Category Archives: Music

Upper-Structure Voicing 101

…shortcuts for playing fancy chords that have more notes than you can handle because you don’t really play the piano.

I like to think I can “fake it” OK on the piano. I know basic major and minor chords, and also I learned “Desperado” when I was 17 years old, so I can always sit down at a party, play “Desperado”, and walk away with people assuming I have a million more ready to go. I recommend this strategy for everyone. I mean, don’t actually pick Desperado, because then the game is up for me, but pick one slow song with a few fancy chords in it, and most non-musicians in a room will assume you’re as good as the person who plays Chopin right after you.

With that said, I’m always looking for ways to squeeze more functionality out of my mediocre piano ability. In particular, I usually have to take the “drop all the chord extensions” strategy, e.g. by playing m7’s and m9’s and m11’s and mwhatever’s as just min. This is what they call a “tell”, and it quickly shatters the illusion that I know what’s going on. I do write a blog about nerdy chord theory stuff, so I know what an F11 is, but my piano-playing-brain simply can’t process anything that defies the following two axioms of piano playing…

Dan’s two axioms of piano playing:

  1. The left hand plays the root of every chord.
  2. The right hand only has to play three notes at a time, and only in the shape of a chord I know.

These assumptions cause a rift in the fabric of the universe when I see the aforementioned F11, or even its much simpler four-note cousin F7. But there’s hope! Using the time-tested strategy of memorizing stuff that’s too much to actually process in real time, one can pick up a few chord voicings that follow those two axioms (axia?) and still represent the chord you’re trying to play.

So, summarizing:

The tables in this post are a shortcut to help mediocre piano players (like me) who can only deal with 3 notes at a time in the right hand – and only the root in the left hand – play extended chords.

The basic approach is “upper structure voicing”: playing a complete chord in the right hand that becomes part of a different chord when you put the two hands together. Upper structure voicing in general could in theory make use of a zillion notes in each hand, so we’re interested in a specific subset of upper structure voicing, so more specifically:

This post is about upper-structure-voiced chords that don’t require playing anything other than the root in the left hand, and only require three notes in the right hand.

Continue reading to learn the tricks mastered by fair-to-midland pianists ’round the world… →

Do You Take Sugar, One Question Mark or Two?

…the Doctor of Rock sets the definitive standard for capitalization and punctuation in song lyrics.

If you play guitar and have ever used the Internet, you are likely aware that (a) the Internet is full of guitar chords for pop songs and (b) guitar chords for pop songs rank only slightly above YouTube comments in the care given to proofreading. I will not regale you with examples of poor capitalization and punctuation in song lyrics; suffice it to say that it’s a wild world out there.

But is it really a lack of care? Or are the masses of chord-posters yearning – desperate, even – for guidance? Do they not seek a North Star to which they can look when they ask themselves the deep, soul-interrogating questions we all must ask when chord-posting? “Should I put the entirety of ‘The Gambler’ and half of ‘Piano Man’ in quotation marks?” “Is ‘one lump or two?’ really being posed as a question, and if so, is it a different question than ‘do you take sugar?’?”. “Did the Doctor of Rock just deliberately create an intensely complicated series of nested questions to make his point and require four consecutive punctuation marks?”

I say it’s time to give them that North Star. I hereby present the Doctor of Rock’s Conventions for Punctuation and Capitalization in Song Lyrics (DRCPCSL) (2017 edition).

Continue reading so you can bookmark the DRCPCSL and adhere to it religiously… →

Saturday Night’s Alright for Modulating

…songs whose verse and chorus are the same progression in different keys.

From: The Doctor of Rock

To: Both of my regular readers

“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” does a neat little trick with keys…

Verse chords:

It's [G]getting late have you seen my mates
Ma [F]tell me when the boys get here
It's [C]seven o'clock and I want to rock
Want to [G]get a belly full of beer

Chorus chords:

[C] Don't give us none of your aggravation
We [Bb]had it with your discipline
'Cause [F]Saturday night's alright for fighting
[C]Get a little action in

So it does the I → bVII → IV → I / mixolydian / Sweet Child O’ Mine / Sweet Home Alabama / Royals progression, which is already a little key-ambiguous (as per a previous post), then changes key by a fourth.

Are there other songs where the verse and chorus are the same progression but in different keys?

Continue reading to hear me answer my own question, which, incidentally, is super-narcissistic… →

Oops!…I Did It Again

…and by “it” I mean “spent a lot of time thinking about big changes in vocal rhythm from one verse to the next”.

I don’t know very much about writing a blog, but I know that if you let yourself go back and make changes to old posts, you’ll never write new posts. So, rule of thumb: unless someone calls to your attention that you went on a racist tirade in the middle of a post, leave it alone.

That said, a few weeks ago, I did a post about changes in vocal rhythm from one verse to the next. I thought I had adequately covered the subject, until this week, when I was listening to “Oops!…I Did It Again” (BECAUSE IT’S FANTASTIC THAT’S WHY):

…and I had to chase the rhythmic dragon one more time.

Continue reading to break this one down, from awkward punctuation to overlapping rhythmic variations… →

Key Changes Faster Than You Can Say “Diatonic”

…if this post were one of the songs this post is about, it would have already changed key.

From: Dan

To: Ian

I was listening to the Grease soundtrack yesterday (BECAUSE IT’S FANTASTIC THAT’S WHY) and noticed that this nominally-ultra-conventional I → vi → IV → V song might be the earliest legitimate key change I can think of in a pop song:

[Ab] [Fm] [Db] [Eb]
[Bb] [Gm] [Eb] [F]
[Bb]We go to[Gm]gether like 
[Eb]rama lama lama ka [F]dinga da dinga dong
[Bb]Remembered for[Gm]ever as
[Eb]shoo-bop sha wadda wadda [F]yippity boom de boom

So if you’re keeping score, that’s one round through the chord progression before the key change.

Can you think of other songs with key changes essentially right away? Or, I’ll define slightly more broadly as “key changes before the lyrics start”.

Read more to debate pop’s earliest key changes… →

DoR playlists


This is not a real post. Or, if it is, it’s the worst post I’ll ever put on this blog.

With that said, if you can’t get enough harmonic interestingtasticness, I put every song we’ve ever discussed here at doctorofrock.com into playlists at Spotify and YouTube:

Spotify Web link:
https://open.spotify.com/user/thecobbler/playlist/6yrETgbGcuBUmQOqXYxDp1

Spotify URI:

YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1hF7BzN_HsTslWjOwV7yx5sW7-K1BPZF

I’ve left off a couple songs that were only mentioned to point out their not-interestingness, but basically that’s everything.

A fun game: listen and try to figure out what in each song we thought was worth talking about. I mean, not “fun” like waterslides or snowball fights, but at least a little fun.

Love Song

…the Doctor of Rock returns from IR.

From: Dan

To: Ian

What I do know is that Sara Bareilles is fantastic, but what I don’t know is what key this verse is in:


I have the verse as Gm → Bb → Dm → F:

[Gm]Head under [Bb]water
And they [Dm]tell me to breathe
[F]easy for a while

Do you hear that as vi → I → iii → V, or ii → IV → vi → I? I.e., if you start right from the beginning, do you hear it in Bb or F, and when are you sure? Do you think it matters that the Bb is really Bbsus2? (I can’t think of a Isus2 off the top of my head…)

Continue to ponder this key change or lack thereof… →