Substitutiary Locomotion

" Treguna Mekoides and Tracorum Satis Dee   Substitutiary locomotion   Mystic power that's far beyond the wildest notion   It's a weird so feared, yet wonderful to see   Substitutiary locomotion come to me" - "Bedknobs & Broomsticks"

"Treguna Mekoides and Tracorum Satis Dee
Substitutiary locomotion
Mystic power that's far beyond the wildest notion
It's a weird so feared, yet wonderful to see
Substitutiary locomotion come to me" - "Bedknobs & Broomsticks"

Since I began teaching music in 2006, I've always inserted a little bit of music theory into my lesson plans, much to the chagrin of the casual strummer who really just wanted some easy tablature to add to that giant book of handouts that they lugged around.  Eventually, word got out, some evaluation comments were made, festival organizers observed that students felt like my teaching was "over their heads" and I've even been asked to "teach something easy."

That's all fine; it's a rep I can live with.  Better than, "he's boring."

Boredom is a great motivator.  It helps us to get off of our asses and do something interesting, although it sometimes leads to trouble and I'm an expert when it comes to that particular subject. Though music is a wonderful and extraordinary world, it can also become boring if you find yourself falling into the same old routes, same old melodies and same old chords.  Wouldn't it be nice if you could shake and awake some of the familiar stuff to make it strange, new and fresh?

Sure!  There's always improvisation, both lyrically and melodically.  And for chords, there's always chord substitution.  It doesn't involve witchcraft, but when you begin to use it, you'll think you've willed a little bit of magic to life.  Here's how it works.

First, let's remember that when working in a particular key signature, there are seven notes in that scale.  Each one has a number (1 through 7) and you can build a chord using each of those seven notes as the root.  Let's start with the key of D Major which has two sharps:

D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#

I     ii   iii     IV   V   vi   vii°

The default rule is that chords built off of the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the scale will result in major chords.  Chords built off of the 2nd, 3rd and 6th notes will result in minor chords.  Chords built off of the 7th note will result in a diminished chord.  Upper case Roman numerals denote the majors, lower case Roman numerals denote the minors and lower case with the degree symbol denote the diminished.  Starting with D, just skip every other note until you have a total of three letters.  Those are the ingredients of your chords.  You should end up with this:

D Major = D - F# - A

E minor = E - G - B

F# minor = F# - A - C#

G Major = G - B - D

A Major = A - C# - E

B minor = B - D - F#

C# diminished = C# - E - G

Remember the following formulas for major, minor and diminished chords:

Major = 1, 3, 5

Minor = 1, b3, 5

Diminished = 1, b3, b5

You can use the scale degree numbers to come up with this, but remember that a flat (b) takes the note down a half step while a sharp (#) takes the note up a half step.  So, when you look at D Major, and want to take the 3 (or third note of the major scale) down a half step, you simply remove the sharp from the F# to make it F natural.  D - F - A = D minor.  The more your practice this, the easier it gets.  Okay, back to our substitutiary locomotion.

The basic rule of chord substitution is this: if the chord that you are replacing shares two notes with the chord you are inserting, then it should fit nicely.  I'll give you an example in the hymn "Amazing Grace."

D                                G              D
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

D                                     A

that saved a wretch like me

D                              G           D

I once was lost, but now am found

                        A        D

was blind, but now I see.

Now, I'm not insinuating that "Amazing Grace" is boring and neither are any of the churches who have actually grown to embrace this popular chord substitution.  From the end of line three until the word "now", it's standard to hold on the D major chord which is made up of D - F# and A. Many folks will insert a Bm chord at the word "blind."  It injects a bit of dramatic color.  Bm is made up of B - D and F#.

What two notes do those chords have in common?  Sure - F# and D. So, it fits.

D                                G              D
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

D                                     A

that saved a wretch like me

D                              G           D

I once was lost, but now am found

        Bm           A        D

was blind, but now I see.

At its most simple, this is chord substitution that you can practice with just a little bit of study and application.  It does get pretty complex as you build bigger chords and move through larger chord progressions, but the result is still the same; new sounds and new combinations for your old favorite tunes.

I've been working lately with the wonderful Bob Marley tune "Redemption Song" on ukulele and actually stumbled across a chord substitution while trying to find a key that I liked.  Let's first look at that key and see what's available chord-wise.  I'm going to whip out some exceptions to the rules here on you, just to show you what is possible.  Recorded in the key of G Major, I like this song in the key of F Major, which has one flat:

F    G    A    Bb    C    D    E

I     ii     iii     IV     V   vi     vii°

F                               Am              Bb                          Gm

Oh pirates, yes they rob I, sold I to the merchant ship

F                            Am     Bb                             Gm      

minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit

F                              Am                           Bb                     Gm

but my hands were made strong by the hands of the almighty

F                              Am            Bb           C

we forward in this generation triumphantly

It's a lovely, simple progression with enough darkness to underscore the harrowing nature of the lyrics but enough light to provide the right balance of hope and despair that typifies so much of Bob Marley's music.  He's singing about the plight of Africans who were sold into slavery, but as the song progresses, he introduces hope in the form of an almighty God with a plan for every man, free or slave.

Now, what are rules without exceptions?  Unbending, unyielding, that's what they are!  So, check this out.  Even though the basic default layout of major and minor chords built on those seven notes of any scale falls to 1,4,5 = major; 2,3,6 = minor and 7 = diminished, every single one of those notes can be altered to create a different chord just to keep things interesting. What's usually a major chord built on the first note of the scale can easily be changed to a minor chord. What's usually a minor chord built on the second note of the scale can likewise be changed to a 7th chord.  These alterations result in some really amazing musical colorations.

Me, I'm a sucker for the I - iii progression and the heartbreaking I - iv progression.  Note that in the latter of those, I've altered the normal IV chord to a iv chord.  That means instead of playing a major, I will play a minor instead.  But let's see how this works with the basic rules of substitution.

The line I'm looking at is "minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit."  The chord progression as written is Bb to Gm.  To heighten the sadness of being stowed in the belly of a seafaring vessel in less-than-ideal conditions, my instinct is to follow the Bb with a Bbm, or the iv chord.

F                            Am     Bb                             Bbm      

minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit

So, let's do the math.  Is that gonna work?  It sounds pretty good, as this progression always does. The chord we're replacing, Gm, contains the notes G - Bb and D.  The replacement chord contains Bb - Db and F.  The two chords share only the Bb note.  It's a tenuous relationship, but because Bb and Bbm do share two notes (Bb and F), it does work.  There's not an awful lot of harmonic movement in this progression, not like there is with the move from Bb to Gm.  So, in messing around a bit more, I stumbled across a substitution that had never occurred to me, but ended up being absolutely, hauntingly beautiful.  I played a Bbm6.

F                            Am     Bb                             Bbm6      

minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit

First of all, a minor sixth chord is a minor chord with another note added to the triad.  That note is the sixth note of the related major scale.  In this case, since we're altering an already-altered Bb, let's look at what the scale offers us:

Bb    C     D     Eb      F      G      A

 I       ii      iii     IV       V      vi     vii°

Okay - so, a Bb chord would be Bb - D - F.   Bb minor flattens the D to Db resulting in Bb - Db - F.  Add the sixth notes of the scale, which is G, and you end up with Bb - Db - F - G.  Remember that the chord we're replacing is a Gm which contains G - Bb - D.  So Gm and Bbm6 share Bb and G, hence a more harmonious movement and a lovely chord.

Now, I'll have to be honest with you here.  Some people like their classics un-messed with and I have wavered back and forth about whether or not to include the alteration when performing "Redemption Song."  Some people may notice it while others may be swept up in the emotion of the song.  So far, I have not performed the tune with the alterations, but I do plan to do so in the near future to see what the response might be.  Like all things, change comes easy to some and falls like a brick for others.  Using chord substitutions is part of the musical fabric that we all share.  Chances are the songs that you love, both classic and new, have been altered at some point.  The bottom line is, it's a good practice for the student and for the teacher.  Like finding many ways to say the same thing, it's just one more way for us to realize ourselves as individuals with a unique view upon the world.

Bing Futch2 Comments