Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - February 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Kinesthetic Serendipity and Comfy Songs?

 I had to explain what the word "serendipity" meant to a student yesterday,

 in order to explain the context of a concept I was trying to get across. I told her "serendipity is the favorable result of a process that was not deliberately intended".  I don't really care if that is a proper definition or not, but that's what I'm using for this particular post!

 I posit that what I'm going to call "kinesthetic serendipity" is how a lot of guitar-based songs have originated.  

 Certain chords are learned first by most people.  The reasons are abstruse.  Sometimes it is for purely educational reasons, sometimes because a favorite song requires it.  Generally these chords tend to be of the first 3 fret, open chord variety.

 This brings up a classic chicken/egg question: did the chord voicing come first, or the songs?

 The open chord forms are usually learned first, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post.  They're most widely known.  They're also "friendly" to the mechanics of the human hand/fingers.  They are, for lack of a better word, "comfy" versus some more advanced voicings.

 In turn, for a lot of "song writers", when a guitar is picked up habit tends towards the person semi-randomly grabbing one of these chords.

 Because of the aforementioned ease, comfort, the following chord may be chosen not consciously for it's actual sound, but rather because it merely feels "comfortable" to do so.

 On the guitar, permutations of open G, C and D chords are hyper-popular.  Not necessarily because of the conscious choice, but the subconscious: someone strung these chords together because the 3 chords felt comfortable for them to play.

 As it turns out, those 3 chords musically make a lot of sense when played together.

 So, there are songs that I would consider to not just be "easy" to play, but comfortable.  Not only that, but there is an entire category of musicians I would suggest base their whole process around how "comfortable" parts are to play.

 At this point I would like to point out that "easy" and "comfortable" are not synonymous in this context!

 Some guitar players may come to a point where they consider something "comfortable" feeling to play that a beginner would find very difficult.  But, having attained a certain level of skill, the same process happens where musical ideas are brought together because they are comfortable to play.

 I put Eddie VanHalen in this category.  Most VanHalen parts require a lot of skill to execute, but if you have the skill they fall under the fingers very easily.  More specifically, the parts flow together kinesthetically (generally), which again leads me to say:

 Kinesthetic serendipity led to the music.

 The muse guides most pop music, but from a detached, "editor" standpoint.  Most often people are choosing to experiment with what they know and can physically play.

 Conversely, I do not put Eric Johnson in that category.  Eric's music often has parts that are awkward to execute relative to the rest.  What leads him to those parts are more tangibly esoteric I believe.  He demands his fingers to do something he's imagining, regardless of whether it's kinesthetically "comfortable" to do so.

 On the far end of this scale I would maybe place Allan Holdsworth, whose music occasionally has parts that fall under the fingers readily, but more often than not require peculiar and awkward fingerings.  In his case, it's my reverse-music engineering thought that he's deliberately avoiding the "kinesthetically easy" things on the artistic ground that it's going to be inherently likely to be more common sounding.

"Cardinal!  Bring me... the SOFT CUSHIONS!

 Which I agree with in part, but the flip side to that is that it doesn't mean it's going to be good sounding just because it's not "common".  His music in turn is an acquired taste for some it would seem; the result is an assortment of very atypical voicings and combinations.

 I'll also suggest the notion that there is the active role of humans choosing "comfortable" combinations of things to play, but also that the instrument itself is biased towards it.  At least in a Euro-western centric sense. There is a rhyme and reason to why the guitar is tuned as it is, how the position markers are set, and the scale length.  As a system, it is biased towards being musical.
 Which is why oddball tunings run counter to that unless one embraces the corner they put you in.  My point, though, is that there is something to be said for balancing that commonality that Holdsworth maybe rebels against, and the basic G-C-D song.  Sometimes, where your fingers go, can be a reflection of muscle memory that has been acquired by having learned music you like. 

 Developing habits relative to what you like is more important to song writing, in my opinion, than becoming diluted with ideas or concepts that you do not have any interest in.