Music Composition – Building Simplicity part 1 – Drum Corps & I-IV-V-I ….

Let’s go back in time for a moment. We’re 16 again, in the end-zone of some HS football field. Sixty-five of our brothers and sisters surround us for horn-arc. We attentively wait on our Caption Head … maybe it’s Jim Prime, Jim Ott, Rick South, Gail Royer, Jack or John Meehan, Greg Flores, Gordon Henderson, Jim MacFarlane, Gary Kean or Dean Westman. He raises his hands and our horns come up as one. He does two things-

  1. He gives us a “thumbs up”
  2. He smiles

For the uninitiated, the thumbs up signals the “F Tuning” sequence; the smile indicates his joy in conducting this and hearing us perform it , it is also our joy to play it for you. I’m going to bridge the gap between complexity of musical form, aesthetic & structure with our innate ability to enjoy music – no matter if you are a casual listener, a fan, a performer, a student, a pro, or a snobby hack with OCD.

The director brings up his hands and we breathe deep, from the bottom, set our lips and articulate a a unison C in three octaves. Then (perhaps with index and pinky extended to indicate an interval is about to be laid down, he cues the next fermata). The lead barry and sopranos pop up to the perfect fifth: G. Possibly adding another digit to indicate a completing of the major triad, with the next downbeat, seconds arise to the major third – E. –> The I chord is now constructed.

With four digits to signal the IV chord, he cues it and the line moves to an F Major triad – F, A & C. Now with all digits exposed to signal the V chord – he drops the downbeat and we move into G Major – G, B & D. To complete the progression, he gives another big, happy, open downbeat to signal a return home – to the root – I –> C Major again. It rings, it’s in tune, balanced, glorious…it is a moment of sheer joy for all within hearing range.

Why do we “like” F Tuning so much? What makes it happy? Why is the director, performers and audience smiling? That is a question for signal analysts and the neurosciences – what I CAN tell you is what the I-IV-V-I progression expresses artistically, or…at least what is theoretically “saying.” (Hence the study of music theory). I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on this, I’ll be using my own interpretation of the aesthetic. It is open for debate, difficult to define in words – you may have a better or more succinct or poetic way of putting it…for those who wish to learn basic chord progression and the artistic theory associated with F Tuning, I hope to shed some light on what your ears have been telling you all these years.

  1. As the director, I’m going to present the audience with an idea– in this case, the idea is the “color” C. It is plaintive and simple. Though in three octaves it is really just one note. Sixty-six men & women paint it for you.
  2. By cueing the perfect fifth, I’m telling you that “We are going to paint more for you.” The G’s fit just right, like an old baseball mit.
  3. When I layer in the third, I inform you that I’m continuing to “fill in” the picture of a C Major triad. Can you feel the symmetry? Does it appeal to your logical/analytical side? Your creative side? I hope it appeals to both. I’ve given you the WHAT – this piece of art is based on the key of C Major. – What happens next is a bit of a quandary.
  4. I cue the subdominat IV chord –> F Major….In moving to the IV, it signifies a turn inward…it’s as though I’m communicating internally, or perhaps with the performers, but not you…not exactly…not yet. In lyrical music, a IV following a I often contains 1st-person phrases like “Is this a dream?” “How do I feel?” “I’m unsure of myself.” Perhaps (to the 1st-time listener of F Tuning) you are unsure as well…what will I (we) present next? Even though this chord is major (“happy” — sans dissonance), by following the I it evokes uncertainty.
  5. Moving into V –> G Major, I put you back into the picture. In lyrical passages, V’s that follow I & IV often contain verses in the third or second-person. That is; someone, or some group, is being addressed directly. “This is how you make me feel.” “I’ll always remember Dominique’s smile…” “We love our fans.” Subconciously, you should at least get the following message, “NOW you see (hear). NOW you know what I’m (we’re) doing.”
  6. Psychologically (for reasons unknown to me) the V chord following the I & IV send a strong signal that the I chord is coming back — NEXT. If I were to yell “CUT!” before the resolve to I, you are likely to get an uneasy, uncomfortable feeling. To wit, a “buzz-kill.” It’s like in 2nd grade choir when the teacher would play C, D, E, F, G, A, B …… (?????!!!!!) our seven year old brains freaked out a bit…dying to hear the C! You may remember this exercise… some students sang the C out-loud due to frustration. The want or NEED to hear the V resolve to I is even stronger. Scales and one-note-at-a-time patterns have got bupkis on chord progressions.
  7. With a final downbeat – I signal the return home – to I –> C Major. With the V chord, you “saw” … you “knew.” With the resolve…I publicly said, “Now …you understand.” (and tangentially, did you like it? Hopefully, you did).

I reconstructed “Thumbs Up” from memory (not that it’s hard to remember) about a year ago in MuseScore and exported a wave file so you can digitally stand with me in the arc and hear it once more, just don’t be surprised if I add I7 or I9 (“Amen”) to the second refrain & naturally the double high register in the third. It’s the virtual drum corps that lives in my PC. They’re learning.

These feelings, expressions, emotions and forms of communication innate to chord structure and progression can get quite complex, in future installments I’ll add examples to listen to and we’ll delve into far more complex progressions as we learn this together. It’s about time we understood a little bit about our favorite thing in the world, don’t you agree? -t

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