HomeBlogsDocac's blogHow to compete in a Riff-Off Part 3

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For the past two weeks, I have been discussing the steps your group needs to take in order to participate in a riff-off, just like in the popular movie Pitch Perfect. Parts 1 and 2 are listed below, and it is recommended that your group master these steps before moving on:

Part 1: http://www.casa.org/content/how-compete-riff-part-1 (This contains steps 1 and 2)
Part 2: http://www.casa.org/content/how-compete-riff-part-2 (This contains steps 3 and 4)

Today, I'll talk about Step 5. Step 5 requires you to understand how music works. It is all fine and dandy if I tell you what the chord progressions are for every song ever written, but it's better if someone in your group knows how to figure out the chord progressions by either looking at the music or looking at a tab/chord sheet.

This guide is not going to help you be able to use ANY song in a riff-off. There are many songs that utilize very difficult chord progressions ("Stairway To Heaven" for example) and are probably not suitable for a riff-off. If your group wants to prove me wrong, then go for it. But the next step is designed for groups who don't understand very much about musical theory. If you understand musical theory and how chord progressions work, then you can completely skip step 5.

Now it wouldn't be fair to say all music works the same way. The compositional style of Mozart differs almost completely from the compositional style of Gershwin, which also differs from the compositional style of Adele. Thankfully, if you take the example of the riff-off that we see in Pitch Perfect, you'll notice that all the songs are relatively modern, from the decade of the 80's and up. This is by far the easiest type of music to start with, because a lot of popular songs have easily identifiable chord progressions.

Step 5: Understanding The Theory

This is what it will take for your group to recognize a chord progression and improvise from scratch:

1) Figure out the key of the song (Chart 1)
2) Figure out the notes of each chord (Chart 2)
3) Figure out what chords you need in each key (Chart 3)

The key of the music defines what notes are used in the song. Take a piece of music, any piece of music, and look at the very left of the first measure, next to the treble clef.

Visual example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_(music)

Do you see all those weird symbols there? Like # or b? Good. Those are symbols that define the key. (If you don't see any symbols, that's okay too. There is one key that has neither # or b). The # is called a "sharp," and the b is called a "flat."

Knowing the key will help you identify which chords we will use in the song. Look where the key is and count the number of # or b. If you see:

Chart 1:
No # or b- You are in the key of C major or A minor
1 b- You are in the key of F major or D minor
2 b- You are in the key of Bb major or G minor
3 b- You are in the key of Eb major or C minor
4 b- You are in the key of Ab major or F minor
5 b- You are in the key of Db major or Bb minor
6 b- You are in the key of Gb major or Eb minor
6 #- You are in the key of F# major or D# minor
5 #- You are in the key of B major or G# minor
4 #- You are in the key of E major or C# minor
3 #- You are in the key of A major or F# minor
2 #- You are in the key of D major or B minor
1 #- You are in the key of G major or E minor

"Wait! What?! Two sharps equals D major?? Why?? OMG!!!"

Relax. For the purposes of competing in a riff-off, it doesn't matter why. If you want to understand why, take a theory class.

Also, don't worry about why each key has both a major and a minor name. While this is extremely important for theorists (and musicians in general), explaining the difference is both complicated and opinionated. For the purposes of a riff-off, you don't need to understand this. However, since many music theorists are probably throwing items are the screen as I write this, let me be clear: Understanding whether you are in a major key or a minor key is essential for composition, intonation, and a long list of other musical components. But again, this article is trying to cut out the long explanations, and get you into a riff-off as quickly as possible. So to all my music theory teachers, please accept my apology.

Next, you must be able to understand how a tab/chord sheet works. Tab/chord sheets (or just “tab sheets” as I will call them) do not spell each chord out for you. These sheets only tell you what chords to play and on which lyric to play them. Take the following tab sheet for “Poker Face:”

http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/l/lady_gaga/telephone_crd.htm

If you look at where the lyrics start, you will see blue text above them. These are the chord symbols.

Chords are groups of notes played simultaneously. Go to a piano (if you don’t have one, go here: www.virtualpiano.net) and play the following notes: C, E, and G. If these three notes were played together at the same time (which may not be possible on the virtual piano I provided), they would form what we call the “C major chord.”

“Wait! What?! Why is that a C major chord?? Why? OMG!!!”

Relax. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter why.

So what notes make up each chord? Let's consult chart 2.

Chart 2:

Chord Notes
C C, E, G
C# C#, F (E#), G#
Db Db, F, Ab
D D, F#, A
D# D#, G (Fx), A#
Eb Eb, G, Bb
E E, G#, B
F F, A, C
F# F#, A#, C#
Gb Gb, Bb, Db
G G, B, D
G# G#, C(B#), D#
Ab Ab, C, Eb
A A, C#, E
A# A#, C#, F(E#)
Bb Bb, D, F
B B, D#, F#

Cm C, Eb, G
C#m C#, E, G#
Dbm Db, E(Fb), Ab
Dm D, F, A
D#m D#, F#, A#
Ebm Eb, Gb, Bb
Em E, G, B
Fm F, Ab, C
F#m F#, A, C#
Gbm Gb, A (Bbb), Db
Gm G, Bb, D
G#m G#, B, D#
Abm Ab, B (Cb), Eb
Am A, C, E
A#m A#, C, F (E#)
Bbm Bb, Db, F
Bm B, D, F#

Of course, these are not the only possible chords. For every key, there are tons of possibilities, but to list them all in every key would take way too long. So here is a website that did it for me:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chord_names_and_symbols_(popular_music)

OKAY! Final step! [panting out of breath…]

Now we have to put it all together. Let’s review the chord progression we learned last week:

I V vi IV

Part two explained how to improvise these chord patterns. Now, here’s how to recognize them in tab sheets.

Let’s take the tab sheet for “Don’t Stop Believin’:”

http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/j/journey/dont_stop_believing_crd.htm

Listed here are the chords E, B, C#m, and A. If we consult the chart above (chart 2), then we know these chords contain the notes E, G#, B (E chord), B, D#, F# (B chord), C#, E, G# (C#m chord) and A, C#, E (A chord).

If we look at the actual sheet music for the song (http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtdFPE.asp?ppn=MN0044401&), we see that the key has 4 # symbols, and according to chart 1, that means we are in the key of E. So now, let’s look at chart 3:

Key I chord V chord vi chord IV chord
C C G Am F
C# C# G# A#m F#
Db Db Ab Bbm Gb
D D A Bm G
Eb Eb Bb Cm Ab
E E B C#m A
F F C Dm Bb
F# F# C# D#m B
Gb Gb Db Ebm B (Cb)
G G D Em C
G# G# D# E#m C#
Ab Ab Eb Fm Db
A A E F#m D
Bb Bb F Gm Eb
B B F# G#m E

We can see that in the key of E, the I chord is the E, the V chord is the B, the vi chord is the C#m, and the IV chord is the A. This matches up perfectly with the “Don’t stop Believin’” tab sheet.

For your purposes, this is how you identify what the pattern is to improvise the song. The fact that the note E matches up with DO, G# matches up with MI, and so on (Wait…what?) does not matter. Don’t worry about it.

Next week, I’ll review all the steps, take you through the process of preparing, discuss how to produce a riff-off, and then…issue an OPEN RIFF-OFF CHALLENGE! Good luck…

Marc Silverberg
Acappellaquest.blogspot.com
Twitter.com/docacappella