Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
On Gravity in Sound
Similarly to how Pulse is a center of gravity, so too are all chords their own universes with their own gravitational centers. Chord tones are like stars and planets, with massive gravity and a tendency towards grounding the more ethereal and weaker tones. Of course, one must tune into chord tones of all qualities; to hear and feel them through all changes – subtle and magnificent – is to stay grounded within the natural relativity of sonic landscapes.
It becomes a game. How do these massive points of density interplay and shift? Where does the tension grow? Where does it break?
Arpeggios and chord tones are the world against which all music dances and through which all music breathes.
Last week, we considered the gravity that exists within rhythm; this week, it looks like my past-self decided to focus on the gravity that exists within harmony.
If I’m being honest, in my initial re-read of this entry, the language makes me cringe a little. I can see that my spirit was full of fire and my intention was strong, but I’m not sure that I would say this the same way now.
How might I say this now, you ask?
Well, if you aren’t asking, I certainly am.
As I consider this question, I find myself gazing towards my personal relationship with harmony; I think that I left something crucial out of my initial considerations, all those years ago. I completely neglected the importance of melody when considering the musical universe of harmony.
If my memory serves me, I remember encountering several critical and life-changing perspectives about harmony from my jazz and history studies at the University of Toledo. This wisdom was transmitted to me, perhaps during my studio lessons with my professor, Jay Rinsen Weik, or maybe in a composition lesson with the gifted Dr. Lee Heritage – both professors heavily altered the course of my thinking about composition. It may be so that each told me the same thing in different moments, or even that these nuggets of wisdom arose from somewhere else in the fertile environment of UT’s music department. Wherever it came from, what I learned was this:
- Chords, in and of themselves, in a certain way, are inert. This means that in isolation, chords don’t necessarily lead anywhere or have much to say without a relationship to melody or larger context. (This one definitely traces back to Dr. Heritage. Forgive me if I have misrepresented your words, sir.)
- The great guitarist, Jim Hall, had a fascinating concept of harmony: rather than conceptualizing chords as blocks or stacks of notes, Jim Hall preferred to conceptualize harmony as the intersection of different melodic lines, each with their own integrity and direction.
Could I site the information for this second claim? God I wish. I’m going to have to dig around on the internet and in my notes to see if I can trace the source.
In the meantime, lets look at each point, one at a time.
- Chords are fundamentally inert.
In many ways, this was a point of contention for me when Dr. Heritage first asserted that chords were basically meaningless on their own. I was studying in the jazz world, and there was a blatant worship of chords and chord changes. Every one was talking about the changes, how the chords were built, what the good notes were, what notes to avoid. This worship of chord changes largely informed my original entry. It was easy for me to get lost in the infinite soundscapes of harmonic drones, exploring tensions and consonances in sound. Droning harmony was and still remains a favorite experimental setting for me to explore the nature of sounds on the guitar. It was from this deep communal regard of chords in the UT Jazz department and through my direct experience of mining sounds out of drones that I began to conceptualize the celestial perspective of harmony that is so apparent in the original entry.
I don’t think chords are meaningless on their own. I don’t think they are inert, frozen, dead, and without motion. I know this, both in my own experience and because droning tones are foundational for the ancient and improvisational Hindustani music.
But I think what Dr. Heritage was trying to convey was closer to the second point on the list.
Without context, a chord is just a block of sound.
When I use a chord or some stack of harmony as a drone, I am using the harmonic and looping sound as context to explore melodic improvisation against that sound.
So perhaps Dr. Heritage and I agree more than I initially thought. Context is important for harmony to convey meaning.
But you could also argue that people have the capacity to give meaning to anything. If I want to play the same chord over and over again, asserting my musicality, who’s to argue?
Philosophy aside, I think that Dr. Heritage was trying to underscore the importance of melody. Now that I’ve been stewing in this conversation for awhile, I can remember him talking about harmony as the intersection of different melodic lines.
2. Harmony as the intersection of melody
When two singers are singing different melodic lines, there are moments when their voices might sustain and overlap on different notes. The relationship between these different notes create a resonance, a musical interval, a little pocket of harmony.
Melody is often the animating force for musical expression. We love when the chorus hits on the radio, little fragments of songs often get stuck in our heads, playing endlessly – ear worms – and I think that most people have heard a melody that they love so much that they can’t resist singing along in the shower.
What if harmony is a musical phenomenon that occurs when multiple melodies intersect?
God, there is so much I could say about this topic.
What I will share is this: By shifting my understanding about harmony, I have enabled myself to encounter new musical possibilities in my own composition process. Music doesn’t have to be constrained to “theoretically perfect” grids and charts, using the “correct” harmonic voicings and adhering to all the “rules.”
Often when I write now, I think primarily about the melodic integrity of what I am playing or singing:
Does it catch my heart? Does it make me feel?
How can I use the ideas within the melody as a springboard for the rest of the composition?
Can I play a countermelody on the guitar/my instrument at the same time?
Or maybe I could harmonize a line that I am playing on my guitar with the melody I’m singing, using the rhythmic contour of my vocal line as inspiration for my guitar/accompaniment.
Can I make little melodic lines pop out above, below, around, and through the chords I am playing?
Can I make satisfying decisions about voice leading, considering each note in my chord as a separate melody line; each saying something meaningful, each pointing somewhere?
And yes. At the same time, all of my exploration with drones, experimentation with tensions and consonances, and the celestial regard for harmony that I wrote about about in the original entry – ALL of it informs my current process. For me, this is a process driven by the pure love of harmonic exploration, except now it is better informed by the singing heart of melodic intelligence and the driving force of rhythm.
How do you conceptualize harmony? I’d love to hear about your perspective. Do you agree with these perspectives? Disagree? Have information contrary to what I’ve shared here? I would love to hear from you. Drop a comment and let me know how you receive this entry!
Love and Bows