New Metaphors for 21st Century Harmony

I’ve been dismayed by the degree to which traditional theories of harmony are tangental to the working keyboard practice of a 21st century pianist working in collaborative contexts.  A knowledge of figured bass is fantastic if you are working on the harpsichord with period repertoire, but for most pianists the kinds of harmonic thinking that underpin the repertoire they are asked to perform finds no clear expression in traditional music theory.

Today I’ve been mulling on whether our metaphors aren’t the problem. Once upon a time it made perfect sense to say chords have a hierarchy, made up of the most important chord relationships (primary chords), and chords which play a complementary role (secondary chords).

And once upon a time the idea of modulating really did describe the journey-like characteristics of the harmonic experience throughout a composition.

But for the best part of the 20th century composers have shown remarkably little interest in modulating, and their use of chords suggests that the primacy of the primary triads has been waning for quite some time.

When I wrote the Guided Tour of the Little Peppers (published by Faber Music), basically a teachers’ guide to the pedagogical ideas in the music of the five volumes of the Little Peppers series, I described a harmonic practice I noticed I’d been using, what I called a harmonic hologram: two chords (or harmonies, if you will) alternating throughout a piece (or a section of a piece).  This alternation creates all the harmonic tension that is required to maintain listener interest and provide a template upon which other musical ideas can be worked out.

This is a harmonic experience that never leaves home, never modulates or moves.  But this is not to say that the harmonies in contemporary music are locked in or leaden. While alternating harmonies are a kind of low-key perpetual motion exercise, other kinds of contemporary harmonic gestures work on the basis of a pivot, one note in common between one chord and the next.  This is how it works just fine, despite our lack of ability to explain it with traditional music theory, to start a song in C Major and have an A flat Major (or E Major, or F Minor, or D7) chord as the very next harmony. The use of pivotal harmonies creates a constant sense of flow without ever needing to establish a new tonal centre.

Just two new metaphors for understanding how our harmonic inclinations in 2009 differ from the harmonic habits of 1809.

More on this topic to come….

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