Andihemitonic Heptatonic Modality – Concepts and Construction of Modal Voicings

If that sounds like the most pretentious bullsh*t you’ve ever heard, you’re probably right. If you have any particular desire to be brought up to speed on the development & application of this nifty new compositional theory, check out my intro to AMH and then my post dealing with characteristic pitches. If you have no desire, I don’t blame you, here’s a video of a cat playing I spy. It’s pretty hilarious, be watch some of the guy’s other videos also.

Anyways, the next step from where we are right now is to start to figure out what the hell to do with all of this categorization of modes. Its one thing to slap labels on scales, but another to put them to work. We’ll first look at what I call “modal voicings.”

The (infamous) practice of teaching chord/scale theory as a method of improvisation has lead to a generation of young jazz improvisers equating specific chord symbols with specific scales . For example, C7(#11) means lydian b7, and in some respects, vice versa. Modal voicings take this sort of thing to a more extreme conclusion. If scales equal chord symbols and vice versa, why bother having chord symbols in the first place? Chord symbols force a tertian understanding of harmony, and that sort of thing is sooo passé. Rather, the mode itself IS the harmony, and no distinction is drawn between them. The harmony and voicings aren’t built by stacking thirds or fourths or anything like that, but rather by simply adding and subtracting tones from the mode and arranging them based upon their desired intervallic dissonance.

At the core of all of this is the characteristic pitch. All modal voicings, at least how I’m defining them, must contain the root and the CP of the mode, otherwise the core intervallic “flavor” that defines the mode won’t be there. It’s like the third for triadic chords. Since the CP is often a pitch that is either not in the tradition tertian chord (the 4 for the Ionian mode), or otherwise way up there in the tertian heirarchy (the 13 for the Dorian mode), these sorts of vertical structures normally sound somewhat foreign and mildly dissonant. Almost always, if they HAD to be represented by a chord symbol, it would be some sort of hybrid notation (Fmaj7sus2/Ab, for example). I’ve heard the effect of these sorts of voicings called “static dissonance,” and that’s an idea I really latched on to. They’re dissonant, but don’t point anywhere in particular, and are cool just chilling out by themselves for a while. Groovey.

Now, in order for static dissonance to work, the voicing itself should follow all of the standard voicing criteria that you first learn when arranging. Logical spacing of the voices, eschewing lower interval limits, avoiding a minor 2nd between the top two voices, and especially avoiding the interval of the minor ninth. If scale degree b2 is the CP of a mode (and therefore forms a minor 9 dissonance w/ the root), avoid placing it in the lead voice to soften that dissonance. Beyond that, there aren’t really any limits on which notes to place where that aesthetical taste can’t give you. The arranging concept of “chord sound” is irrelevant, and so whatever intervallic combinations work with the CP are fair game. I’ve found that major 7th intervals between a CP and another note work beautifully in giving that “static dissonant” effect, and usually try to sneak in a major 7th dissonance in whatever modal voicing I use.

Here are some sample modal voicings I came up with for the greek (major) modes. They often can be interpreted some way or another into “fit” into a chord symbol, but sometimes they can’t. Click for a larger version.

So where to from here? Greek modes are one thing, but in order to get some really cool sounds we need to delve into the other three scale systems. Since there are in fact two CPs for each of the modes of the Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major, modal voicings for these modes should ideally contain both CPs. They might “work” with just one CP, but they won’t represent the mode as fully. In this way, I think of the two CP’s as the 3rd and 7th guidetones of more conventional seventh chords – the chord might be intervallically sound with one and not the other, but there isn’t enough chord sound to define the chord. Dig?

Even still, the fact that a modal voicing contains both CP’s of a particular mode doesn’t mean that it’s going to be unique to that mode. In fact, the minimum number of notes from a particular AH mode required in a voicing to make 100% it’s from that specific mode and not another one is six. Now, six-note voicings are fairly dense and unwieldy, so creating a texture of wholly unique modal voicings isn’t too feasible. This isn’t too big of a problem – seventh chords rarely have their full extensions one them anyway, and very often omit their fifth. Instead, the goal is to imply one mode over another, and if not that, at least use the mode’s intervallic qualities to create an ambiguous, cool-sounding voicing.

Here are a few sample voicings from the other three scale systems. One neat thing about them is if you listen carefully, all the modes of a particular scale system tend to sound like the parent scale. There’s an ear training exercise where the student is supposed to figure out whether or not a segundal voicing (voicing built just from stacked seconds) comes from the major, melodic minor or harmonic minor scale. It doesn’t matter what the “root” of the voicing is – the scale itself shines through. Even the more extreme ones like the “super lydian” end up giving the “impression” of Harmonic Major, or whatever the parent scale is.

So to recap, Modal Voicings….

  • Must contain root and CP(s) to reflect the “character” of the mode
  • Obey guidelines for intervallic dissonance within vertical structures
  • Sound cool with major 7 dissonances
  • Are totally 100% unique to a mode if there are six voices

Hopefully you see where I’m eventually going with all of this stuff. Categorizing all the usable 7-note modes is invaluable to this modal voicings concept, and gives a pretty “complete” picture of the harmonic pallate we have to work with. In the next couple blogs, I’ll be going into more specifics and even (gasp!) posting real pieces of music. I’m still trying to attach a fancy title to what I’m going to talk about next, though. “Gradational Modulation” is a possibility, although I’m always looking for even better ways to obfuscate concepts with jargon, so it might change.

Stay tuned!



4 Responses to “Andihemitonic Heptatonic Modality – Concepts and Construction of Modal Voicings”

  1. 1 elissamilne February 22, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Adam, I promised you some intelligent comments, and instead all I want to say after reading this is “WAY COOL!”.

    Love what you are doing – love the systematic way you are setting out to accomplish your project – and I particularly love the approach you are taking to tease out the musical meanings of each of these patterns, and the implications of these meanings for composition (in posts yet to come I’m sure this will be examined in further detail).

    Pretty intense for readers without either a jazz background or a thorough grounding in theory, but fabulous none the less. Can hardly wait to read more.

  2. 2 Mark Simos September 17, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Adam –

    Our paths never crossed when you were at Berklee (I teach in the Songwriting Dept.) but I love what you are investigating here. I found this site by searching (in a fit of optimism) for “modal interpretations of hybrid chords” and I think you are breaking some interesting ground.

    I’m not trained in jazz, but have a background in various traditional musics (Irish, old-time/Appalachian) with strong modal components; and for a while I’ve been investigating possibilities of modal progressions built out of simpler triadic structures that stick with the palettes of various modes. I think many chord choices in contemporary songwriting (written by theoretically relatively uninformed players) can be best understood in a modal sense. Now I am trying to understand how to apply that to a modal interpretation of common hybrids – for example b7/1 as Mixo, 2/1 as Lydian the most obvious – then extend that to polychords formed by superimposing simple triads. These are structures that could be adopted by musicians that don’t have the full weight of jazz chops to fall back on, but could still stretch more mundane concepts of harmonizing modal tunes in some cool ways. That’s my current agenda – so I look forward to following your further research.

    I also applaud the systematic approach – I’ve argued for a rationale behind the jazz pedagogue’s reliance on major, melodic and harmonic minor as the main scales to investigate beyond common practice–and you make a good argument for extending this to include harmonic major as a complete set.

    Mark Simos

    • 3 Adam Neely September 17, 2010 at 10:01 pm

      Hey Mark,

      Modal interpretations of hybrid chords? Man, you were being optimistic, haha.

      The four scale system of major, melodic minor, harmonic minor and harmonic major isn’t something I really came up with – I think the guitar department at Berklee requires that guitar performance majors know all of them up and down with all of their modes by the time they get out of there. The problem with this is that in jazz (or other music, really), there isn’t really a vocabulary to speak of with the harmonic major, and harmonic minor really doesn’t have too much of a place either. For a jazz teacher to spend much time on all four equally seems unproductive, because the balance of all four isn’t part of the aesthetic of jazz in “the Tradition.”

      I TOTALLY agree that a lot of songwriting/music making in contemporary styles can and should be understood modally. I don’t know if they’ve done it yet, but I talked to Joe Mulholland about it a little bit before I left, and I think they’re trying to focus a lot more on modal harmony in the harmony department so that people can have something else to get into besides stuff which is mostly jazz in practice (II-V-fun). A tune like Smells like Teen Spirit is easy enough to understand within a modal framework, but in the current model, it’s not until AFTER the student learned things like deceptive resolutions of contiguous II-V’s that the students learn about modal harmony.

      Anyway, let me know what comes from your study with the triads! Modal melodies are great fun to harmonize, and any system you have I’d love to see.


  3. 4 eU February 20, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Do you know Ron Miller’s modal theory? I think he wrote what you need.

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