At 02:53 PM 5/4/2007 -0400, John wrote the following:
Wow! This whole thing is a lot more complicated than I would have
imagined. No wonder I never got around to figuring it out. I dabble in
too many different kinds of music, so encounter all of these systems one
way or another. They're enough alike to be really confusing if you don't
take the time to sort it out, which I never did.
The thing about theory analysis symbols is particularly interesting. I
think that is what my son in law showed me, and he was convinced that it
was the same as "figured bass," and he gave the impression that this is
what it was called in the theory class he took.
Now I have no choice but to sort it all out.
> >James wrote:
> >After I posted
> >the thing about figured bass, I got curious about some of the details of
> >what the son-in-law told me, and eventually found a discussion on Wikipedia
> >under Chord (music) that talks about various notation systems. In the
> >paragraph about figured bass, it says it is used nowadays mostly to notate
> >chord analysis, and I think that is probably what the SOL uses it for, in
> >an educational context. He showed me some examples of taking JSB chorals
> >with written out bass line and "analyzing" the bass using figured bass
> >notation. I think it would be good to learn how to do that, and I will put
> >it on the "to do" list. He claims it has the same information as "charts"
> >that pop musicians use.
>Not quite the same information. Similar in that it is a harmonic
>shorthand, in that it delineates the harmonic progressions, and in
>that it is designed for performance, not analysis. Very different in
>that figured bass is dependent on a key signature (i.e. an
>established tonal center, with chromatic alterations indicated by
>modifying the figures). Chord symbols (the correct term for the
>modern system) are independent of key signature, and ALWAYS describe
>a harmonic structure without regard to the key signature or tonal
>center. And of course both similar in that they give the framework
>for the accompanist, but NEVER the actual realization.
> >Wiki in that same article also talks about "charts" which it says is what
> >many pop musicians use to indicate chord progressions and their timing with
> >respect to the melody line. I have known about that for a long time and
> >never bothered to learn about the details of that either. I wonder if it
> >evolved independently of figured bass.
>A "chart" is jargon for an arrangement--for the music you put in
>front of the musicians. (Or a composition, of course, but a great
>deal of commercial music is arrangements.) "Chord symbols" are the
>20th century version of figured bass, as described above and below.
>And yes, they evolved completely independently of figured bass but to
>provide solutions for some of the same needs (i.e., a compact
>To find the origin of chord symbols, just take a look at early 20th
>century Tin Pan Alley popular sheet music. The written piano
>accompaniments are deliberately simplified so that anyone with basic
>piano skills can play them, in order to maximize sheet music sales.
>(No decent jazz pianist would EVER actually play the notes as
>written--Schubert this ain't!!!) But piano was not always the
>instrument available for accompaniment, so in order to attract even
>more buyers the music would include guitar boxes (a graphic
>representation of simple chord fingerings on 6 strings), banjo boxes
>(similar tablature for 4-string tenor banjo), or ukulele boxes
>(similar for 4 strings tuned differently). And--HERE COMES THE
>IMPORTANT PART!--just to make the sheet music even more universally
>useable, an alphabetic chord symbol was included over the tablature
>Since this system was devised by publishers and not by music
>theorists, it grew piece by piece rather than being presented as a
>perfect, finished system, and it's still growing a century later.
>The simplest chord symbols represented the harmonic structures most
>used in the 1900s and 1910s: an upper case letter represents a major
>triad (C = c, e, g). A numerical extension (usually in superscript)
>indicated additional notes beyond the major triad (C7 = c, e, g,
>bb--always the dominant 7th rather than the major 7th, which required
>a more complex chord symbol; C6 = c, e, g, a). An addition using
>lower case letters indicated modification of the basic major triad
>(Cm or Cmi or Cmin = c, eb, g; Caug = c, e, g#; Cdim = c, eb, gb;
>Cdim7 = c, eb, gb, bbb).
>As the harmonic vocabulary got richer, the chord symbols got more
>complex (Cmi7(b9 #11) = c, eb, g, bb, db, f#). During the '60s the
>"Burt Bacharach chord" (subdominant chord over dominant bass) forced
>the development of fraction notation (F/G = g, f, a, c) and as chord
>inversions in the bass got more creative that fraction notation came
>to be used to indicate inversions (C/E = first inversion C major
>triad). The system continues to evolve, with much of the development
>being in jazz, but not all. The Rock "power chord" with no 3rd is
>indicated by "C5"; the Contemporary Christian chord played c, d, g is
>indicated by "C2" (which has replaced the earlier and more awkward
>"C(add 9)" because within the system a "9" always implies a "7" as
>And I can't emphasize this too strongly: Neither figured bass nor
>chord symbols says ANYTHING AT ALL about how to realize the
>harmonies. To realize baroque figured bass your fingers have to know
>baroque fingering patterns. To realize chord symbols your fingers
>have to know pop or jazz fingering patterns. Never forget that
>beginners' books are written for beginners, not for masters of the
>The two other systems have limited use. Theory analysis symbols
>(upper and lower case Roman numerals) are intended for analysis and
>not for performance, and are tied to key signature and tonal center.
>And "Nashville Notation" is based on those symbols and used by
>musicians who took a theory class once!
>Yes, I teach an arranging class, and have to make sure my students
>understand chord symbols and understand how they are different from
>what they do in theory classes! And when we had an active vocal jazz
>program (before the first round of punitive budget cuts), our vocal
>jazz prof. had her students prepare leadsheets for all their songs,
>including key and time signatures, the melody line, and chord
>symbols, which is all the information experienced jazz players need
>to create a rhythm section accompaniment on the spot!
>John & Susie Howell
>Virginia Tech Department of Music
>Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A 24061-0240
>Vox (540) 231-8411 Fax (540) 231-5034
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