Hooking an Audience With the Magic of Implied Chords

all_10_newJanGary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle is being used by thousands of songwriters to take their writing technique to a professional level. It looks at every aspect of musical composition, from chords to melody to lyrics to song form, and more. It will make you a better songwriter – GUARANTEED. 

The Black KeysAn implied chord is one in which only part of a chord (usually the root, and possibly one other note) is played. Even with just one note, an audience can hear what chord was intended, or implied, and hence the name.

If you want to hear a good example of this, give “When the Lights Go Out” by The Black Keys a listen. The entire song is comprised of guitar playing what are often single pitches — mainly E to A, with an occasional G — against a violin playing an E (the technical name for which is an inverted pedal). But it’s easy to imagine what the full chords are likely to be: Em – A (or possibly Am).

The fact that we’re not absolutely sure what the second chord is, due to the fact that the full chord isn’t present, is not usually a problem. The beauty of implied chords is that, with the root alone, you can usually make it clear enough what you intend. And if you want to remove all ambiguity, you likely wouldn’t use implied chords in the first place.

But why use implied chords at all? What’s wrong with playing full versions of the chords, and remove any doubt? The reason for using them is that it pares the instrumentation down allowing for transparency in the sound mix.

In fact, the way The Black Keys use implied chords in “When the Lights Go Out” — implied chords for the entire song — is not the typical usage. And as you can tell, it’s not specifically a songwriting issue, since this sort of thing is often decided on and worked out at the recording studio.

The more typical use of implied chords, particularly in pop music, is what you’d find in, let’s say, Rihanna’s “Disturbia.” Typical, because the verses use implied chords, switching to full chords in the pre-chorus and chorus.

And when it comes to hooking an audience, that’s what implied chords do so well, and why they succeed in helping to hook and audience and keeping them listening. When an audience hears incomplete chords, they often make the assumption that more is coming – that there will be a switch to fuller chords and bigger sound.

Any time you make a listener think that something different is likely to happen, there is a tendency to want to stick around and hear it happen. The fact that in a song like “When the Lights Go Out” the fuller chords never happen doesn’t negate this important characteristic of implied chords.

So if you’re in the studio and trying to make your musical mix a bit more interesting, try implied chords, particularly in the verses. It’s one of many techniques at your disposal for hooking an audience.


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