When chords take a backseat

Music without chords, or what do I mean?! Well, you know how most of the popular music goes, most of the time. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon a better song, chances are you will hear a melody playing, there’s a rhythm going on with some percussive elements and a bass line, and you also have your chords laid down like kind of a mat under the melody. It can be many things; a strummed acoustic or electric guitar, a synthesizer or a piano, a string section, or other, more exotic instruments.

That’s sort of a safe, tried and true approach, but sometimes it just doesn’t cut it, at least not in itself. When you want your music to be interesting, you have to change it up a bit. Pushing chords far back in the mix or omitting them completely at certain parts of the song can be used as a nice surprising effect, which helps keeping up the interest throughout the tune.

De-emphasize or omit chords

No chords are being played on this pianoAnother use for not using chords or pulling their levels down is to create an ambiguous feel, which is usually a winner because it will always be able to sound new and interesting. It especially works great if you give the listener certain cues here and there regarding tonality.

Here’s this country pop tune for example. It already starts with a tight arrangement in the verses, with just bass, the fiddles and some aggressive but clean electric guitar strokes. But listen to the bridge from 1:26 on; the whole music takes a step back and only the drums, her vocal tracks and a reverbed pedal steel guitar remain, going back and forth slowly between the left and right channels. It happens in the rest of the bridges as well, except there’s some additional crazy sounding fiddle work in the last one.

Shania Twain – “Don’t Be Stupid”

Creating ambiguity

In the following song, a more ambiguous, almost eerie effect appears in the verses, as the synth pad that’s laying down actual chords is far away in the background, and there are synth and piano tracks playing weird lines on top of it, lines that actually sound improvised. We only get a cleaner cue of tonality in the choruses with the presence of Mick Hucknall‘s thick harmony vocals forming chords.

Simply Red – “Fairground”

Now for an older, classic example, let’s take this nice, country rock style Beatles tune off of their “Help” album. The verses sound lush and rich with the jangly guitar, the reverby vocals and the tambourine. It’s the chorus that starts with the sparse electric piano riff (1:05) where it gets pretty dry and in your face with the powerful and edgy drum sound, and only a simple bass line carries the root notes of the suggested chords.

The Beatles – “Tell Me What You See”

The contrast effect

It’s hard to beat the next song for the simple and aesthetic beauty it uses the “no chords” effect with. In the verses you get some crowd noise mixed in in the background. Then there’s a big, rumbling, parallel-compressed and tightly played drum track. And finally, Paula‘s vocal tracks – an audibly distorted spoken voice one mixed up front and a melody one pushed back quite a bit. That’s it, no chords or anything else. It makes you really listen to the lyrics but at the same time it leaves your ears and your mind thirsty for something more. And that something more hits you in the face in the choruses, adding more and more melodic and chordal elements, and finally her double tracked vocals singing the line that’s also the title of the song.

Paula Cole – “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?”

Yep, chords are not always necessary.

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