Thursday, December 21, 2006

Chordal Music

In this article, I want to explore an idea that I call chordal music, and how it’s taken shape over the years. We should all be familiar of the idea of a chord (group of notes played in unison) and a chord progression (a sequence of related chords). Whereas a chord progression is defined as a sequence of chords, chordal music requires a slightly more complex definition. It requires first to understand the nature of two of fundamental building blocks of music, “melody” and “harmony.” Melody can be defined simply as a sequence of singular notes, and it’s typically the focus of a song. As a result, it’s most often what you end up singing, humming, or whistling all throughout the day (oh, those dreadful “ear worms”). The most famous melodies throughout history generally map to the most famous pieces in history; consider everything from “Ode To Joy” to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

Harmony, on the other hand is the accompaniment to the melody – resting underneath in support. What are the other instruments doing underneath the main “Ode To Joy” melody? What are the guitar, bass, and piano doing underneath Bono’s voice in U2’s “Running To Stand Still”? These represent the harmonic parts.

In some cases, however, the two are merged, in which there is not a distinct concept of melody and harmony, but rather just “chords”, each element of which being critical to the overall piece. This is the nature of chordal music – the point at which the melodic and harmonic components are fused together, indistinguishable from each other. Note that fugues and other contrapuntal music should not be confused with this category. In those cases, it can be argued these are intertwined melodies, in which a second iteration of the melody acts simultaneously as a harmony, but both are distinguishable and are indeed a melody.

One of the earliest examples of pure chordal music comes from the religious chanting of the medieval and renaissance periods. In Gregorian chants, for example, all vocal parts were considered equal, and worked in unison through the piece. In these cases, there wasn’t a true “melodic” concept, unless you arbitrarily pick off the highest note in the chord and sing that throughout. Everything was harmonic to each other, and songs were simply progressions from one chord to another with no distinguishable melody from the harmony. In other words, the melody and harmonies were the same, representing the first examples of chordal music.

Moving forward a little bit, another of the most famous classical pieces is a great example of chordal music: the “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel. The cellos introduce the canon, which comes as the root of the chords. From then on out, the other strings progress through a series of harmonies, but never stray from the fundamental chords. In other words, there isn’t a true melody in the piece (though there are many), and the core of the piece is using the harmonies, or chords, as the melodies themselves: D Major, A Major, B Minor, F#Minor, G Major, D Major, G Major, A Major, and repeat, over and over. Music that bases its existence on a fusion of the melody and the harmony.

Jumping forward, Bach can be thought of as one of the earliest “masters” of the chord progression and chordal music. Take, for example, the prelude from his “Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1”. This piece might be recognized by anyone who has taken piano lessons – it’s one of the standards in the repertoire, and is a prime example of both chordal music and the chord progression. [BACH SAMPLE] On the surface, you might ask why I would pick this piece – there are barely any “true” chords in it! Yes, you are correct. However, if we examine the construct of the piece, we see that it is comprised purely of chords, just arpeggiated (broken up) versions of them. Let’s take a listen to the same piece, this time in a chorded fashion [SAMPLE 2]. It’s simply one long chord progression! On top of that, there is no clear melody here – these broken chords are all harmonic to each other – again, an example of chordal music.

Moving to my friend Beethoven (we’re now friendly), we can find another famous example of the chordal music in the second movement of his 7th Symphony, the famous Allegretto. The central theme to the movement is manifested as a series of chords, starting with the A minor à E major à A minor motive. [BEETHOVEN SAMPLE]. In this case, one might argue that there actually is a melody embedded within, but I would counter that the power in the theme comes from the chords themselves rather than the scatter melodic notes to bridge the chords together. The melody and the harmony are one, and the overall sound is what you are really hearing.

I’m going to take a drastic departure for my last example, moving forward almost 200 years. As soon as vocals started entering music, from the early German Lieder to modern rock and roll, chordal music has been harder and harder to find. This is due to the idea that the human voice is primarily used as a melodic vehicle, such that the vocals in a song are almost always a melody and everything else a harmony. However, I believe the track “Everything In Its Right Place” by Radiohead, from the album “Kid A”, is a good example of chordal music, in which the electric piano is driving the song, combining the song’s true melodic and harmonic components. Thom Yorke’s vocal parts, at times, constitutes a primary melody, but, in others blends in with everything else, voiding the track of any true melody or harmony. This is especially clear in the sections in which Thom sings “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon, etc”, and later “There are two colors in my head, etc”. It’s harder to appreciate because of the inherent qualities of the human voice, but, when you boil it down to its core, it is chordal music, melodic and harmonic components blended into one.

Melody and harmony are two of the primary building blocks of all of music, and each composer and artist must find a way to use them to the advantage of the work. In the traditional case, a melody rises to the surface accompanied by the harmony. In chordal music, the two become one, indistinguishable from the other. Keep an ear out for this rare, but effective, use of the two!


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