Hiearchies and Such

I got some interesting discussion on the previous blog entry about tab, and now I have two nifty new ideas for explaining the clear and present danger of the monstrosity that is tablature (monstrosity!) – the “neat handwriting of the illiterate” and picture books. As a teacher of music, I love teaching by analogy because I’m often teaching something completely foreign and the more parallels and implications by association I can cram down an unsuspecting student’s throat the better.

Yes, more propaganda. Excellent.

In other news, I’m moving to New York next week to apparently learn the super secret handshake to get me into the highly exclusive jazz composition club at Manhattan School of Music. That, and be in debt to Uncle Sam for a couple hundred years. Thanks Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act! With that in mind I’d like to return to this blog’s roots – opaque music theory concepts. At least this time I’ll try make it relevant.

If I ever had the unlimited free time and funds available to me to hole myself up in a room for a month or two and write non-stop I’d come up with a grand unified Descriptive Theory of the Hierarchy of Harmony, or something with a similarly impressive title. As a composer, it’s very important to me to create a musical texture that is coherant in style, color and effect. If I’m doing my job right as a writer, I look to create a harmonic texture where the music isn’t experience as simply the succession of chords, but rather as the net effect of all of the chords as “harmony,” – just one of the many pieces of the puzzle in composition. I think too often young writers (myself included) focus too often on the specifics of a chord progression in terms of finding cool chord movements and extensions and voicings and such when ultimately it’s should just be a small part of the whole process of composition. In other words, there is a lot more to chord progressions in composing.

So, when composing harmony, I look for unity of effect and sound rather than the specifics of a chord progression, and then look to how to compare these effects with one another. I look for different tiers of harmony, basically, and then use that as a baseline from which to manipulate sounds. Thinking of harmony in terms of style and type rather than specific techniques or chords gives a lot more broader understanding on how the music actually in perceived, and, ultimately, more control over what it is you’re writing. Which is always a good thing.

And with all that in mind, I give you the basic hierarchy of harmony…

Functional Harmony

I. Primary Level Tonal Harmony – Diatonic tertian harmony with defined functions to a particular key. Primary level tonal harmony is almost always driven by the tonic-dominant relationship. This is the bread and butter of most music.

II. Secondary Level Tonal Harmony – Everything else that can have a definite function within a key. Secondary dominants, diminished chords, tritone substitutions, etc all count as secondary level tonal harmony.

III. Functional Modal Harmony – Diatonic teritian harmony with defined functions to a particular mode. Functional modal harmony is not driven by the tonic dominant relationship.

Non-Functional Harmony

I. Non-Functional Modal Harmony – This encompasses all non-tertian modal harmony as well as pandiatonicism and all the sorts of goodies that jazz musicians put into playing so-called “modal jazz.” My own ideas on “Andihemitonic Heptatonic Modality” fall here.

II. Localized Harmony – My own term describing harmony that doesn’t appear to have any sort of function or key center and can only be described by its relationship to other harmonic structures. The Miles Davis tune “Orbits” falls here.

III. Patterned Harmony – Harmony derived from some sort of recurring pattern of voice leading. Constant structures/planing are the prime example, but more complex forms of patterned harmony exist.

VI. Tone Cluster Harmony – Harmony which includes some form of “tone cluster” – two consecutive half steps at any octave. Tone cluster harmony can be localized harmony or patterned harmony, but it’s effect is so specific and so defined that it gets its own thing. A lot of 12 tone stuff can result in tone cluster harmony.

Now, again, if I ever have the time, I’ll get a lot more into the specifics of each kind of harmony, but this sort of hierarchy is what I think of when I’m working on a piece of music. Jumping from one level of harmony to the next without good reason to do so almost always sounds odd and out of place. Staying on one level of harmony gives the whole texture a certain “sheen” that removes the focus from the harmony to other things (melody, rhythm, etc). It’s an interesting way of looking at music, and something I’d like to explore further in the near future.

If I have time. So…probably not. Oh well.


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