Crafting jazzy harmonies I The 4th way

What type of harmony concept often evokes the perception of a ‘modern’ sound? 

While the ubiquitous use of stacked 3rds and their inversions in popular music tends to reflect the inner workings and principles of tonal music, the referred to related concept is often picked up by musicians to be used as a stylistic device in select spots. Its effect in context is distinct and thus allows to create characteristically contrasting harmonic moves, taking advantage of crafting factors like placing and frequency. 

Over time, these are subsequently recognized as common denominators of specific musical styles. 

E.g. think IV over V, in F: Bb triad / C [C – F – Bb – D] in context of a basic IV-V-I harmonic pattern. This is a common harmonic move for a dominant in old school R&B styles:

Listen to Tom Bukovac talk about this idea (Youtube link).

So, we found the 4th way, or rather: quartal harmony. The example has all the tensions from the altered scale [ altered V / key of F], yet not everything everywhere all at once: the sequences are based on a simple arpeggio idea combined with double stops, to break up the voicings and allow for inner movement – inspired by Jimmy Wyble’s approach of how to outline harmony in intriguing ways

Modal music styles in the 50s brought a bold use of quartal harmony to the masses. Back then a welcome alternative to the ‘old-fashioned’ harmonies of Swing music, as well as to the ‘wild’ sounds of Rock’n’Roll.

The upcoming example shows how to use the properties of these sounds practically; first, apart from stylistic considerations: 

  • not only how to navigate (where to find them on guitar) 
  • and how to create complex harmonies for effect (knowing internal and external structures) 

rather, how to use these sounds to shade chords and voicings – especially to get more out of complex concepts like Melodic Minor (adding ‘dissonant’ qualities). Ideally, opening up pathways to move from the abstract to the concrete, more deliberately. 

Quartal harmony was used to add more ‘crunchiness’ to this diatonic / Mixolydian idea, simply by changing up intervallic structures – everything still ‘in key’. 

1. Learning strategies

a) Avoid busywork

As alluded to before, to get the most out of a given concept it’s advisable to avoid notions along the lines of having to first learn a distinct pattern ‘correctly’ and comprehensively, to then apply it to a musical genre in order to ‘succeed’

E.g. learning a number of possible quartal voicings in one key and in order is a strategy to foster technical prowess, a version of a rather technical fretboard navigation (“C# is here, and here, here …) and to know how the voicings relate to each other on an intervallic level.

Very practical yet that’s not how learning a language works: 

an analog would be to learn all the words that sound similar first, then apply them to a set of rules, even more narrow than some of the common grammar variations. 

b) Alternatives and integration of concepts

This is the quality difference between

  • knowledge = working with external, abstract data sets
  • and knowing = establishing a way of focussed perception, internalized and joint but flexible associations and coherences

One mindset tweak to start; another pointer: the specific use of language drives how we interpret and index information as we perceive it. A careful way of associating influences determines how and what we can learn successfully.

Basically, “translating the blues and the abstract truth”, e.g. creating mental representations of sound concepts (aka note names / pitch combinations / degrees / functions …) in order to come up with a practical, internal shorthand for one’s control program:

Frontal cortex (“critical thinking”) and lizard brain (“muscle memory”) have to ‘talk’ to make stuff work with that 6string input device in hand. The limbic system will chime in as well if not too preoccupied with more mundane things. 

The better those three realms are integrated the easier it becomes to learn in a meaningful way – pick things up along the way, recombine information and be able to reproduce variations of it.

The opposite of learning an exercise to be able to repeat a set of patterns. That one is for another day.

Removing the clutter first is what it takes to get to the essence of what one’s perception is stretching towards.

Understanding smaller building blocks and how they interact is key to arrive at a better overview how to organize learning to subsequently develop a streamlined, personal system.  This allows to be more deliberate about musical choices and to communicate more easily with fellow musicians – wether they’re using Nashville numbers, lead sheets, complete scores …

c) Simple steps how to go about it

Everybody has different backgrounds, stories, narratives, circumstances – beautiful! 

Also a challenge, either in order to create one’s own custom method or to go with one of the one-size-fits-all methods. 

To accommodate the topic at hand – how to integrate melodic minor-derived concepts in the key of F to create altered dominant sounds, spicy though not jarring – start with ear training to connect your perception of sound with abstract and descriptive definitions – either the commonly used ones, or come up with your own for now. 

E.g. take a simple song with a one or two chord progressions and check how your tonal hearing is able to distinguish between basic harmonic functions:

Can you find the tonic chord by feel / sing the tonic note? 

Does the harmony feel at rest, suspended or in motion? 

Developing this skill tells you where you’re at, in context.

Good to know when thinking about where to go to next, plus, you’re never going to be lost again.

It’s totally fine to use other words or mental representations for your perception since it might differ slightly. We all have the same language faculty but we all have been put to different sets of circumstances, accounting for these healthy variations. 

I liked to use a tune like Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” to test – the guitar riffs make it fun to listen to. 

Please notice the use of the word “test”. Ask yourself:

“Am I really listening, is there a clear ‘picture’ in my mind, aligned with the perceived?”

If yes, it’s like a reflex. The mind recognizes instantly – that is, the sound in context: 

it’s not about identifying a specific chord grip, the melody notes or the actual pitch. That is for transcribing music, based on the same principles, still a different task. It’s about establishing a strong sense for the tonal center. This develops over time if you put in the work. 

A simple exercise to strengthen the connection between perception and assigned terms, definitions and even more complex concepts is to sing along with the tonic when it comes up, first audibly, later internally. 

Once this feels and sounds reliably to you (doesn’t have to be pretty singing, at all), apply the same to degrees IV and V.

Now, away from the recording, ‘play’ it in your mind, then sing the degrees. Having one of these pitches as on open string drone helps initially.

Next, check with your guitar in hand how close your inner representation and the actual sounds are. Go back and forth these exercises, ad libitum. Check if you can recall and reproduce the tonic pitch a couple minutes later. 

Doing this for a moment before picking up the instrument for practice or play has a number of positive side effects as well, e.g. getting one’s mind situated for learning in the first place.

Starting out away from the instrument, in a comfortable position to get past common thoughts and chatter like ‘I have to”, “I would like to …”, “Why …” etc.:

Attempting to learn is already the reward – allow yourself not having to need a stimulus or goal, to drive your attention towards what you perceive instead.

Deleting ’the goal’ from the foreground – that one is good for planning, but you did that already – opens up the mind’s capacity to connect the abstract with the concrete more easily, for a more direct translation of perception to concept to performance.

Try this, and please let me know how it goes – I’m looking forward to receive questions.

2. Colorful, non-jarring altered dominant sounds.

The 4th way. The example has all the tensions from the altered scale [ altered V / key of F ], yet not everything everywhere all at once: the sequences are based on a simple arpeggio idea combined with double stops, to break up the voicings and allow for inner movement. 

Even the crunchier sounding 4 to 5-part quartal voicings offer a stable sonority beyond their spicy qualities, e.g. via their internal intervallic structure

[ C7alt./E = E Bb D# C Ab / intervals of the voicing: # 4 – 4 – 4 – 3]

Adding complexity with more ‘consonant’ voicings.

The fretboard numbers show how the sounds relate to the key, e.g. introducing out of key notes: b2, b3, b6, b7. 

With the ear training exercises in mind, how does it feel to sing these, against the key of F?

How does the perception shift?

Notice how a harmonic event is situated in a given key, this shows how to achieve a specific effect: e.g. adding a new, surprising sound quality, prepare a modulation, […]

This tonal playing concept is like walking up a hill, for a better perspective of what’s around. 

The voicing formula shows the more common approach to relate the intervallic structure of a harmony to its root. This is helpful to learn about the inner workings of a sound in the first place or where to find it on the fretboard. I’d suggest this to learn the structure of Melodic Minor scale inversions in the first place.

In general, the numbers and colors are intended for learning – and mainly for that – to use the visual faculty to move abstract concepts towards actual perception, memorization and free application. 

A shorthand, based on the input device (guitar), to put sounds into perspective and further connect haptic, visual and auditory experience.

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