melodies in reality, and it’s the combination effect of these melodies which forms “harmony”.  How much of the harmony you consider to be “the harmony” as opposed to “a melodic line on top of the harmony” or “a bass line under the harmony” is actually more “culturally determined” rather than “absolute”.  Most people wouldn’t consider a solo singer over a guitar to be “harmonising”, but objectively, they are. 

Definitions of harmony can be even broader than this.  Most people would never think of drums as harmony, but drums have pitches too, and the way drum pitches interact with other musical instruments playing in tandem is also actual “harmony” even if no specific pitch relationship was intended.

Slayer’s “South Of Heaven” performed here by Ayeon, demonstrates this with the drum fills.  Rock drummers don’t often tune their drums to specific musical pitches, but they do tune them so they have a roughly even descending pitch pattern when fills are performed.  In Ayeon’s case the electronic drums are pre-programmed samples and the sample-creators over at Roland have been careful to tune the relationship between the toms to consistent musical intervals, this is obvious when she starts doing rolls at 0:37 and hitting each electronic tom in turn.  Her drum rolls sound very “melodic” because of this, arguably a bit “too melodic” for the material.

Most drummers aren’t as pitch-precise as Ayeon’s electronic drums, they don’t bother to tune their kits to precise musical pitches, but when you hear their drums it doesn’t sound “out of tune”.  Here’s Ami Kim performing the same song, with acoustic drums:

Ami’s drums aren’t tuned anywhere near to exact pitches, she just does what pretty much all drummers do and has the bigger toms pitched lower than the smaller toms (unlike electronic drums which can be programmed to sound like whatever, it’s pretty hard to set up acoustic drums any other way due to the physics of stretching a larger drum skin vs a smaller one).  However she doesn’t sound out of tune whatsoever at any point despite the fact that she’s ignoring the tonality of the piece completely, in fact Ami Kim sounds significantly better than Ayeon due to this type of heavy metal drumming being more in Ami’s comfort zone (and it helps that she’s using the original Slayer track as a backing and not a pissweak instrumental copy).

If you’re still having trouble conceptualising pitch from drums, listen to this jazz egghead do a melodic drum thing, by pushing down on his snare drum to restrict the amount of vibrating surface, thus raising the pitch.  This should make the melodic potential of drums very obvious and he also reiterates some of the things that I’ve been talking about in this post.

The only sound in existence that does not have pitch content (and thus the potential for melody) is white noise, as white noise is every frequency dispersed equally (at least in theory).  Any other sound is fair game for making melodic content, and thus by extension, harmony.

So that might have gotten confusing maybe, but here are the key points:

  • There are lots of chords, you could look them up if you wanted
  • The notes in chords can be spread across multiple instruments
  • Harmony doesn’t require chords, it just requires a sense of what the chords are
  • This sense can be derived from the amount and shape of melodic lines and how they interact
  • All harmony is in fact melody first, because harmony (pitch combinations) cannot be created without melody (pitches)
  • All music sound is in fact melody-capable because (apart from white noise) all sound has some kind of pitch content

The music theory series will return soon!

3 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 14 – why most chords and harmony teaching is stupid

Comments are closed.