Archive for the 'AHM' Category

AHM – Music!

So if you were among the two people who have kept up with my blogging here, you would have read all about my attempts at creating a nifty new system of harmony (I, II, III, IV, etc). I ran out of steam when I realized a couple things. One, the kind of harmonic techniques I was using created way too dense a texture to really be useful except in small doses. At some point it all just “sounds like harmony.” Two, and more importantly, although the harmonies and harmonic techniques I was coming up with sounded cool, I couldn’t really connect with the music I was making with them. Perhaps I was approaching the theoretical concepts from too academic an angle, or maybe I was focused too much on the harmonic applications of the modes to see some of the other aspects. Basically, I got bored with it, and moved on to other things.

However, I did compose an etude on gradational modulation, and got the lovely Emma Boroson to read it down for me (she wants me to let everybody know that its just a rough read down, although it sounds pretty darn good for a reading recording) Here it is.

Meditation (Recording)

Meditation (Score)

It’s…interesting I guess? I took a rather liberal interpretation of the technical guidelines I established on what exactly constitutes gradational modulation. With four voices, it’s pretty impossible to create fully-fledged modal voicings, and so often the individual harmonies have to “represent” modes within the framework of the system. I personally like how this sounds far better than a constant barrage of thick harmony, and lets the harmonies “melt” into one another far more easily. You still get the impression of a lot of “harmony,” but its tempered, and other aspects of the composition can come through a lot more.

I was considering doing a full on analysis of all of the changes of chord/modes and the specifics with the voicings I chose, but I think that there’s enough actual music in this composition that I don’t need to go through all of that. Plus, I’m lazy, so there we go.

Anyway, hope you all enjoyed.




Dissonance and the Modes

The more and more I go into studying AH scales (intro), the more I feel the need to categorize them…almost like a taxonomist. It’s not really necessary for composing, and I told myself that I’d keep most of this study oriented away from the abstract and theoretical, but I’m always curious why things sound the way that they do. There’s such a rich pallate of colors to chose from when you take into account all 28 AH modes, and so it’s nice to have a starting point. Gradational Modulation sought to give a framework for the 28 modes with regards to controlling the difference of sharps/flats between different chord/modes, as well as controlling root motion and brightness/darkness, but I still didn’t have a way to understand and quantify something I could intuit very easily – “modal dissonance.”

Dissonance can be subjective, of course, but it basically is why Dorian voicings are “stable” and Locrian bb7 voicings are “unstable.” This is something that everybody can understand and “feel,” but becomes hard to quantify when trying to create a ranking of modes for the purpose of a mechanical technique like Gradational Modulation. Now, mechanical techniques aren’t why I compose or how I compose at all, but they’re great for getting the material in your ear in a way that you can understand how the harmony “moves.”

I set about creating a ranking for every one of the 28 modes for stability based upon measuring the intervallic relationships of every note within the mode to the tonic. I created four categories to describe these relationships – “Perfect Consonance” (Perfect 4ths and 5ths), “Imperfect Consonance” (Major/Minor 3rds and 6ths), “Mild Dissonance” (Major 2nd, Minor 7th, Major 7th, Diminished/Augmented 4ths and 5ths) and “Harsh Dissonance” (Minor 2nd). The reason why the minor 2nd gets a category of its own is because when arranged in a voicing, it forms a minor 9 dissonance with the root – a traditionally “unacceptable” interval for arranging. All 28 modes have two imperfect consonances – the 3rd and 6th of the mode – so its the other three categories that we are interested in. Here’s a table with all of the data. Augmented and diminished mild dissonances such as augmented 2nds or diminished 7ths are notated with a plus sign.

Major Scale

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian 2 2
Dorian 2 2
Phrygian 2 1 1
Lydian 1 3
Mixolydian 2 2
Aeolian 2 2
Locrian 1 2 1

Melodic Minor

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian b3 2 2
Dorian b2 2 1 1
Lydian #5 4
Lydian b7 1 3
Mixolydian b6 2 2
Locrian nat. 2 1 3
Locrian b4 3 1

Harmonic Minor

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Aeolian nat. 7 2 2
Locrian nat. 6 1 2 1
Ionian #5 1 3
Dorian #4 1 3
Phrygian nat. 3 2 1 1
Lydian #2 1 3+
Locrian b4 bb7 3+ 1

Harmonic Major

Mode Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Ionian b6 2 2
Dorian b5 1 3
Phrygian b4 1 2 1
Lydian b3 1 3
Mixolydian b2 2 1 1
Lydian #2 #5 4+
Locrian bb7 1 2+ 1

The next step is to group modes with similar intervallic characteristics together. These are the six “grades of dissonance,” that relate the modes by degree of stability. Pardon the invented jargon, but I felt that it was more descriptive to tie a Greek mode to each grade of dissonance versus a number. The numbers next to the names refer to the number of perfect consonances, mild dissonances and harsh dissonances respectively.

I. Neutral Grade Dissonance (2,2,0)

Major Mode Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian
Melodic Minor Mode Ionian b3, Mixolydian b6
Harmonic Minor Mode Aeolian nat. 7
Harmonic Major Mode Ionian b6

II. Lydian Grade Dissonance (1,3,0)

Major Mode Lydian
Melodic Minor Mode Lydian b7, Locrian nat. 2
Harmonic Minor Mode Ionian #5, Dorian #4, Lydian #2 (+)
Harmonic Major Mode Dorian b5, Lydian b3

III. Phrygian Grade Dissonance (2,1,1)

Major Mode Phrygian
Melodic Minor Mode Dorian b2
Harmonic Minor Mode Phrygian nat. 3
Harmonic Major Mode Mixolydian b2

IV. Locrian Grade Dissonance (1,2,1)

Major Mode Locrian
Melodic Minor Mode
Harmonic Minor Mode Locrian nat. 6
Harmonic Major Mode Phrygian b4, Locrian bb7 (+)

V. Super-Lydian Grade Dissonance (0,4,0)

Major Mode
Melodic Minor Mode Lydian #5
Harmonic Minor Mode
Harmonic Major Mode Lydian #2, #5 (+)

VI. Super-Locrian Grade Dissonance (0,3,1)

Major Mode
Melodic Minor Mode Locrian b4
Harmonic Minor Mode Locrian b4, bb7 (+)
Harmonic Major Mode

Now, these six grades of dissonance seem to explain rather clearly what my ear already tells me – Locrian b4 is less stable than Lydian, for example. However, what’s a little confusing is, for example, why Aeolian nat. 7 ends up ranked as stable as Aeolian, or why Dorian b5 is ranked as stable as Lydian. To me, modal voicings in the former cases sound definitively less stable.

The reason for this lies in their parent scales. If we measure the intervallic relationships between ALL notes to ALL other notes instead of just the root for each scale system, we end up with these numbers.

Scale Perfect Consonance Mild Dissonance Harsh Dissonance
Major 12 14 2
Melodic Minor 8 18 2
Harmonic Minor 8 17 (++) 3
Harmonic Major 8 17 (++) 3

We can see what we already probably knew. Modes of the major scale are the most stable since they have the ratio of perfect consonant relationships to harsh dissonant ones, followed by modes of the melodic minor scale, and followed then by the harmonic major and minor, which are equally stable/unstable. So, within each grade of dissonance there is another breakdown of intervallic relationships to explain why Ionian/Dorian/Mixolydian and Aeolian are more stable than Ionian b6, for example.

There’s a problem here, of course. All of this is supposed to explain the relative stability and instability of the modes specifically how they relate to modal voicings. It can only go so far. Ionian modal voicings can be extremely unstable, for example, when both the major 7th and perfect 4th (the diatonic tritone) are voiced, and selective use of notes from modes like Locrian b4 bb7 can make them seem relatively stable within context. These grades of dissonance are instead meant as a general guide for understanding what you probably already know by ear if you’ve tinkered with the sounds of the modes before. They’re not particularly useful with specific techniques like understanding Brightness was, but they’re still a nice conceptualization.

Anyway, by now I’ve hacked these modes to death in terms of theoretical categorization, I think its nigh time I write some more music. Expect some in the next blog.



AHM – Gradational Modulation

This is part of an on-going series on “AHM,” a compositional approach of mine. To get up to speed, scroll down to check out the other posts on the subject, but especially Intro to AHMCharacteristic Pitches and Modal Voicings.

In a previous post I took a look at my first efforts to use all 28 AH modes in one unified system. Of course, it wasn’t much of a system at all – it was just applying these concepts to functional harmony. I still needed to find some novel ways to use chord/modes that didn’t rely so heavily on chord functions and progressive root motion. However, because modal voicings are so rich and full of static dissonance, they don’t hold up well to the same sorts of chromatic transformation and planing that simpler structures might. If you’re not staying within the same parent scale, harmony using modal voicings quickly becomes a vague blur of unrelated dissonances. My solution to this was imposing what I call “Gradational Modulation” on the harmony.

Gradational Modulation is essentially the same thing as the concept in common practice known as “closely related keys.” Closely related keys are ones whose keys signatures are just one sharp or one flat away from the home key. This concept was essential to modulation and key relationships up until the 19th century when things started getting more complex and more foreign key relationships were introduced. Gradational Modulation takes on this concept and builds on it. Instead of looking at close Major/Minor scale relationships to the parent key, we’re now going to look at ALL possible close relationships to a given parent scale from all four parent scales. Since they’re relating by all the same notes except for 1 (the note thats changing between the two of them), the ear will still hear the modes or chord/modes as being related, even if they are from different parent scales. The blur of dissonance can be avoided.

Here’s a table that illustrates what I mean by this. (I have a copy of this table printed out and on my desk at all times…it’s very convenient)

Original Parent Scale Parent Scales 1 # Away Parent Scales 1 b away
C Major A Harmonic Minor
G Major
D Melodic Minor
C Harmonic Major
C Melodic Minor
F Major
C Melodic Minor C Major
G Harmonic Major
Bb Major
C Harmonic Minor
C Harmonic Major C Major C Harmonic Minor
F Melodic Minor
C Harmonic Minor C Harmonic Major
C Melodic Minor
Eb Major

This was exactly what I was looking for. Now we don’t have to stay within one scale, we have a bunch of relationships now to choose from. For example, let’s say I have a modal voicing on D Dorian. The parent scale is C Major, so we could go to chord/modes in C Major, OR, we could go to chord/modes from the other six parent scales listed – 48 chord/modes in all. That’s a signficant number of possibilities, although, its roughly comparable to the number of options we get when we think of functions in tonal harmony (diatonic chords, modal interchange, secondary dominants, tritone substitution, etc).

Now, obviously, there will be plenty of times and reasons to break this mold – notably at cadences are any moment where a larger shift of tone color is desired. Still, it’s nice have have neatly laid out.

One of the problems here, is that so far there isn’t any real way to gauge exactly WHICH of the 48 chord/modes to shift to. Aesthetic preference of course is king, but besides that, there are three things to keep in mind when deciding, 1) Direction of Modulation (1 sharp versus 1 flat) Root Motion (progressive versus regressive) 3) Brightness/Darkness and 4) Control of Dissonance. I’ll take a look at them in order in exhausting detail that really isn’t necessary. Fun.

Direction of modulation has a very minor effect on two chords, but if prolonged in the same direction over a course of a progression, it can give a powerful, if subtle, feeling of “ascending” or “descending.” The easiest way to hear this effect without going through the legwork of figuring out voicings is to take a simple constant structure (a major 7 chord, lets say), and then cycle it in fourths. If you ascend in fourths (Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Bbmaj7 etc), the effect is one of harmonic “descent,” and if you descend in fourths (Cmaj7, Gmaj7, Dmaj7), it has a feeling of harmonic “ascent.” These labels of ascent and descent are unfortunately the best that I could come up with, since describing musical effects is so difficult, but its still wise to recognize the fact that there is an effect.

Here is an example of a progression that “descends” (difference of a flat) and one that “ascends” (difference of a sharp). Pay close attention to the ascent/descent effects. Click for a larger image, and be sure to also listen to the midi file.


The next thing to keep in mind with creating progressions is root motion (explained in depth here). Here are a couple of examples of progressions modeled off of the first parent scale progression that examine the effects of progressive and regressive root motion on both the ascending progression and descending progression we came up with earlier. Try playing the bassline first and then playing it with the rest of the harmony to truly hear the effect of progressive/regressive root motion outside of a functional context.



Next, we have brightness/darkness, which I covered in this previous entry. I was considering some fancy jargon to describe the numbers that I came up with, like “Dorian Brightness Index,” but I think “brightness” should suffice. Here’s a couple progressions considering an all bright descending progression, all dark descending progression, all bright ascending progression and all dark ascending progression. Again, listen very carefully to what effect is achieved by a bright progression versus a dark one.



By now, you should notice most of these progressions sound very similar. This is because the parent scales we’ve set for them haven’t changed, and like we covered in a much earlier blog discussing AHM, all of the modes of a particular parent scale end up giving the impression of that scale. It’s important to examine all of these extra nuances (brightness, root motion) within a fixed context, however, because they can be easily lost without a strong grounding.

Finally we get to the one which is the hardest to define, “control of dissonance.” This is basically the fancy way of saying “use your ear to control dissonance,” because I really don’t have a simple codification that explains the intervallic dissonance found within the AH modes. In attempting to describe brightness/darkness I’ve created a different way of looking at dissonance from a theoretical standpoint, but it doesn’t quantify it the way I might like. I haven’t mentioned it so far, but a compelling “melody” in the soprano voice is key for the ear in accepting the progression dissonant structures. If the melodic countour in the lead voice doesn’t sound compelling, you’ll have a tough time making the progression work.

With all of this said, an easy way, and perhaps “cheap way, to tone down the dissonance is to make use of anti-modal voicings. Because they’re designed to be much more stable, “controlling” their level of dissonance isn’t really a tall order. Applying them to Gradational Modulation is a great way to get a non-functional sound with more traditional sounding structures, and they can be very easily translated into chord symbol notation, whereas modal voicings often can’t. After listening to all these modal voicings, these anti-modal voicings are very easy on the ear to the point of almost being bland at some points. Have a listen (I especially like the “rising” one because the root motion is falling at the same time its going up in the circle of fifths).


With Gradational Modulation and the four parameters I subscribed, it’s very easy to think of composition schemes, like “alternating bright/dark,” or “all neutral brightness with progressive root motion,” or “alternating ascending/descending with neutral brightness,” or whatever. Ultimately, though, it comes down to aesthetic choice, and very often this will lead the ear away from what these schemes provide. All of these parameters serve to give some qualification to this method of non-functional harmony, but they aren’t “rules” by any stretch of the imagination, and are simply things to keep in mind when you’re working out progressions.

Stay tuned for more music and theory.


AHM – Root Motion and Reinterpretation of Harmony

This is part of an on-going series on “AHM,” a compositional approach of mine. To get up to speed, scroll down to check out the other posts on the subject, but especially Intro to AHM, Characteristic Pitches and Modal Voicings.

I’ve been struggling to come up with ways of incorporating all of the 28 AH modes into a unified system. When used as chord/modes, they blend very nicely with other chord/modes from the same parent scale, but as soon as you start veering outside of that scale, things start to get dicey. Modal voicings are too potent to be thrown around without some sort of framework.

One possible idea I had was to simply “reinterpret” standard chord progressions from the jazz idiom (or elsewhere) with modal voicings. This way, there’s already the framework, and I just have to plug in my voicings concept. Here are two examples…(click for a larger image)

OK, those sound all right. I’m not particularly enamored with them, but they’re an interesting sound. The original, functional chord progressions rely heavily on building tension and releasing it, whereas the modal voicing reinterpretations of those chord progressions seem to “float” a lot more. Even when the melody (soprano voice) is so cut-and-dry diatonic like in the II-V-I example, the chords themselves don’t smack of tension/resolution. One thing that’s necessary to this whole illusion is that the Mixolydian chord/mode include both the major 3 and the perfect 4. This way the ear isn’t tempted to hear the 3rd (the 7th degree of the parent major scale) resolving to the tonic of the parent key, since the tonic (the perfect 4) is already present within the voicing.

Anyway, let’s see what else we can do by applying modal voicings to conventional minor key chord progressions…

This time instead of staying strictly to a parent key, I borrowed modes from a couple sources in much the same way a jazz improviser would when given a minor key II-V like this. The modal voicings reinterpretation sounds much more laden with dissonance than the major key modal voicing reinterpretation, although it sounds more functional (largely due to the fact that the tonic chord doesn’t have a perfect fourth in it). The I-7 to bVImaj7 is a pretty common sort of modal aeolian progression to begin with, so the differences between the conventional and modal voicings of the chords are minimal.

So cool, we have some new sounds to play with. However, this wasn’t really what I was looking for in coming up with harmony. It’s too constrained to the common practice of jazz, and even though the voicings themselves are novel, the general “feel” of the chord progressions seem stale. Why is that?

Well, a huge part of what makes function chord progressions “tick” is their use of progressive root motion. Understanding the difference between progressive root motion and regressive root motion is something that’s not taught as often as it should in beginning and intermediate theory classes. It’s something I used often while I worked as a student tutor at Berklee to help students come up with chord progressions. Very often, theory teachers blithely assign students assignments that involve inventing chord progressions (like harmonizing a soprano line, for example) without giving them any sort of framework for understanding how to do it. The rest of us, through years of musical training and study, can easily intuit what makes a chord progression sound good within functional contexts (this is why we all know that a V-ii-IV-vi-iii progression might not be the best way to impress your theory teacher.) But why is that?

Very simply, it’s progressive root motion. Root motion is defined as “progressive” if it goes up a fourth, down a third or up a second. It’s defined as “regressive” if it goes down a fourth, up a third, or down a second. One analogy I like is that progressive root motion is the ticking of the clock, and regressive root motion is winding it. You don’t want to wind it too tight (too much regressive motion), and if you need to wind it, wind it at the beginning of the progression. The rule I gave students (because in theory, most students love simple and logical rules to follow and hate vagueries that don’t get them anywhere) was to never use regressive root motion twice in a row. Yes, there are plenty of examples in the common practice and in function harmony where that’s done and it sounds fine, but its solid way to get them thinking “progressively.”

With all this said, for my own writing with AHM, I intend to avoid progressive root motion, especially when it’s in cycle 5 form. It tends to chug along with too much purpose for non-functional harmony. Progressive root motion is too goal-oriented (the tonic, presumably), and one of the nice things about non-functional harmony is that there ISN’T a goal. Although those reinterpretations of the ii-V’s yield some interesting results, they aren’t what I’m looking for at all when I’m looking to write new and interesting modern jazz. If I wanted to do some arrangements of standards for big band, or something along those lines, these kinds of voicing patterns would be very interesting and exciting, but other than that, I can’t see myself getting too much mileage out of cycle 5 progressions.

That said, just for the exercise, I wrote out this version of “All the Things You Are” to see what I could get with this technique of reinterpretation. Here it is…

All the Things Modal Voicings

…and here’s a MIDI file. I didn’t take a very literal approach with the chord symbols, and, especially in the bridge, sometimes inserted an unusual chord/mode, the same way that a jazz improviser might superimpose chromatic harmony or chromatic melody over a diatonic chord. I’m actually quite pleased with how this turned out. It sounds like the chords never resolve, which is exactly what modal voicings are supposed to do. The next time I find myself in a position where I have to use functional-style chord progressions and root motion, I’ll definitely be using this reinterpretation technique. The more I play with it, the more I like it, although it’s not exactly what I had in mind when I first started toying with the idea.

Anyway, stay tuned for more AHM craziness.


AHM – Anti-Modal Voicings

This is the next installment of my compositional notes on using modes in harmony. Scroll down to check out the others and figure out what I mean with all of this propriety jargon. Like “Anti-Modal Voicings.” Wow.

One of the things I learned by writing the AHM etudes was that modal voicings, at least how I’ve been defining them, are rather unwieldy. Since those four etudes all stayed within the parent scale, it didn’t matter all too much, but once I started to mess with using these sorts of voicings in ways that did not stick to the parent scale it became apparent that they couldn’t just be thrown around. They couldn’t be used the same way that more stable quartal voicings or tertian voicings might with constant structure technique or in other typical non-functional patterns. The characteristic pitches found in each modal voicing created a dissonance that sometimes I plain disliked.

So I came up with the idea of the “anti” modal voicing. The criteria for creating an anti-modal voicing are exactly the same as regular modal voicings, except that the characteristic pitch(es) of the mode now are “avoid” notes. Since we’re trying to avoid that whole tritonal dissonance that gives modal voicings their entire flavor, anti-modal voicings sound rather…ordinary. In fact, its an extremely round-about way to get voicings and chords that are normally standard-fair for the jazz idiom. Take a look at these samples…(click for a larger picture)

You can quickly see that these voicings aren’t unique or even particularly indicative of the mode, and a lot of them are shared. While it’s possible to get a “modal flavor” and still qualify as an anti-modal voicing (the mixolydian voicing I suggested, for example), the majority of them have a very “major 7” or “minor 7” quality that isn’t particularly novel.

So why use them? And why attach this ridiculous jargon? Well, you can think of them the same way that you might thing about hybrid structure chords like D/C. Context gives them their meaning. D/C could very well “mean” a tonic C major chord within a functional context, even though it contains none of the chord tones of a C major chord. Or it could mean a D7 chord in third inversion in a different function context. The same thing applies to these anti-modal voicings. They’re ambiguous in function, and only gain function (a specific modal identity) when put within a certain context. This might mean putting them next to modal voicings from the same parent scale. For example, if you had an anti-modal voicing for D lydian b7, it could be made to sound like lydian b7 even without its characteristic pitches by placing it next to a modal voicings for C lydian #5.

The main point of this is simply to soften the dissonant effect caused by a string of modal voicings. When you’re just writing in a context all diatonic to a parent scale, this isn’t entirely necessary, but it can help create a better sense of tension/release. Otherwise, it can make the harmony a lot more palatable, especially when the harmonic rhythm occurs quickly.

Anyway, stay tuned for more theory and more music!


AHM – Etudes!

Wait, what? Actual music being written? Impossible! I figured that I might as well shut up for a second and write something that uses what I’ve been talking about so far in this series on AHM. To check out the compositional notes and theory behind these little ditties (and figure out what the heck AHM means), read my blog entries Intro to AHM, Characteristic Pitches and Modal Voicings.

These four etudes were written to exploit the concept of the “Modal Voicing” (explained in depth in that previous blog entry) in all four of the andihemitonic heptatonic parent scales (yeah…you should read the previous blog entries to figure out what I mean by that). They are non-modulatory, meaning that the parent scale of all of the localized modes stays the same throughout. Basically, the “key signature” doesn’t change. In the next blog entry I’ll start to tackle what I call “Gradational Modulation,” which takes a look at the most effective ways to move from one chord/mode to another when they do not share a parent scale.

One interesting thing that I discovered while writing these four etudes is that because the characteristic pitch of any given mode will be on the diatonic tritone(s), any voicing that contains both notes of the tritone(s) can be used for every mode of a parent scale. So in other words, in the key of C, if I had a voicing that I liked with F and B in it, that voicing could be used over D to create a D dorian voicing, over E to create an E phrygian voicing, etc. In Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Minor, the scale systems with two tritones, this “blanket voicing” is going to be the diatonic diminished 7th chord. Since the diminished 7th chord contains both diatonic tritones, it will always contain both CP’s of a particular mode.

Anyway, this first etude was written in the parent scale of C major, so effectively, it’s just diatonic C major stuff. Boring. However, I made sure to force every harmony into the modal voicing mold, so the end effect was a much more ambiguous chord progression. I toyed a lot with harmonic rhythm and different agogic accents, and that just made things even more ambiguous to the point where it’s hard to point out a specific key center for the whole thing. Presumably it’s C, but at times to me it sounds like A, then E, then D, and then at the vamp at the end G, and then after the last chord…uh….who knows? It’s a mystery. Although its just a whole lotta white key stuff going on, I wanted to “trick” the ear into think there might be something else. I made sure to use all 7 chord/modes just for the sake of the exercise.

Here’s the lead sheet and a nifty Youtube of yours truly playing it.

AHM Etude 1

The second etude I wrote with the parent scale of D harmonic minor. Instead of trying to obscure the tonal center like I did in the first etude, I wrote a simple minor melody that pretty definitively implied “D” as the tonic. I tried to imply functional relationships (for example, the “V-I” cadence at the end) while at the same time maintaining that general feeling of “static dissonance”. Since a lot of the voicings contained one or both tritones (the “blanket voicing” concept I mentioned earlier), there doesn’t seem to be much tension/release going on until the resolution to a minor triad at the very end. All the rest of the vertical structures are modal voicings except for the chord at measure 4. This is what I call an “anti-modal voicing” (woohoo, more jargon!), but I’ll talk more about that in a later blog.

A cool thing happens on the second-to-laster chord – there is a minor 9 dissonance between the C# in the tenor voice and the D in the melody. An arranging teacher of mine once called this sort of thing “subliminal dissonance,” where the dissonance is softened because it happens in a low voice and isn’t nearly as “in your face” as it would be if it occurred higher.

Anyway, here’s the etude for your entertainment (maybe?), and another nifty Youtube.

AHM Etude 2

I wrote the third etude with the parent scale of G Melodic Minor, but emphasized “A” as the tonic pitch. This is the very definition of modality – since I emphasized A, the entire piece is in “A Dorian b2,” versus the parent scale of G Melodic Minor. Awesome.  I liked the “unstable” effect I got in the first etude created by the shifting harmonic rhythms, so I did the same with this one by and making it in 5/4 and phrasing the melody and harmony in odd numbered measures. The melody I wrote over the harmony helps to ear to hear “A” as the tonic pitch,  shifting between A and D as emphasized notes. Like the second etude, there’s a really pronounced “static dissonant” effect, and its easy to hear the entire thing as just sort of blanket “Melodic Minor,” instead of hearing distinct chord progressions. I kept going back to a “Bb maj7#5” tertian structure in the right hand of the piano, and it worked beautifully as a modal voicing for several of the chord/modes I used.

Voila, Youtube & pdf. This one was fun to play, but it took a while to internalize the weird harmonic rhythm.

AHM Etude 3

This fourth and final etude was written with the parent scale of C Harmonic Major, and in my opinion, it sounds the most “functional tonal” out of all four etudes. I paraphrased “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” as the melody, and once I started in on that, the rest of the piece practically wrote itself. The chord/modes simply cycle downwards from F lydian b3 all the way down to G mixo b2, although it’s easy to hear how you would interpret the chords in a tonal context and analyze them with roman numerals. I was the most lenient on writing “complete” modal voicings on this one, as there are several times where both CP’s aren’t present (measure 26, for example). Like the second etude, I end on a much simpler vertical structure for musical effect – this time its an open fifth. I’m tempted to turn this one into a fully fledged piece of music at some point, but it worked well as a compositional etude.

Youtube and pdf. Enjoy.

AHM Etude 4

The important thing about these etudes to remember is that they’re just that…studies in composition. Although often I find restrictions help me focus my ideas so that they are a lot clearer and more effective, a lot of the time I feel like “just writing, and damn the restrictions.” I’m coming up with this AHM stuff to give me new ideas for composing, not to quash the ideas I already have. Even a person as methodical as Schoenberg frequently broke his 12-tone system just because he thought another choice lead to a better aesthetic, and I’m no where near as methodical, so you can bet that there will be a lot of rule-breaking going on in the future for me.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed those little pieces. More music and theory is on the way.


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!



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