During this week’s Rock Band practice, the song I spent the most time with was I Wanna Be Sedated. Like I Love Rock and Roll, it’s filled with simple power chord progressions, and after that earlier song, I thought I understood the basics of power chords reasonably well. Music with a lot of power chords frequently sticks to I-IV-V: so you pick a fret, play an E power chord on that fret (I), slide your hand over to the right and play an A power chord on the same fret (IV), and move your hand up two frets and play another A power chord (V).

In particular, I Wanna Be Sedated starts off moving between the fifth fret on the E string and the seventh fret on the A string; so there’s our I-V, I guess IV is left out? It stays in that vein for a while, then mixes things up a bit: we see the seventh fret on the E string (II, or ii—it’s an open fifth, I guess I’ll go with II), has an excessively transparent key change that slides your hand up a couple of frets, and also spends time on the second and fourth frets as well (another key change, I guess?).

At this point, my readers who know the song and know a bit of music theory are laughing at me. (I was expecting yesterday’s post to be the one this week to lead to the most feelings of lingering shame for me this week, but nope: turns out that music theory is a more powerful force of shame for my brain than sex.) Because the above is quite incorrect; I figured that out eventually, but it took three or four times through the song before I realized that I’d made a mistake. The first curiosity was wondering about that II in the absence of a IV; and I also was trying to figure out why the shift down to the second and fourth frets didn’t actually sound like a key change. And, as my subconscious was pondering those issues, I realized that the song started on the 7th fret of the A string rather than on the 5th fret of the E string; if we go with my prior analysis, that would mean that we were starting on V.

Which, of course, the song isn’t: it’s starting on I. So if the chord that I’d previously (mis)labeled as V is actually a I, then the chord that I’d previously alleged was I is actually a IV, and that alleged II is really a V. In other words, instead of the song spending a lot of time going between I and V, it spends a lot of time going between I and IV, building up a rather pleasant amount of tension before finally throwing a V in there. (In fact, the fifth fret on A is an E chord, the fifth fret on E is an A chord, and the seventh fret on E is a B chord, so we have the same E-A-B progression that we saw in I Love Rock and Roll, just on different strings/frets, and with the E chord an octave higher.) Basically, there’s another pattern that you can use for power chords to get the I-IV-V progression: I is fret N on the A string, IV is fret N-2 on the E string, and V is fret N on the E string. I guess you use this if you want the I to be on the top, whereas you use the pattern I talked about in the first paragraph if you want I to be on the bottom.

The one thing I got right: yes, there is a key change halfway through. (That one is so ludicrously exposed that even my brain is unable to misinterpret it.) So we get the same pattern but shifted up two frets, on the seventh/ninth frets instead of the fifth/seventh. The stuff on the second/fourth frets isn’t a key change at all, though: the second fret on the E string is an octave down from the ninth fret on the A string, so that’s just I reappearing, on the bottom this time instead of the top. (And the fourth fret on the A string is the exact same chord as the ninth fret on the E string—V in both cases—with the position presumably being chosen to minimize the amount of vertical distance that your hands need to travel.)

Fun stuff: I enjoyed playing the song, I enjoyed learning something in the process. The main technical deficiency that it pointed out was my alternating strumming abilities: Dan Bruno confirmed my suspicion that I was supposed to be alternating strumming those power chords, and while I’ve been practicing alternating strumming individual strings, I haven’t been practicing alternating strumming power chords at all. Something to work on (and something I can practice outside of game), which is good; I imagine I’ll return to the song regularly over the next few weeks to if/how I’m improving.

And if my brain can get more consciously attuned to how familiar chord progressions sound (and feel!), rather than having me depend on mathematics plus lingering doubts from my unconscious, that will be awesome.

Post Revisions:

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