I have a song and found out the chords using RiffStation. The software detects more than 2 or 3 chords in some measures which means I should rapidly change chords while playing.

My question is can I remove some short chords and use only 1 or 2 chord in the measures that I have more than 2? Does it hurt song quality?

  • Do you have any theoretical or experimental reason for your answer? I think human ear can't detect differences between 2 chords or 4 chords that played in a couple of seconds. I'm not sure though – user37367 Jun 2 '17 at 21:17
  • Hmmm. Theoretical or experimental reason? If it sounds wrong, it is clearly wrong to remove chords. Some chords are likely to be more important than others, and should not be removed. Other chords, e.g., passing chords, may be less vital. Learn to trust your ears. – David Bowling Jun 2 '17 at 21:23
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    Also note that in Jazz it is not at all uncommon to hear 4 chords pass by in one second. – David Bowling Jun 2 '17 at 21:25
  • So you are saying as long as I feel the song sounds good it is okay, right? – user37367 Jun 2 '17 at 21:25
  • Anything is "ok". There are no "sounds ok" police. No one is going to come to you and fine you for doing what you want. Do what you want. If you leave out some chords, it will change the song, but that's ok. People have been changing songs as long as there have been songs. When I was teaching I would teach the youngest students simplified versions of songs that left out some chords and made other chords easier to play. It still has the same vibe as the full song, just not as much character. – Todd Wilcox Jun 2 '17 at 21:27

The question is, whether it is acceptable to leave some chords out of a piece of music when you play it. The answer will depend on the context. For a piece of classical music, the answer may be no. So let's focus on other contexts.

I would start by saying that it is best to transcribe tunes from recordings yourself, rather than to rely on others to do this work. So many transcriptions that you find in print or online contain errors. And different transcriptions may be based on different recordings; who is to say which is authoritative? In any case, you should compare the transcription with at least one recording to check its accuracy.

Setting this aside, and focusing on chords, suppose that you have a set of chord changes that is too dense to comfortably play. You might work to achieve a higher level of technical proficiency, but you might also consider leaving some chords out of your performance. This is fine, so long as what you play sounds right. This is the golden rule of music: no choice is bad if it sounds right. Of course, this allows for much subjectivity, but it does not let players off the hook for making poor musical choices. Part of growing as a musician is developing an ability to be self-critical (in a positive sense).

Note that it is not at all uncommon for chord progressions to move through four chords in one second. For a concrete example, consider the Duke Ellington tune Don't Get Around Much Anymore. This song is often played with four chords in one bar:

CMaj7 - Dmin7 - D♯° - CMaj/E.

I don't know what the original changes were, but I suspect that the variations on the above that you hear, and see in transcriptions, are just substitutions made to increase harmonic motion. You can see that the main harmony here is CMaj, with the Dmin7 and D♯° connecting two CMaj chords. You could easily leave these two chords out and just play on CMaj7 for the whole bar. It would sound different, with less harmonic activity, but not necessarily bad or wrong.

Apart from this, you may want to play with fewer chords because you think the original changes are too busy, or because you want a more relaxed sound. Or you may want more chords. All such decisions are up to the player (or the bandleader, or the conductor, or maybe someone else... let's just say the player).

Working within limitations is a great way to improve as a musician. By transposing parts played on other instruments, for example, you will be forced to make choices about what to play or not play. A guitarist might hear something in a piano part that is impossible to play on the fretboard; how to get the essential sound? Or both pianist and guitarist might hear something in a horn section not reproducible on either instrument. The challenge of interpreting what you can't play leads to growth.

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    excellent detailed and very accurate answer. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 3 '17 at 19:47
  • The process of working out guitar chords for a song arranged on piano is quite educational. I've done it a few times. It's quite a project and leads to learning some interesting less common chords and voicings. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '17 at 4:00

I checked reviews for the RiffStation software and the consensus seems to be that the chord detection ability is only useful for songs with very basic major or minor chords using the most common voicings with no inversions. In other words, more often than not, the chords it suggests are not all correct. So I would avoid using the program as a primary means of determining the chords to most songs.

But to your actual question

can I remove some short chords and use only 1 or 2 chord in the measures that I have more than 2? Does it hurt song quality?

The answer is - it depends.

If you are unable to play the actual full chords in the quick succession that are called for in a particular arrangement of a song, you can sometimes get away with omitting a passing chord - particularly if that passing chord is not a prominent feature of the song. Just because a particular chord would work with the underlying melody in a given measure, does not necessarily make it essential. If the chord you are holding (instead of playing the indicated transition chord) still works with the underlying melody - you can often skip the passing chord altogether.

Popular recorded versions of most songs have a certain sound, feel, and vibe that partially arises out of the chord progression used. Of course other elements such as rhythm, tempo, time signature, and the instruments used in the mix will also contribute to the unique signature of a given version of a given song.

As a musician who plays primarily for the fun of entertaining others - when I learn to cover another artist's song using the guitar as my accompaniment instrument, I attempt to replicate to the extent I am capable of (using the guitar) - a musical rendition that captures some semblance of the sound and feel and mood of the original. I want my cover to sound somewhat authentic and recognizable.

But there are songs that have fast moving chord changes that are difficult for me to pull off in real time - especially in front of a live audience. So what I often do in that situation, is simply substitute the root base note for a quick 2nd or 3rd chord in a measure, as I transition to the final chord of that measure. Played with proper timing and rhythm, this method often lends a surprising degree of authenticity to the passage.

Other songs might have fast changes that include chords that are difficult to transition between with the speed demanded by the song. Sometimes instead of using bass notes, I will use a substitute chord or alternate voicing of the chord used in the song. Or sometime a power chord (using two of the fatter strings) will make a good substitute for a full chord.

Ultimately you want to create a rendition that sounds recognizable and maintains most of the signature distinctive elements of the song that define that song. Without the full band using the same instruments with the same talent as the original band, no matter what you play - your are not going to sound like the original. So how you pull off the illusion is not as important as how the overall performance sounds to the audience.

If you can't play it exactly like the original artist or band - use whatever tricks, shortcuts, or substitutes make your performance sound as close as possible to the version you are attempting to emulate (in accordance with your ability). Don't allow an unrealistic demand for perfection keep you from playing the music you enjoy!

Have fun.

  • Great advice about using substitute chords, simplified chords, or even single notes to fill in the space of a difficult passage. These situations are a great time to think about voice-leading and to learn new voicings for familiar chords. – David Bowling Jun 4 '17 at 7:18

Here's a simple example. Apparently the original Happy Birthday to You was based on the melody of Good Morning to All. If you look at the third last bar here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You you will notice two chords that are not always played at birthday parties. In fact most versions of Happy Birthday to You are probably played simply with chords I, IV and V without spoiling anybody's party. Another example, in reverse, would be Bobby McFerrin's version of Van Morrison's Moondance. It has more chords than the original but it sends the Seduct-O-Meter (technical term) off the scale and makes Van's version sound like bubblegum music. There is no doubt that the original is a successful piece of music, but if it was released after McFerrin's version would people be complaining, 'oh he's left chords out'? Fewer chords just means less detail and subtlety. It has to be said that leaving out a chord altogether could be preferable to chugging on with the previous chord for the rest of the bar and hoping there'll be no graunching (technical term) dissonance.

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