Friday, November 30, 2012

Music Vocabulary in Song

Trying to sort out all that music theory vocabulary? 

Minor 6ths?  Leading Tone?  V-V-I movement?  Tritone? 

Here’s an ingenious, and fun, way to hear the vocabulary and see it in play on the sheet music.  You’ll recognize the tune – “seasonally appropriate”!   

Original lyrics were by David Rakowski

The lead sheet can be found here:

Friday, September 21, 2012

Life Beyond the Triad

Chords Extensions

Eventually most arrangers and composer seek fresh harmonies and unexpected harmonic movements.  To do that requires venturing into the province of the jazz-cats:  the 9th, 11th and 13th chords.   This province is not terra-incognito and there be no dragons.  It is all quite logical and the essential rules are clear and simple.

Tones added to the basic triads (major, minor, diminished, augmented), 6th and 7th chord are called “chord extensions”.  These additional tones form 9th, 11th and 13th chords.  Each of these chords can be major, minor, augmented, suspended, use the flatted 5th, introduce a 6th, and more. 

All Chords are Just Stacks of 3rds

By convention, chords are constructed as stacks of 3rds. Each set of bracketted numbers is an interval of a 3rd. 

Basic Triad 1 - 3 - 5
[1 to 3] plus [3 to 5]

7th or MAJ 7th chord 1 - 3 - 5 - 7 
[1 to 3] plus [3 to 5] plus [5 to 7]

9th chord 1 - 3 - 5 - 7 - 9
[1 to 3] plus [3 to 5] plus [5 to 7] plus [7 to 9]

11th chord 1 - 3 - 5 - 7 - 9 - 11
[1 to 3] plus [3 to 5] plus [5 to 7] plus [7 to 9] plus [9 to 11]

13th chord 1 - 3 - 5 - 7 - 9 - 11 - 13
[1 to 3] plus [3 to 5] plus [5 to 7] plus [7 to 9] plus [9 to 11] plus [11 to 13]

This stacking of 3rds is the reason a 9th chord is NOT called a 2nd chord.  The interval of a 9th is just the interval of a 2nd played an octave higher.  However, the convention of stacking 3rds requires the chord to be called a 9th.  Remember the 9th is a 3rd above the 7th just as the 7th is a 3rd above the 5th.

Okay, one exception.  That pesky 6th chord:   1 - 3 - 5 - 6.  A D6 chord is spelled D - F# - A - B.  But,  voice the chord using the 6th tone as the root.  Now, stacking 3rds, the chord becomes B - D - F# - A.  That chord is a Bm7.  Think of any 6th chord as a 1st inversion voicing of the relative minor 7th chord. That is D6 is the same as a first inversion of a Bm7 chord.  Just as a G6 is a first inversion of Em7.   And, A6 is the first inversion of an F#m7 chord.  So, how do you know what to call the chord?  Context will decide.  What the chord is called does not change the way a listener perceives the music.

Musicologists are still uncertain about how to correctly describe the keys and name the chords Wagner used in some of his music.  Don't let ambiguity in naming complex chords put you off.  Learn the sound they make and experiment with them in your music.  The result you achieve might correctly have more than one name. 

Options - Uncontrolled Growth!

All this means that very quickly the arranger’s little pallet of three chords for each melody tone explodes into a mind-numbing catalog of possibilities.  A basic triad uses three tones out of the seven available on the diatonic scale.  Ignoring chord inversions, using only triads, there are thirty-five available choices on the diatonic scale.  That’s manageable. 

However, chord extensions expand the numbers greatly.  For example, let’s say we limit an arrangement to triads, 7ths and 9th chords.  Now the available chord choices number at least seventy.  Open up 11th and 13th chords and the number of available chord options soar.  Include augmented, diminished and suspended chords or chord alterations like the flatted 5th as options and the available chord possibilities seem to fill an encyclopedia.  Seems like the sort of database waiting for a smart-phone app!

Two practical points need to be made about 9th, 11th, and 13th chords.  If these chords are played in full, the dissonance can be overwhelming.  Often players drop some of the tones.  The 3rds and 5ths are often dropped in 11th and 13th chords.  A “full” 13th chord uses all of the diatonic scale.  Think about putting your forearm on the white keys of a piano to cover one octave in the key of C.  That’s the sound of a closely voiced 13th chord.  The sound is absurd! In any event, a hammer dulcimer player has only two hammers.  Physical limitations will restrict how many tones can be played at any point in the music.  Perhaps five.  But more than likely three or four.  Choose the chord members carefully to create the color you want to achieve.

The second point is that for clarity, the extensions are generally played in the higher registers.  When the extensions are voiced low in the chord, the effect is often muddy.  So, as a guideline, voice the color high.  Voice the root and basic triad low.  Plenty of exceptions to this guideline exist.  However, this voicing distinction is a good starting point to help you choose the chord members that will finally create the harmony. 

Getting Rid of Harmonic Clutter

Very often, these chord extensions will use the basic triad and add the interval that names the chord.  For example, a D9 chord is spelled:  D – F# - A – C – E.  But a Dadd9 chord is spelled D – F# - A – E.  The Dadd9 is often a better choice.  This chord choice gives harmonic color without generating harmonic clutter and a muddy sound.  The practice of dropping out some tones is especially important when playing solo as many hammer dulcimer players do.  In large ensembles, individual chord tones can be played by different voices.  Trumpet, sax, and bass can each play one of the important chord tones while the piano and guitar fill in the missing tones.  The different voices make the chord sound bigger and clearer and often reduce the feeling of harmonic clutter.

Chord extensions make it possible, perhaps likely, to construct chords that, in practice, are never used.  This is an arena in which aesthetic judgment has to rule.  That judgment comes through critical listening and thoughtful experimentation. 

The table below shows most of the options an arranger has when using a 9th chord built upon a G Triad.

9th Chord Options on a G Chord
Example using a G Chord
Major 9th
Gmaj9  or  G9
Dominant 9th
Minor 9th
Gm9 or G9
Augmented 9th
G+9 or Gaug9
Augmented major 9th
Suspended 9th
Diminished 9th
9th , flat 5
G9 b5
Six nine
G 6/9
7th flat 9
7th sharp 9
7th, flat five, sharp 9
Minor, major9th
G(maj9) or GmM9

A great exercise is to reproduce this table for the 11th and 13th chords.  Most importantly, place these chords on the dulcimer to hear their sound.  You’ll quickly find the ones that are useful and the ones that are lost either to harmonic clutter or the physical limitations of two hammers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Composing on Commission

The spring 2012 issue of Dulcimer Players News will carry my article titled "Composing on Commission".   The full article has detailed information on the tune Accomac Roots, a composition I wrote on commission.  You can hear the work at this link:  A preview of the article without the step-by-step details of compositional choices is below.

Consider a subscription to Dulcimer Players News.  The quarterly publication includes a CD of the works published in the magazine.  DPN is a great value for the dulcimer community.  Check out their website here:

Excerpts from Composing on Commission
Few of us have people beating down our doors to write checks for the tunes we create. But, all of us have occasions for which a unique piece of music would be a special gift. Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, memorial services and other important moments punctuate our lives.  Each of these events is made better by the gift of original music.

Some composers of event-specific music simply follow their muse and slap an appropriate title on the finished tune.  While this approach is used more often than not, it is both an easy way out and misses the point of the event.  A little thought and planning can dramatically improve the results of the compositional effort.

Planning to compose an event-specific tune relies upon two guiding principles.  

1.  Define the subject of the composition

A thoughtful rendering of an event-specific composition begins by distilling the subject of the composition into a short list of salient, emotive characteristics.  Take care in this step to get to the heart of the subject by listing features that would be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the subject. 

The best features for these lists generally originate in the first thoughts that come to mind.  The key point to keep in mind is that the finished composition should evoke feelings and understandings shared by many who know the subject. 

Divide the list into primary and subordinate features.  The primary features are those whose absence would render the definition of the subject incomplete.  Keep the list of primary features short.  Think of each primary feature as the topic of a movement in the final composition.  If you are writing a tune in A-B form, the list of primary features should contain only two items.  It helps to select primary features that differ significantly from each other.  Consciously selecting contrasting primary features will ensure that the movements of the composition will be distinctive and that the overall piece will have clarity.

Once the short list of primary features is set, review the list of secondary features to select those that best support the primary features.  Discard the rest of the secondary features. 

While you are not yet ready to compose, this is the time to begin exploring the musical motives that will drive the composition. 

2.  Allow the subject to set the structure and guide the composition
Once the lists of features are settled, allow these descriptions of the subject to set the composition’s form, tempo and style.  It is best not to begin by forcing the composition into a specific form.  An anniversary event is not always best served by a waltz.  A memorial service does not always require a slow air.    Imposing structure and style at the outset limits compositional options and creativity.  Let the content drive the choice of structure. 

Do you really compose this way?
It is fair to ask how much of the composition effort is planned in advance and how much is after-the-fact analysis and alteration.  The answer is that the tasks of composition and analysis cannot be untangled.  Even intuitive composers analyze their work as it progresses.  It may be that the analysis is subconscious or done by trial and error.  But the fact is that composition, whether intuitive or not, is a rolling analysis. 

Is there one best way to compose tunes?

Absolutely not.  This approach presented in this article is one of many ways to go about writing music.  Professor Joel Lester explained this best in his book The Rhythms of Tonal Music:

“One of the most tempting fallacies of any discussion about music – 
whether formal or informal- is to generalize a particular 
viewpoint into a universal law.”

While this advice is certainly true, a commissioned work that is relevant to the subject of the commission starts with a thorough understanding of the subject.  Make a list!  Then compose.

The complete article together with an mp3 of the tune and lead sheet will be available in the spring 2012 issue of Dulcimer Players News

“… is difficult enough to say precisely what it is that a piece of music means, to say it definitely, to say it finally so that everyone is satisfied with your explanation.  But that should not lead one to the other extreme of denying to music the right to be “expressive. ‘”
Aaron Coplan
What To Listen For In Music

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Devil in Music - we can't live without it!

A musical interval that spans three whole tones is called a tritone (three + tone).  The interval created by three whole tones is an augmented 4th.  It may also be recognized as a diminished 5th.  Whatever the name, this interval is dissonant in the extreme.  Church practice during the Middle Ages banned the use of this dissonant interval.  They called it “diabolus in musica”…. The devil in music.

But those church leaders were tilting at windmills.  The tritone appears naturally in music.  It can be found on the diatonic scale between the 4th and 7th degrees.  On a G-scale the tritone appears between C and F#.  On a D-scale the tritone appears between the G and the C#.