Dylanology No. 13 (May 2022): Señor
The Tale of the Power of a Single Note
A letter from a reader, about a seemingly insignificant change to one of the chords in “Señor”, led to interesting and surprising insights, both about the song and about musical understanding in general.
When I write tabs for Dylanchords, I have to make some decisions concerning the level of complexity: how much information do I want to cram into the chord name? Should it contain everything that is going on at that particular point in the full soundscape, or just enough for an amateur guitar player to get by? Or somewhere in between – such as: how much is needed to reproduce the “musical event” adequately on a single guitar?
Usually, this is no problem at all: with a combination of slash chords (G/b) – including “slash chords without the chord”: chords that just indicate a bass tone (/b) – as well as a basic set of indications of altered chords (Dm7-5), just about everything is covered.
My approach from the start has always been pragmatic: the chord charts should represent as succinctly as possible the important musical events, possibly at the cost of a less precise notation. A good example is the 054030 chord in “Girl of the North Country”. There are many complete and correct ways to notate all the tones that go into that chord. From the bottom, those are E, d, f#, g, d’, e’, in other words: a serious cluster of tones that actually clash strongly against each other: d, e, f#, g.
If this is seen as a D major chord, its full name would be something like Dadd9add11 (it would be dubious to call it D11, because there is no 7th in the chord), or if it is seen as an Em – which is also possible, given the lowest tone E – it might be called Em9. But both of these miss the simple fact that the chord in question is just a plain C major chord shape that has been moved up two frets, where the open strings are left ringing:
So it is just a D chord with toppings, and in the tab I call it simply D’. It is not precise, but it is short, and it is fairly intuitive, especially accompanied by a chord chart and an explanation like this.
There are two potential problem with the notion of wanting to represent the “important musical events”: who decides what is “important”? (There are two answers: Dylan and myself.) And: what is the “musical event” in question anyway?
The other day I came across an immensely interesting issue, involving the question of one insignificant and barely audible change in a chord. I got a mail from a user of Dylanchords, who asked about the descending figure in the second line of “Señor”.
In the tab at dylanchords, I had written it:
C /b Am Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Between C and Am there is a “slash chord without a chord”. After all, it is basically just a descending bass line from C to A; that’s what is important here, so no need to complicate things further. The dylanchords way to indicate things such as this is with single slash notes: “/b” , meaning: “it doesn’t matter what else you play; right here, it is the bass tone that matters.”
But the user asked: could that chord not be written Em/b instead, eliminating the c and its harmonic clash with the b in the bass line?
C Em/b Am Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
In practical terms, concerning fingers on the fretboard of a guitar, the question is: should the index finger be lifted from the second string, or should it be kept there?
This may seem like a really minor issue, especially since you can’t really hear the difference in practice anyway, but as I started to sketch a brief answer to that effect, I started to realize that not only is it actually a huge question with great ramifications in general, but even more so in the context in which it appears at this point in “Señor”.
Tones and Chords
The /b may be part of a simple bass line, but it is also a bass line under some specific chord. And that's where it is no longer a simple question.
One fundamental lesson in music theory – perhaps one of the only two lessons one needs – is that a chord is not just a bunch of tones sounding at the same time – it is much more than that. Chords have functions, which may be realised in different ways, by different combinations of tones. And in some cases, the same tones can fulfill quite different functions, such as the above-mentioned chord from “Girl from the North Country” (see my brief explanation of this chord in the tab to the song).
Two things happen when the C is eliminated and changed to a B. One is that the chord is changed, from a C chord to an E minor, and thereby the function of the chord is changed as well. It may not seem like much, but C and Em are actually quite different chords, fulfilling quite different purposes in a piece of music.