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Why does this chord progression sound good even though it's using notes not in the correct key?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by DuckSoup, Oct 25, 2020.

  1. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    I was having trouble finding how to ask this question, but here's something I'm having trouble wrapping my head around. I'm no music theory expert, so I'm just trying to learn here.

    I like to noodle with chords and just explore sounds. One of the things I like to do is descend down from the I, to the vii, then vi, then V. But there's something off about that V chord that I need some help with.

    So let's say I'm playing in the key of C, and I start with a C major chord (C, E, B) Sounds great.

    Then I go to a B chord (B, D, A)...smooth, I like it so far

    Then the A chord (A, C, G) great I love it

    Then here's where it gets wonky...I drop to that 5 chord (G, B, F<<<)

    That F...sounds completely out of place. If I play an F# instead, it sounds like it fits the chord progression and feels right...But that doesn't make sense to me, it's a note not in key, and on top of that the 5th chord should be a augmented 7th right?

    I know that music theory is simply just theory, but it seems like descending down like that should feel nice and smooth, but that 5th chord sounds super tense and out of key.
    jamro217 likes this.
  2. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    A general comment and then a specific answer:

    I would suggest you back way up, and learn music theory in a structured manner, such as a "curriculum" devised by a good teacher. You seem a little confused about some very basic terminology, for example a C Major chord is C, E, G (not C, E, B). So I would recommend to go back to the very beginning, and learn this stuff cold, in a structured way.

    And then to specifically address your question: It all depends what comes next! If the next chord after the G chord is C Major (C, E, G) then I think a G7 chord (G, B, D, F) should sound very nice. Yes, it might be "super tense" but songwriters use that tension, to provide "resolution" or "tension and release" back to the C chord. On the other hand if you are "modulating" away from C Major to the key of G Major, then I like your idea to play it as a GMaj7 chord with an F#. You could then try using a D7 chord (D, F#, A, C) to cement that modulation to G in the listener's ear. (A specific example of a song that uses this technique of modulating from C Major to G Major using the melody note F#, is "The Star Spangled Banner," on the phrase "dawn's early light.")

    Again I would recommend just backing up, and making sure you are very clear on the basics (what are major chords, minor chords, 7th chords, etc.) before continuing on to more advanced concepts.

    At the end of the day, it is your song, and if you think it should have an F# in it, you're the boss. Music theory doesn't tell us which notes we "can and can't," or "should and shouldn't," play! That's not what music theory is. ;)
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2020
  3. JTE

    JTE Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    Well, none of your chords have the 5th in them, so they're kind of ambiguous. Adding the 5th to your chords would give you

    CMaj7 CEGB
    Bmin7b5 BDFA
    Amin7 ACEG
    G7 GBDF

    Because you left the F out of the vii chord you have created a way for your ear to find the F# making that G chord a Major 7 instead of a dominant 7 to sound right to you.

    A dominant 7 DOES sound unsettling because of the tension of the tritone between the B and F. Follow that with a C Major 7 and see how it sounds to you.
  4. BarfanyShart


    Sep 19, 2019
    DC Metro
    I'm not sure about your chord spellings. Based on the spellings in your post, it feels like you are playing sus6 chords in first inversion in the key of E minor, not triads in C major. That's why the G Maj7 with the f# sounds diatonic. That's one of the uses of sus chords, to obscure the key center, enabling you to borrow chords from other keys more easily.
    Garret Graves, Koshchei and HolmeBass like this.
  5. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    Thanks for the feedback, and sorry I wasn't super clear on the chords I was playing. Yeah I know the Major chords are Root, 3rd, 5th and 7th, but since it's kind of hard to play that sometimes on the bass, I will do a Root, 3rd, and 7th. With the 5th, I may not get that major\minor sounds I'm looking for.

    Just trying different kinds of chords other than a standard major\minor chord to see what sounds right.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2020
  6. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    Gotcha, sounds like you are strumming 3-4 strings at a time, as if you were playing chords on a guitar?

    I think it's important to take a moment and realize the distinction between two related, but different concepts: There is the song's chord progression, which is an abstract mental construction, and then there is the arrangement or voicing of how you actually bring the song's chord progression to life on your instrument.

    I think what's happening in this case, is that G7 to CMaj is perfectly fine and normal, as an abstract chord progression to a song.

    Where you are getting tripped up, is that your arrangement or voicing of the chords, is muddy and tense. Bass is not generally a chordal instrument, and simultaneously strumming G, B, F on the bass, as a chord, can be a shocking sound!

    My recommendation is to put on a recording of a song in C Major, and play along on your bass, just the root notes, and let the guitarist or pianist on the recording, fill in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th of the chord. I think you will hear, that when you have a good arrangement of the song, where the bass is filling the bass role of the bottom/root note of the chord, and the chordal instruments are playing the rest of the harmony, that the arrangement/voicing sounds much clearer, less muddy and tense. :)

    If you are serious about studying this stuff, you can buy an inexpensive MIDI keyboard for well under $100.
    Crispus, mambo4, dralionux and 2 others like this.
  7. With the F#, you’re actually playing IV down to I in the key of G. That’s why it sounds good.
    LUpton, bfields, lestratele and 8 others like this.
  8. DuckSoup


    Dec 20, 2017
    Thank you for the feedback!

    Yeah I am sorta playing the bass as if I was strumming on the guitar or just fingering some of the notes in the chord. From there I will loop that and just practice improvising a bass line or bass solo. (Just to train my ear and stuff)

    I see what you mean about voicing though and yeah, I think you are right that this is what's holding me up a little. Part of the learning process, so I'll see how I can arrange these chords a little differently.

    Thank you again.
  9. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    I got through all the lessons and theory classes I took, just fine. And I believe learning modes, etc. are necessary. And all that...

    But I am also firmly in the camp that if it sounds good it is good. So if you stumble on a progression that works for what you are trying to create keep going that direction. Because the magic is in the creation. Good luck. Learn and study the right way. But when you are writing, all bets should be off.
    BAG likes this.
  10. MDBass

    MDBass Supporting Member

    Nov 7, 2012
    Los Angeles, CA
    Endorsing Artist: Dingwall-Fender-Bergantino-Dunlop-Tech 21-Darkglass-Nordstrand
    You’re actually playing 7th chords: the voicing you listed for C is CMaj7, not CMaj, and the following two chords are Bmin7 and Amin7.

    Reason the 7th chord of G in the key of C sounds “tense” is because it’s what’s called a “dominant 7th”: there is some very deliberate tension in the voicing pulling you towards resolving on C.

    Changing the 7th of that G chord to an F# makes it standard major 7th chord, which doesn’t have the same tension.
    DuckSoup and FatStringer52 like this.
  11. Ross Raedeke

    Ross Raedeke Supporting Member

    Feb 21, 2017
    I think this is the most correct answer. IV iii ii I is an infinitely more common and familiar sounding chord progression than I vii vi V.

    Normally when the bassline is descending from the I, the “vii” is actually a V/vii not an actual vii chord.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2020
    Rock Salad likes this.
  12. Ekulati

    Ekulati Supporting Member

    Jan 2, 2016
    Richmond, VA
    As a bassist, you should only play a line or pattern with root third and seventh if you UNDERSTAND that sound, in the context you're playing, and that's what you really want.

    I can think of very few examples of songs where that would fit, other than some pretty advanced jazz stuff.

    Yes, go back and learn theory. As a bassist, learn full arpeggios first, 1, 3, 5, maybe 7, but it's almost always a dom 7, not maj 7 as in your first chord. A maj7 as a bass note is a very tricky beast.
    Last edited: Oct 25, 2020
  13. Pocket4

    Pocket4 Supporting Member

    Dec 9, 2013
    New Hampshire
    Haven't seen anyone recommend the book Bass Guitar for Dummies, but I thought it brought many useful concepts that still linger in my head. I am not comfortable with instruction in a person to person context. Anyway that's me.
    Garret Graves and Babydave like this.
  14. oaklandthumb


    Nov 12, 2014
    Midwest USA
    The amount of knowledgeable music theory responses in this thread is awesome! Talkbass has always had some questionable thread subjects and the same old flame wars but i love seeing the number side of sound talked about, because there is always more than one way to approach theory and its almost always best when its the way that works for YOU.
  15. Blueinred

    Blueinred Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2009
    Greater Cincy
    What's great about music is that there are a bazillion approaches, theories, disciplines, rhythms, styles and they are all acceptable in context. Because, bottom line,..............................there are no rules! None. Zip.

    We are all free to wail away!

    If you believe that's not the case then you may be doomed to confinement in cover band jail forever. Which ain't so bad, by the way. (Symphony orchestras are cover bands. Just sayin'.)

    One guy's F# is another guy's Gb. If your chord progression achieves what you sought with a F# then you are free to use it, as it's your musical statement. Rock on, brother, rock on.
    Moosehead1966 and bassballs27 like this.
  16. BAG


    May 5, 2014
    New Zealand
    I agree. My favorite threads are generally when I ask about a certain song or progression that I come across and can't work out why it works or what the key should be. Rarely is there ever complete agreement between those who have a huge amount of theory knowledge but I always learn something new. And those threads have never been ignored by the theory experts here on TB.

    Yep. If you come up with a tune or line and it sounds good then don't worry if it doesn't follow any "rules"
    oaklandthumb likes this.
  17. In your example the A chord is A, C, G. That is an A minor seventh with the fifth (E) omitted. When you go to the G, B, F, the intervals between the notes changed. A G minor seventh with the omitted fifth (D) would be G, B FLAT, F. The F isn't the problem, the B is sharp which causes the interval to shift up one half step between the B and the F thereby causing dissonance. Lower the B to a B flat and try it. Hope this helps.
  18. N4860


    Mar 28, 2017
    I don't believe he is trying to play G minor though. He's playing G major so that's why he's playing B natural.
    jamro217 likes this.
  19. Some of your frustration is in that you are using your bass as a chording instrument, which it is not the best at among instruments.
    On electric bass, playing anything closer than a fifth below the seventh fret is often quite muddled. I know you want to play chords but try a keyboard to work out the theory of the chord progressions. Its just easier to hear the harmony of the intervals.
    OogieWaWa likes this.
  20. I misunderstood. Sorry. Thanks for the correction. :thumbsup:
    N4860 likes this.
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