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Harmonic Theory thread

Harmonic Theory thread

Postby chunter » Thu Dec 31, 2009 12:37 am

Inspired by the comment that Airmann left on Chotoro's entry, I thought it might be useful to start a seperate discussion about theory. If you have had any 12-tone harmony theory questions, feel free to ask them here. Airmann was somewhat correct in saying that theorists believe there is nothing new under the sun; this is because regardless of where your harmony originates, a set of notes in tandem can only serve one of four purposes. Despite that, there are countless possibilities in music once melody, form, timbre, arrangement, and whatever else join the mix.
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Postby Sonicade » Sat Jan 02, 2010 7:24 am

I know very little about theory so I'm interested to see this topic discussed.

It's always so impressive to me how the simplest of chord progressions can make such beautiful music.
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Postby chunter » Sat Jan 02, 2010 4:58 pm

Sonicade wrote:It's always so impressive to me how the simplest of chord progressions can make such beautiful music.

Part of the reason is that there are only four functions in harmony, and technically, you only need to fulfil one of them.

The functions are tonic, dominant, subdominant, and transition.

Without understanding a single thing about what those words mean, many of us use those functions unconsciously when we compose. Any tonality can be considered tonic, but any composer that understands that probably doesn't need to study harmonic theory very much; the types of chords and tonalities that make up the other functions depend on what the tonic tonality is.

To reduce this to the complete basics, in the key of C major, the tonic chord is C, and its melodic scale tonality is the C major scale. I think everyone that has ever composed for SDCompo knows how the tonic works, at least at an unconscious level.

The dominant function is the strongest tonality away from the tonic, which in C major, is G. If you know enough about alternate scales, modes, and such, you may know that you can, for example, play in C with a flatted seventh and then that gives Bb the dominant function, it becomes the new "strongest" chord apart from the tonic C. The dominant chord is the chord that turns the proverbial final corner and brings you back to the tonic.

The subdominant function is the moderate-strength tonality. In classical C major, that is normally F, though Dm can share or take that job, as is often the case in "standards" Jazz. Naturally, this also changes with key and mode scale and so on. It is often the first chord you are looking for when you want to abandon the tonic chord.

The transitional function is a weak name for the weakest of chords- any sound that does not fulfil one of the three above functions must therefore be intended to guide the listener between them (if you are not making dissonant racket) and is considered to be making a transition from one to the other.

Without taking a single class, the most important thing to consider is what a collection of notes will bring out in the listener at a psychological level. The dominant chord isn't very dominant (strong) if you visit it too often; repetition creates the sense familiarity that defines the tonic function. I expect that most of the visitors to SDCompo understand (unconsciously if not academically) that you can drive tension in ways other than through harmony (like through rhythm, addition and subtraction of phrases, tempo, volume dynamic, and timbre/filter adjustments,) so that you can actually stick to one chord/scale throughout a song, setting up a gigantic surprise on the only moment when the chord or key changes.

Feel free to ask any questions, or to ask for simplification, especially those of us that don't read English as a first language. If you want, I may try to record some examples of what particular changes, scales, and chords should sound like.
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Postby Airmann » Sun Jan 03, 2010 9:32 pm

good thing Chunter, thanks for your explanantions. I've some pretty good books here about the topic, but haven't had time to read them, yet. I know some basics, can play most of the not-so-exotic chords on guitar/piano but I'm still learning. Interesting things that you write.

I think you're right about mentioning things like rythm, sound, and so on.

E.g. I have a song on a children's music compilation which has almost the same melody as a well known Red Hot Chili Peppers song. But I realized that not immediately. After hearing the children's song maybe 7 times. I thought: that's chilli peppers !!! Wow !

So I think it's often the same progression / melodic phrases, but different output somehow. Good example is Pachelbels progression.
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Postby fbjon » Mon Jan 04, 2010 6:36 am

chunter wrote:
Sonicade wrote:It's always so impressive to me how the simplest of chord progressions can make such beautiful music.

...
The transitional function is a weak name for the weakest of chords- any sound that does not fulfil one of the three above functions must therefore be intended to guide the listener between them (if you are not making dissonant racket) and is considered to be making a transition from one to the other.

Pretty good explanation. I've forgotten most of this from my theory classes. In my piece, the idea is one long transition from the tonic, to the tonic one octave down. This is done in a few different ways, and there are some deviations to account for better sound and avoiding too much repetition.

The basic idea goes two ways from C to C, in chunks of three chords, two bars each. The first is the long route which is heard clearly from 0:45 onward (don't be fooled by the bass dropping out and the portamento). Notating using just the root note here: C - Bbm - Ab ; Cm - Fm - D# ; Abm - Abm - B ; Em - Cm - G. That's four chunks of three chord changes. The reason they fit together lies in the inversions of the chords.

The other starts the same, but is a more direct route: C - Bbm - Ab ; Dbm - Am - Dbm ; Am - Fm - C. And that last C is the same as the first C which gives the syncopated 5-bar rythm of this route (i.e. one bar goes missing). The repetition happens where the drums do a small fill-in. Going on, it it does a portamento to get back up so the pattern can continue to rotate.

Actually, ignoring the bass, the chords in the "right hand" are different and much more regular than what I've written here, but the bass changes them to seventh, augmented, diminished and whatnot chords of a different root.

Now that I've tried explaining this, its obvious that just playing it on a piano makes it much easier to understand, though. Just about all of the transitions between chord "chunks" are simply based on keeping the middle tone, whatever it is, and raising the lower and upper notes one half tone. In this way, it doesn't follow e.g. the traditional I - IV - V pattern and the like, except in the G - C transition at one point.

Hope I haven't ruined anyone's impression with this autopsy. :)
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Postby chunter » Mon Jan 04, 2010 6:57 pm

Airmann wrote:So I think it's often the same progression / melodic phrases, but different output somehow. Good example is Pachelbels progression.

Pachelbel's Canon is a good example of a piece that's driven by rhythm or the entry and exit of phrases instead of harmony. Once the progression is established, it doesn't cease until the end of the song, so it loses the mind's attention after the exposition.

Now, although nobody in the Baroque would have tried this, imagine what happens if you decide to hold on the last chord in the progression for an extra measure or two or three, or if you have the accompaniment completely stop for a while in the middle of the piece.
fbjon wrote:Now that I've tried explaining this, its obvious that just playing it on a piano makes it much easier to understand, though. Just about all of the transitions between chord "chunks" are simply based on keeping the middle tone, whatever it is, and raising the lower and upper notes one half tone. In this way, it doesn't follow e.g. the traditional I - IV - V pattern and the like, except in the G - C transition at one point.

This happens in a lot of Romantic-era music (Schumann, Tchaikovsky) and is a common habit of some piano players. You can come up with a lot of strange and seemingly difficult chord changes through enharmonics (two notes, same sound, eg. F# and Gb) with that similar tone being the "glue" that keeps your ear from thinking that you've picked a random chord out of the air.
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Postby Airmann » Wed Jan 06, 2010 3:04 pm

@Chotoro: wow, I think I have to re-read this a few times to fully understand. Have you studied music science or something ?
Maybe I should continue my studies on the topic, soon :-).

@Chunter: you're right about pachelbel's progression. It never changes and would sound different if you'd change it. What I meant about Pachelbel is that so many other songs were made using this, or a similar progression. This perspective gives hoppe :-).
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Postby chunter » Wed Jan 06, 2010 5:37 pm

Airmann wrote: What I meant about Pachelbel is that so many other songs were made using this, or a similar progression. This perspective gives hoppe :-).

That's true, the possibilities in music are strangely finite and infinite at the same time. Styles, rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and instrumentations are all ways to sort through music, and when you consider the kinds of sounds we can make from our trackers alone, one could go crazy trying to exhaust all the possibilities. Sticking with a single chord progression, rhythm, style, set of sounds, or whatever helps keep us from going crazy trying to think of just what to play.
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Postby tenfour » Wed Feb 17, 2010 6:34 am

another thing to consider regarding function is the rhythm. the chord progression |: C - F - G - C :| sounds way different than |: C - C - F - G :|

the "dominant" function of the G chord in these 2 progressions are really extremely different flavors.

as chunter said, we do this stuff without thinking about it though. whether you come across a cool sounding group of notes by accident, or you stitch it together scientifically, our ears are the judges, and the whole goal of art is not to make it look stitched together. in this way, i find it best to just trust my emotions & ears, and use theory as a way to describe what we hear, as a vocabulary.

one thing i have realized lately is that theory can help advance the art form by encouraging good plagiarism. if you have no way to functionally analyze a piece of music, but you like it, then you are prone to copy it verbatim - bad plagiarism (e.g. ripping the chord progression of Hotel California). but if you can analyze it, understand why it sounds the way it does on a more abstract level, then you can use the *principles* to create your own form, and adapt it to your own style. This is what I would consider good plagiarism, where musicians progress the art form by expanding on the principles, not just making xerox copies.
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Re: Harmonic Theory thread

Postby chunter » Wed Feb 27, 2013 7:15 pm

Bumping this thread because of a comment that ambtax1 left on my SoundCloud: if you have questions about harmonic theory, or if you'd like an analysis of one of my songs, reply here and I'll do my best to answer.

I wanted to leave a URL to a site that explains the basics, but since I didn't learn theory through a website I don't have a great recommendation, though this one looks close enough http://music-theory.ascensionsounds.com ... s/harmony/
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