My first attempt at learning classical harmony was a failure!
I was 16 or so then and was interested in learning more about music and especially how to write.
What stopped me from learning classical harmony was one of the rule that you learn early on: it says that you shouldn’t use consecutive fifths. It’s the biggest no-no that you will be taught: “Consecutives are the no.1 bad guy in figured bass! You must NEVER write consecutives.” (see https://www.mymusictheory.com/for-students/grade-6/175-the-rules-of-harmony#con5)
At the time, I was mostly interested in rock music, and one of the thing that you will hear all the time in rock, on the guitar at least, is power chords, and power chords are nothing more than root+fifth(+octave). You will hear them all the time, in any kind of rock music… They are easy to play, they are easy to combine because there’s no third (meaning they are neither minor nor major, so you don’t need to think too much about the key you’re in), they are kind of key-agnostic in a sense, so you can can combine them in many ways, and create riffs out of them, which, as any rock fan will tell you, is what rock is about.
The fact that classical harmony forbids consecutive fifths and that rock music is using them all the time extensively is something that puzzled me for a long time…
Beyond Power Chords
Anyway, all of this to say that as much as power chords can be powerful(!), they are not the be and end-all of what you can do with music. The fact that they have been used so much in rock music doesn’t mean that you should always use them. Because, let’s face it, it gets tiring after a while…
It so happens, as I quickly discovered when I started digging into jazz harmony (which doesn’t forbid anything, indeed according to Mile Davis “You shouldn’t fear mistakes. There are none!”, or Thelonious Monk: “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.”) that there are more than 2 notes (root and fifths) that you can use in chord progressions.
Now it’s true that most people out of the rock realm are going to use triads, which is root + third + fifth. Whether the third is minor or major determines the type of chord itself. In pop, folk, country and a lot of genres, that’s about the extent of the music vocabulary, sometimes a dominant seventh used, but in most cases, that’s pushing! But guess what? There’s a lot more than that available to you!
The thing is that if you’ve heard people complaining that all the music nowadays sound the same, it’s because at its core, IT IS the same. You can disguise it with many production tricks, but if you’re playing the same ii/V/I progression over and over, chances are you’re melody are also going to be limited and something that’s been heard countless times…
Beyond Simple chords
If like me, you are a bit tired of the same old major and minor chords, if seeing the umpteenth song on YouTube with a guitar strumming these same chord clichés, or pounding the piano over these tiresome triads, you should start to think about music differently and try venturing into the awesome world of augmented, diminished, suspended, extended chords.
I’m talking about 6th, 9th, 11th, 13th, I’m talking about 5th diminished or augmented, I’m talking about suspended 2nd or 4th, I’m talking about pedal bass with different chords on top, I’m talking about inversions, substitutions, key changes, modal chords, poly chords.
Try to create some tension in your chords and this will also open a new world of melodies. If you don’t know what to use, you could take some lessons, read some harmony books. Listen to different music genres to broaden your horizon, learn to play these different progressions and exotic chords.
Even if you’re not ready to learn jazz harmony, or study music theory, there’s things you could do, for example if you play guitar you could try various open tunings, this would automatically create new sounds with simple positions.
Try playing arpeggios instead of strumming, try alternating arpeggios with strumming, try picking. If you’re playing piano, try to play some random notes on top of what your fingers are used to, see what sticks, see what gives you a different idea, explore…
Anything goes to avoid the stagnation of tiresome chord progressions. Please think about it, it will give you a distinct sound and an edge above the millions who are strumming these same major and minor chords over and over. Remember to let me know your thoughts in the comment box below.