My Jazz Chord Theory of Creativity

I found myself with a free afternoon yesterday, not something that happens often these days as any spare time I have tends to be dedicated to writing, but I’m in a lull on one project and stuck on another, and so I found myself plugging my guitar into a pedal board and amp, and I started thrashing out a few chords.

Inspired by its inclusion on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY soundtrack, I thought I’d have a go at learning David Bowie’s splendid MOONAGE DAYDREAM and was surprised by how simple it was: lots of nice major/minor chords, a very easy riff and a straightforward melody.

And it got me thinking about a half-baked music analogy I have about creativity. When rock bands start out they begin with the simple stuff: twelve-bar blues, major chords dropping to minors, and a cool hook. Stuff that’s basic, but highly effective, hitting people right in the feels…

Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy and making people feel totes emosh since the dawn of time.

But as an artist progresses in their career, they understandably want to try something more complex and challenging, and, if you’re a guitarist, this means that sooner or later your favourite band will start using complex jazz chords…

Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.
Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy jazz, but in quite small doses. It just doesn’t engage me emotionally in the way that a big, stupid rock song does. Just as I prefer Bowie’s early stuff, I suspect that it’s songs like STARMAN and LIFE ON MARS that are paying the mortgage at chez Bowie, rather than anything he’s recorded in the last twenty years. It’s also why the musically straightforward 1970s-era Pink Floyd continue to sell more than the jazz odyssey stylings of their early Syd Barrett stuff or, say, Captain Beefheart…

Of course, this theory is full of holes: if anything, the Beatles’ songs became more straightforward as they progressed, Kate Bush’s stuff was always complex musically (though her early albums are arguably more tuneful), and it probably doesn’t apply to classical or opera, though Beethoven’s Fifth (Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuum!) is as rock n roll as classical gets.

But you get the idea: the simple stuff works. It will always have a greater reach, audience-wise, than the introverted, “clever” stuff.

And here comes the big, clanging, G-major analogy that I’ll be trying to apply to my writing: I won’t be putting too many jazz chords into my stories. I might think I’m being clever by killing the hero on page 35, or starting in the middle of my story and working backwards via flashforwards, but some poor producer has to pitch that idea to raise money, and nine out of ten of them will always go for the simple sell.

That’s not to dismiss “simple” as “easy”: keeping a story truthful, engaging and emotional is hard enough as it is. So why make life more difficult for yourself?

And so my creative aim in life is to hit the same simple and moving peak as Bowie who has Mick Ronson open a song with a big, fat D-major chord as he cries, “I’m an alligator!” There’s no greater achievement in art…

 

 

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unusuallytallstories

Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

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