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Composer’s Forum: Harmonic Theory, Part I



Managing the horizontal and vertical dimensions of musical space.

Chords. Who doesn’t love chords? Generally speaking and to most people, chords appear to be the basic building blocks of music. They have a kind of royal power and seem like the coin of the realm. To musicians, chords are an efficient shorthand that acts like a subway map of the music. Chords provide a way to discuss a piece of music and fashion instrumental parts for an ensemble. 

The way that chords work in the context of tonal music, with its system of keys and associated scales, modes, and modulations, resembles role-playing actors on a stage, with behavioral energies well known to the audience. Some chord changes are such familiar tropes that they can seem quite cliché, though we still love them. Others sound amazingly fresh and new, especially considering the finite tonal system they act within.

However, a lot more than just chord progressions is going on in the music we enjoy and write. Chords are simply one way to understand how musical energy moves and breathes. From a completely different perspective, individual melodic parts within the texture also affect the listener and drive the music forward. The composer controls how these seeming opposites, the harmonic and the polyphonic, vertical and horizontal, combine to achieve the most musical result. 

Inversion Therapy

The simplest chords are triads, containing a root note, a third, and a fifth of a certain scale. While twelve semitones are in an octave, there are just seven diatonic scale tones and therefore seven triads per key. One simple way to expand triads and present more possibilities is to actively explore all inversions available. Instead of always playing chords in root position (e.g., an A minor chord using A in the bass), listen to the difference when the third (C) is the bass note, or even the fifth (E). Isolated, the sonic differences are significant, but when you consider how they might function in the context of a particular chord progression, the possibilities and variety become exponential.

I am currently working on a new song that starts on C/e (1st inversion with 3rd in the bass). I am amazed at the familiar yet completely new sound this inverted chord presents, especially as the opening sound of the song. It has a more active energy than a standard root position chord would have. I played and listened to that chord for some time before deciding where to go. The obvious choice would be to the F chord. But I felt like it was prompting me to proceed up to D/f# (another 1st inversion with 3rd in the bass), continue to walk the bass up to GM7, and then proceed to land on C.

Just as writers claim that their characters begin to create their own actions and write themselves, I believe the same is true for musical parts, and in particular, chords. The more you tune into the energy of a particular chord before deciding what should come next, the less likely you’ll make a generic or habitual choice, and the more likely it is that the progression will sound natural and fresh to the listener.

Inversions certainly have a different sound and energy. Because you have more note choices, using inversions helps you craft stronger, more linear bass lines and makes the sense of forward motion more compelling. By paying attention to the voice-leading possibilities in any chord progression, you can create a musically harmonic phrase rather than simply a series of separate chords. 

Thinking in Two Dimensions

Between the chords, you can also add passing tones, stepwise melodic elements that similarly add to the sense of forward progress. This creates inner voices that are neither bass nor melody, but more like the alto and tenor parts in vocal arrangements. By adding those stepwise passing tones, you are exploring the balance between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the chord progression.

Coordination of the vertical chords and horizontal linear parts can add interest and personal style to your music. Instead of thinking of your songs as a bunch of chords garnished with top-line vocals and hooky melodic riffs, it’s possible to balance the texture throughout with a compelling chord progression and strong, directional bass lines and inner voices that move the music forward and support the lead melody.

What Really Happened

Western music did not start with chords. It actually developed from simple, monophonic songs that eventually added more parts to become polyphonic. Think of the classic four parts in choir music: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, or SATB. The development of polyphonic music went on for a very long time before certain simultaneous harmonic events became established as “chords” and people began to think of music in that way. As polyphonic music matured, the accepted behaviors of each of the parts and the way they worked together was codified into a set of contrapuntal norms, many of which are still unconsciously used today.

Guidelines for polyphonic parts: stepwise motion (moving up or down by a single scale step) was always preferred, as was contrary rather than parallel motion between parts. If larger melodic leaps were used, they needed to be corrected by stepwise motion in the opposite direction. Even many hundreds of years later, songs like the iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” stays within these voice-leading guidelines, perhaps unconsciously. 

As music developed in the Western world, musicians needed to consider harmonic relationships for notes sounding at the same time. “Perfect” intervals (octaves, fourths, fifths) were embraced, while dissonant ones (seconds, tritones, sevenths) were hardly used. Often, when perfect fourths sounded together, the upper voice was resolved by step downwards. We now call this a suspension, and think of it as a chord quality, often resolved but not always.

In with the Old, In with the New

There were also compositional devices that were free from such governance. There was the bass pedal tone over which all kinds of intervallic motion and dissonance could be accommodated. In addition, repeated patterns called ostinatos became popular as early as the 14th century. Both of these devices are used in today’s drone styles and loop-based music.

Inheriting these stylistic traditions, you can combine many of these concepts to come up with modern musical textures. On the keyboard, start a repeating suspended pattern in the right hand. I like to noodle some kind of ostinato that has a kind of suspended C tonality. Then with the left hand, play long notes of an F minor scale in no particular order, because they can all seem like a tonic note in this context. You can also use octaves and fifths in the bass, even stacking them up.

There is contrary motion in the two parts because one stays the same and the other moves around, which can be a really productive writing device. You could also try using a pedal tone in the bass part, while the right hand continues its pattern but transposes around to explore the harmonic results. The musical gestures may be derived from classic polyphonic counterpoint style, but the results sound nothing like it.

All those time-honored techniques create tension and supply relief, which is how energy flows within music. Historical composers who wrote polyphonic music prided themselves on creating strong melodic parts that drove the music forward and satisfied the stylistic “rules” of the times with clever, musical solutions. This aesthetic still operates in many of today’s music styles, and their unconscious observance makes phrases seem more musical. 


… chords. You gotta love ‘em. It’s just that they are not the only way to think about your music. Not the only tool in your toolbox. Consider the challenge of incorporating the linear into your chord progressions. Then check out whether the music feels stronger, more dimensional, better. 

If not, then you undo. Perhaps then you realize that a more frank, straightforward chord structure suits the song. Maybe some space between chords does sound better, so you take out some of the passing tones you recently added. Maybe the root position chords are more honest and less distracting than the inversions. Sometimes the best way to know what you want is to try something else, even if you then revert back to your first inclinations. It’s never too late to reconsider when it comes to knowing what you want and actually getting it. Writing music is a journey—buckle up!

Stay tuned next month for “Part II: Enter the Volt.”

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