Sustained Tones: An Animated Discussion
By David Hodge and Abel Petneki
Hi and welcome aboard. You know, I used to think that writing a good introduction for this article would be easy. But it’s not. Maybe that’s why our esteemed Guitar Columnist, David Hodge, let me write it. Oh, I almost forgot to introduce myself: my name is Abel Petneki, and this week’s article is going to be about “sustained tones” (until we manage to find a better term for this…). I can almost hear you murmuring “What’s this guy talking about?” Well, to make a long story short, a while ago I e-mailed David about a phenomenon found in many of the songs of the British band Oasis. After a few e-mails, we decided that even the 5689 miles between Chicago and Budapest couldn’t stop us from writing an article together. Anyway, the Oasis songs may sound pretty simple, but there’s something strange going on there: the chords seem to remain the same and change at the same time. Sounds interesting, huh? Okay…brief summary: check. On to you, David, then…
Thanks, Abel. Three columns ago (But Then Again…), we examined a technique in which we used only three or four strings in order to form a chord while leaving, in those particular examples, the outer strings (E, B and E) free to resonate to their hearts’ desire. I have called this effect a “drone” or “droning.” Which it is. But this is a very simple explanation and I think that it’s time we explored a little more of the theory behind this and see what is actually going on. Of course, this means we need to use our official disclaimer:
These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.
Okay, now that we’ve got that taken care of, it’s time we took a closer look.
I agree, David. But before we get really technical, let’s see an other example for “droning”. There’s a song called The Masterplan by Oasis. It’s a slow ballad — at least it begins that way. We’ll take a look at the intro, which is played on acoustic guitar and goes like this:
Bet you couldn’t name these chords! :-) The only thing I can tell that they are somewhere near A minor, and they have a lot of tension. Then there’s that descending bassline to further complicate matters. So I dialled 1-800-HODGE for help…
In this chord sequence, Abel has correctly pointed out two things. First is the “tension” you can feel in the chord voicing itself. Playing the 5th fret on the G string sounds the C note, and you are also playing the open B string for all it’s worth. These notes are a half-step apart (or a minor second if you prefer) and that is about as dissonant as you can get. Any interval of a second, major or minor, tends to catch our attention in a very big way. But it is an odd dissonance in that there is a promise of resolution, of bringing the tension to an end at some point. Technically speaking, this chord is an Am. Here the function of the open strings serves to provide an interesting chord voicing, which in turn provides enough dissonance and tension to be dramatic yet not unpleasant to the ear.
The second thing that Abel noted is that there is indeed a descending bassline, here being played out on the D string. This movement, while creating even more dissonance, actually distracts from the B and C dissonance by drawing your attention to the notes that are in motion. In fact, if you have a copy of the song you can hear the acoustic guitar’s descending bassline doubled first by the bass and then by the orchestral accompaniment. These two factors of the chord voicing, with its inherent dissonance, along with the descending bassline, (not to mention the droning of the A and both E strings) combine to make the introduction to “The Masterplan” compelling. It really draws you into the song whether you want to be or not.
I’d like to point out as well that I have heard (and seen) people play this using the fifth fret of the B string instead of playing it open. In essence, they are simply doubling the high E string, and that’s perfectly okay. But personally, I ‘ll take the dramatic effect of the open B string any day.
Oh, in case you’re interested, there is a technical name for this type of dissonance created by a descending bassline (as well as by other similar things). It’s called an appoggiatura and it’s something that we’ll be discussing in the very near future when we look again at melodies.
I’m not sure if Noel Gallagher had all this in mind while writing the song. Maybe he should visit Guitar Noise to learn about the essence of his own style…
For the next song, we’re going to leave “droning” and see another technique, which we’ll call “sustained tones” for now. Please don’t confuse “sustained” with “suspended.” Yes, there are suspended chords – “sus” for short – in the examples we’re going to use, but it’s not that. Rather, it is the sustaining of certain notes throughout the chord progression or melody. Confused? Well, Talk Tonight (again by Oasis) is a good example for this – and more!
Try to keep an eye (or ear) on any notes that do not change through the whole verse. Another thing to look out for is all the tension the C9 chord has – you’ll definitely notice it the minute you play the song.
As Abel stated, a sustained tone is one note being held (often continually) while the harmony or chord pattern around it changes. This may not seem all that different than a “drone,” but it does differ in a significant way. Usually a drone is a “given,” a product of the instrument itself, usually owing to its construction (like a bagpipe) or to its tuning (like a zither or, for that matter, your guitar). A sustained tone is one that is chosen by the musician or writer, purely for its effect. In this song, it is the D note (3rd fret on the B string) that is the sustained tone. By playing this note over the various chord changes, we both create and then resolve disonant intervals. Here, the interval in question is, again, a second, but this time it is a major second, the full step between the D and the E (open E string). It is very interesting to listen as the tension actually gets “edgier” with each successive chord. We are finally freed from all this dissonance by the G. The C9 has the most tension because it contains four notes that are, technically speaking, back to back to back to back – those being the Bb, C, D and E. Fortunately, though, the C is on the 3rd fret of the A string and thus some much needed separation is provided between the C and D. Otherwise it would be quite a muddle! The C add 9 is almost a welcome relief, even though it’s almost as bad.
Speaking of muddle, you may have noticed that both songs we mentioned are played on an acoustic. If you’d use a lot of distortion, the open strings would make one big pile of noise out of the song. The same applies to Wonderwall. Although…Oasis played this song using slight distortion in August when I saw them playing live here in Budapest. They were really good (and really loud), as always. But let’s get back to our regular program here. Wonderwall is a love song written by Noel for his future wife. I think that’s pretty romantic. But why call it Wonderwall? Is that a word? Well, Noel’s favorite Beatle, John Lennon reportedly used it instead of “wonderful” – like “that’s just wonderwall!” And “Wonderwall Music” was the title of Harrison’s first solo album as well. So it’s a Beatles reference; Oasis songs tend to have a lot of those. That’s for some background info, now let’s get down to business…
This is yet another example of the use of sustained tones. But instead of one note, this time it is two notes, the G and D, which are sustained over the underlying chords. Usually this term is used to describe an aspect of the melody (and again, more on this in the very near future) but for now it will suit our purpose. This chart will help out a bit:
If you examine this chart closely, you can see how the G and D notes (played on the 3rd fret of the first and second strings) are notes needed to form each of the chords in the pattern, albeit they have different functions in each. The D, for instance, is the seventh in the Em7, the fifth in the G, the root of the Dsus4 and the fourth in the A7sus4. By giving it (and the G note) such prominent placement in these chord voicings, you cannot help but focus your attention on them.
It might also interesting to point out that some of these chords also contain a third note which is also held over through the next chord. The B in the Em7 and the A in the D, for instance. Even though the changes between the successive chords are very subtle (note-wise), you can hear how radical some of the changes are.
I’m sure that most of you are familiar with other songs that use this technique of sustained tones. Here are two more examples in the key of G (and we should note here that Wonderwall is actually played in the key of A because they use a capo on the second fret…):
As I mentioned, these particular examples use the same sustained tones (the G and D notes) as used in Wonderwall. There are, of course, examples of this using different notes (on different strings) which will will be looking at in the upcoming weeks. The important thing to glean from all this is that the ability to see individual notes as parts of several chords can be a great aid to writing music, whether you are trying to come up with a melody or a chord progression.
It’s also a good way of spicing up your songs – you can get away with the simplest chord progression by putting some thought to it. Using sustained notes also makes the chord changes sound smoother by having strings which resonate continuously.
By the way, if you want to track down any of the Oasis songs to hear them for yourself (and Abel and I both agree that you really should; Noel Gallagher is a fine example for songwriters to study), then you should know that The Masterplan and Talk Tonight can be found on The Masterplan (1997), and Wonderwall on (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995).
Well, that’s about it for this week. I hope all of you enjoyed this co-presentation. Next week, it’s going to be just David again (it is his column, after all!). Keep strumming!
And I’d like to thank Abel for both the ideas for the topic today, as well as for this cool way of bringing it to the page. It was a bit of work but it’s been a lot of fun. I don’t know about you, but I hope we’ll be able to talk him into writing another article to post on the Guitar Columns page sometime soon.
As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and Abel can be reached at email@example.com
Until next week…