Joni Mitchell’s “chords of inquiry”

I watched the film, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind the other day. (Available online on Netflix, if anyone else is as in love with Netflix as I am). I found it really interesting. There was a lot about her that I didn’t know. What I most enjoyed, though, was hearing about her talk about her music, and the path she took as she progressed through her music. My favorite part is her “chords of inquiry.” She talks about them from around 23:12 to 23:51:

“For years, everyone said, ‘Joni’s weird chords, Joni’s weird chords.’ And I thought, How can there be weird chords? Chords are depictions of emotions. These chords that I was getting by twisting the knobs on the guitar until I could get these chords that I heard inside that suited me, they feel like my feelings. You know, I called them, not knowing, chords of inquiry. They had a question mark in them. There were so many unresolved things in me that those chords suited me. You know, I’d stay in unresolved emotionality for days and days.”

I love that. That she made the tool that best suited not just her desired effect, but an effect that was a direct representation of herself, her thoughts and feelings. A tool that would make the most direct route possible for taking her heart from inside her chest and plucking it out on the guitar.

I’m sure that whatever chords she uses are actually complicated suspended diminished minor 7ths (or something. I’m making that up). But for her purposes, she was creating what she needed in order to produce her art. Creating first the tool, then the art. I think it’s similar with visual artists, who fashion brushes or materials out of things that mean more to their purpose than plain, store-bought brushes. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of palette, texture, surface choices?

With writing, I’m not sure what the most direct parallel is. There’s the form, but then, that would be like the form of the song, no? A ballad, etc. I’m not sure that writing instrument is quite a parallel – I don’t think that using a typewriter or pen or computer is the same. Maybe it’s not form like ballad or sonnet or short story, but something more along the stylistic lines of diction and syntax: our choice of words, and the way we put them together. Choosing short, powerful, direct verbs in short sentences to describe a powerful character. Or, in the case of a writer who, like Joni, has stayed “in unresolved emotionality for days and days,” maybe it is writing in sentence fragments full of questions, and more abstract or vague words that leave us with more questions than clarity. So the writer’s chords of inquiry are her words and sentences of inquiry?

Except, songs have words and sentences, too. Does writing–meant for the page– have anything underlying it that compares to chord choice?

I don’t know. Any thoughts?

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