The concern of this article is with a particular set of harmonic practices that rock musicians, particularly those who participate in the domain of guitar-oriented ‘alternative’ rock, have been using with noticeable frequency in the last ten years. I am also interested in discussing the concept of the power chord (a term I shall explicate more clearly below) as a device in rock that has facilitated the above-mentioned set of harmonic practices
The observations made in this paper come out of a previous research inquiry of mine into the devices which alternative musicians use to differentiate their music from other styles of mainstream rock. Also, the pursuit of this topic is partly a response to Allan Moore's admonition that ‘there is as yet very little concern for theorizing analytical method in rock music’, and his call for a ‘mapping-out of those harmonic practices that serve to distinguish rock styles . . . from those of common-practice tonality . . . and jazz’ (Moore 1995, p. 185).
There has been some rather pointed criticism recently of musicological analyses of popular music (see Shepherd 1993; Frith 1990) on the charge that analysing music's purely sonic dimensions (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, structure, etc.) does not really help us understand musical communication. Speaking as a songwriter, however, I would argue that many musicians in rock are indeed concerned with harmonic progression (or ‘the changes’, to use the vernacular term) as an important device or jumping-off point in the process of songwriting. It also seems reasonable to suggest that harmonic progression is a contributing factor in the affective power of a song, although its importance here is likely to be variable and quite open to debate.