The Passing of an Era?

One thing I’ve noticed when playing music from the Great American Songbook – that is, songs written primarily between 1920 and 1950 by greats such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, et. al. – is that, when compared to modern pop tunes, these songs have very sophisticated harmonic progressions as well as melodies.

Today, it seems that a lot of pop tunes have an average of three chords at most. Melodies are not particularly memorable, nor are the lyrics. Gone are the days of the wit and sophistication of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. You rarely see that kind of craftsmanship anymore, except from relatively obscure talents such as John Wallowitch and Dave Frishberg.

I think about this because of the recent passing of Hal David, a lyricist who worked with Burt Bacharach.

I consider Bacharach, whose melodies ranged from the simplistic (he wrote the theme song to the 1958 film The Blob with Mack David) to the sublime (instrumentals such as Pacific Coast Highway and Freefall - all of which were included on what was possibly his greatest, and least-known album, titled appropriately enough Burt Bacharach), to be the last of the line of great American songwriters that arguably begins with Stephen Foster and includes great names such as Berlin, Warren, Youmans, Van Heusen, Gershwin – et. many al.

Here is one of my personal favorites – a piece he wrote for his daughter, Nikki (some of you who are of a certain age may recall this being used as the theme music for the old ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week back in the day).

To those of you interested in the use of guide tone lines in orchestration: pay close attention to the string section in this recording.

 

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Colors of the Wind – Guide Tone Lines Revealed, Part II

As you may recall from the first post about this particular piece, the harmonic structures in the bridge are more sophisticated than the rest of the song. This is due to the use of an extended chord, in the word “high” is sung on a C natural, creating a Gb maj 9 (#11) – an advanced, “Lydian”-sounding harmony:

Note that the bass line (highlighted in yellow) is treated separately, not as a guide tone line.

In the last two measures, the composer could have simply used a V7 (Ab7), but decided instead to use some substitutions in order to create greater aural interest:

In Schenkerian terms, this whole phrase – starting with the Cb maj7 – is nothing more than an extended V7.

Note the asterisk by the pitch on which the word “cut” is sung creates a #11 for a brief moment. Because it is only half a beat, I hear that F as an appogiatura of the Eb that follows, not really as a chord extension, however.

That pretty much covers Colors of the Wind.  In future posts, we’ll be taking a look at some more complex harmonic progressions.

 

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Colors of the Wind – Guide Tone Lines Revealed, Part I

Because all the harmonic structures of this piece are closely related, finding the guide tone lines for Alan Mencken’s Colors of the Wind is a simple matter. But before going further, it will be helpful to review what is meant by “closely related.”

Closely related harmonic structures (chords) are those that share many pitches in common. The most obvious example is a tonic and its relative minor – in this case, Db major and Bb minor. They share a common key signature (five flats), and the only difference between the basic triads is that the fifth of Db major is raised a whole step to become the tonic of Bb minor.

In fact, if you were a guitarist in an ensemble who is asked to play a Db 6 in a jazz or pop context, you could save yourself some trouble and simply play a Bb minor triad over the Db bass. By the same token, if you were asked to play a Bbm7, you could just play a Db triad over a Bb bass. The major 6th chord and its relative minor 7th chord are identical from a harmonic, if not functional, standpoint.

A slightly more distant – but still close – relative is the iii chord, which in the present example is F minor. Once again, we only need to move one pitch of the tonic to change the harmony. In this case, we lower the root pitch of Db one-half step to C, creating the F minor triad in second inversion.

Going from F minor to Bb minor requires that we raise the third a whole step and the fifth a half step, which become root and the third of the latter. From there, getting to Gb major (the IV of Db major) is done quite simply by raising the fifth a half-step.

Gb major to its own relative minor of Eb minor is also quite easy; raise the fifth a whole step to become the root of the new harmonic structure.

From Eb minor to Ab is another easy transition; simply raise the third and fifth a whole step (and if you want to make it an Ab 7 , you can leave the third alone and let the bass deal with the root).

Normally, Ab 7 would resolve to Db. In this case, Mencken writes what music theorists call a “deceptive” resolution, because the V7 here resolves to something other than I. It’s not too deceptive, however; Bb minor is still relative to Db major, so it’s not as jarring as it would be if it had gone to a distant common-tone chord such as E major (something that classical composers do regularly).

Menken uses the same harmonic structures in the B section, simply in a different order. Based on the information presented here today, can you discover the guide tone lines for that section of the song?

In the next post, we’ll look at the bridge.

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Colors of The Wind (The Song)

Before I continue on from where I left off  with 13th chords back on Friday the 13th of April, I’m going to respond to a request made by one of my readers and take a look at a modern pop tune from a recent (1995) animated Disney film.

Like many other movies and plays based on this episode, Disney’s Pocahontas was really bad history (the Powhatan Indian girl eventually known as Rebecca Rolfe was actually a young girl of 12 or so at the time and was never romantically involved with Captain John Smith – nor did the incident in which she saved his life ever actually happen, according to scholars). It was however an excellent piece of entertainment with a compelling story that brings up many interesting ethical, moral and environmental issues (some real irony here, for me at least – considering where this film comes from).

The “showstopper” and most memorable song from this animated musical was a piece sung by the title character, Colors of The Wind.

The verse here (0:06-0:31) is rather complex from a melodic standpoint – and is actually more like an operatic recitative that precedes the aria. Harmonically, it doesn’t go very far afield, however. The initial key of C# minor is established from the beginning, and all the harmonic structures – C# minor, B, G# minor and A – are closely related keys that fit together quite naturally within the construct of the natural minor scale upon which this part of the song is built.

It’s worth noting however that except for an “A” passing tone in measure 8 (0:21), the composer uses only five notes in this recitative section, anticipating the pitch classes used in the refrain or aria that follows.

The “A” section (0:39-1:15) of the refrain is based on a simple Db Pentatonic Scale:

Db Pentatonic Scale

I believe if composer Alan Menken was asked, he would say these were conscious, thought-out choices. The pentatonic scale is considered by musicologists to be the oldest of all scales. It is common in Celtic music as well as that of ancient Greece and many African, Asian and Native American cultures. A pentatonic scale is also useful in the musical education of young children as well (Orff, Kodaly, etc.), as there are no dissonant intervals. (Try it by playing with the black keys of a piano: there is virtually no way to make discordant music with a pentatonic scale.)

The key of Db may have been chosen because there are some who believe it to be the the natural “key” of the Earth. As odd as this may seem, there may be a basis for this. Several years ago, a recording engineer and musician took recordings of a howling wolf, the screech of an eagle and a whale’s song and found them all to fit very nicely into the key of Db major. (I don’t remember where I heard this recording – if this rings a bell for anyone, please contact me.)

The initial I-vi Chord Sequence – from Db major to its relative, Bb minor – is also significant. The interval of a descending minor third  is perhaps one of the most natural to the human ear. It is common in the music of many so-called “primitive,” or pre-industrial cultures and is the first interval most young children learn to sing (think Ring Around the Rosie). The three other harmonic structures used in this section (as well as the remainder of the piece) are all closely related to Db and Bb minor: Gb, Fm, Ebm and Ab. Because of the pentatonic scale used in the A section, any of these harmonies could be substituted for any of the others, and are primarily coloristic.

In the soaring and contrasting “B” section (1:16), composer Menken adds a “C” passing tone as the melody leaps up to a high Db and descends – but for the most part, he sticks to the basic pentatonic scale.  No new harmonies are introduced, because there is no need for them.

There is a short contrasting “C”  or bridge section that begins around 2:23, in which Menken’s melody and harmonies become thoroughly modern and sophisticated. When Pocahantas sings “How high does a sycamore grow,” we hear vocalist Judy Kuhn sing a high “C,” creating a Gb maj7 chord with a raised 11th:

This brief sequence comes to rest at Bbm, which is followed by a B (the bVII of Db) over the lyric “if you cut it down.” This chord has no real harmonic function – it is there to provide color and harmonic interest.

The remainder of the song returns to the simple pastoralism that characterized the beginning of the piece.

One might wonder – if this song is so simple, why does it move the listener so? My opinion is that lies in the orchestral treatment with its skillful employment of various sections and  dramatic use of dynamics  – as well as  Stephen Schwarz’ lyric (a powerful and moving message that I suppose, aside from lip service, certain powerful institutions in the world could care less about…).

The guide tone lines for this piece are incredibly easy to find. I’ll present them in the next post.

DISCLAIMER: The examples used here are for educational purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.

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Lucky Thirteenth

Today being Friday the 13th, I thought this might be an appropriate topic. However, if you suffer from triskedekaphobia (fear of the number 13), you may want to skip this one.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to get some real “hep” sounds without a lot of effort, read (and listen) on…

I first encountered the 13th chord in high school during a jazz band rehearsal, reading the piano part. When I asked the instructor what exactly that meant, he simply said it was a chord with “everything.”

Indeed it is:

Now, in “legit” and film music, this harmonic structure is often sounded in just this way (check out the 1981 movie Windwalker to hear some examples from Merrill Jensen’s score). However, in jazz and theater music, the 11th is almost never used – and the 7th is invariably flatted.

At seventeen, I learned the truth – about thirteenth chords, anyway – and how real jazzers actually handled them. This information was imparted to us  during a summer “jazz camp” I attended at a Southern California community college back in the 1970s, demonstrated as part of a “I-IV-I” progression:

Now let’s drop it an octave add a bass line so it makes aural sense.

Here is the full 12-bar “blues” progression, using 13th chords.

Notice in both the visual and aural examples that only four notes are being played in the treble accompaniment: the third, seventh and ninth, which correspond to the “shell” I referred to in the previous post, and of course, the thirteenth.  And, by using these four notes in different inversions, we avoid having the voices leaping all over the place – in accordance with good practice when it comes to guide tone lines.

I’ll elaborate on this more in the next post. In the meantime, here’s something for novices to ponder: why isn’t there a “fifteenth” chord?

Feel free to leave questions,  music-related comments and/or links to your music-related blog (but please spare me the travel bargain and viagara drivel – it wastes my time and yours, since such comments are immediately deleted and people posting such material banned).

 

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The Shell and More

When it comes to extended harmonies, the most important tones are the third, seventh and ninth. So, in the key of C (major, dominant and minor), these are:

Of course, this doesn’t make much sense in the ear until the bass is added:

Bottom line, however: if, when accompanying a soloist or playing in a rhythm section, you did nothing more than play the third, seventh and ninth of an extended chord, you’d be just fine.  By the way, this handy little triad is what my professors referred to as the “Shell” – as in the harmonic “shell” that is placed over the root tone.

Now, let’s move on to 11th chords. In major tonality, the 11th chord has a “Lydian” quality. In case you’ve forgotten your modes (or never learned), the Lydian mode is a major scale with a raised fourth, like so:

Here’s the major 11th chord. Here’s the major 11th chord. Can you hear the relationship?

If you want to get the real flavor of an 11th chord without having to play all the notes (I’m addressing guitar players, here), you could play the minor triad corresponding to the key one-half step below the current harmonic structure. In C major, this would be a B minor triad an octave higher:

To give it a “dominant” or “blues” flavor with a flatted seventh, go down another half-step and build an augmented triad:

minor 11th chord can be created with the use of a major triad based on the flatted seventh and played an octave higher:

Next time, we’ll examine the 13th chord.  Until then, thanks for viewing! (By the way, if you are a musician who is genuinely interested in this topic, feel free to leave a comment and a link to your music-related blog. I’ll be happy to take a look and even provide a return link.  If, on the other hand, you are trying to sell insurance, “get rich quick” schemes, viagra or something else that has nothing to do with thie topic of this blog, please don’t waste your time and mine.)

 

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You Don’t Have To Play Every Note

Seems that most of the people who are seriously reading this blog are guitar players, so I’m going to take another break from actual guide tone lines and address this one to any guitar player who has encountered a chord like “D13+5(add 11)” and felt their heart palpitating.

I’m going to preface this my saying that I am not a guitar player – I am primarily a composer and arranger whose main instrument is keyboard. I know enough about the guitar to know that if I just supply the right chord symbols, an experienced guitarist will know better what to do than I. I’m also guessing that most of the guitarists who read this blog are experienced enough to know what I’m talking about – but it’s something that novice players and students will hopefully find useful (and aspiring pianists may get something out of it as well).

The pros call them truncated chords. They’re based on a couple of simple principles: (1) the root and the fifth of the chord are of no importance (unless they’re  in the bass – and the bass player generally has that covered), and (2) color tones (primarily the third, seventh and ninth)  reign supreme. The best news of all is that in most cases, these color tones form a simple three or four note chord that you most likely already know how to play under a different name.

I’ve already given one example of how this works in which a diminished seventh chord, played over a particular bass note, becomes a 7(b9) of whatever that bass note is. But that’s just the start. For instance, if you need a simple dominant seventh of a specific chord, try playing a diminished triad based on a pitch a major third higher. For example:

If the chart calls for a raised seventh, try a minor triad based on the same pitch:

In the case of a  ninth chord with a raised 7th, use a four-note minor 7th chord over the root:

When the 7th  of a ninth chord is lowered, go for a half-diminished chord like so:

What about  flatted fifths or raised ninths and elevenths, or the thirteenth chord (which pretty much contains everything)?

 It’s just about thinking out of the box. As you probably know, all chords, from simple triads to complex, altered 13th chords are simple stacks of thirds:

However, the more extended chords are almost never played in root position and rarely are all the  pitches actually sounded in performance. Certain pitches (specifically the 5th , 7th  and 9th) are frequently altered. By the way, you noticed that the major 11th and minor 13th had to be raised a half step. Do you know why? If not, listen for yourself:

11th chords          minor 13th chords

The second chord of each set probably sounded sour to you.

In my next post, we’ll look at some ways to truncate these chords – and why truncated chords can work even when one is playing solo without a bassist.

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Finding The Guide Tone Lines: “All The Things You Are”

Now that we’ve picked this tune apart in terms of structure, it’s time to find the actual guide tone lines. Now, granted  we could have done this from the get-go – our analysis of the piece was not completely necessary. However, an thorough understanding of how the piece was constructed is very handing when it comes to  jazz performance and arranging.

Guide tone lines should follow natural voice-leading principles and move vertically as little as possible – preferably only by step. In identifying guide tone lines for a specific song, I prefer to start out with four voices as if I were writing a chorale:

These would be an excellent basis for some string section writing – although if you were trying to do something in the style of Nelson Riddle, you would want to go beyond whole notes and following a single voice. In this case, Kern himself provided some very nice counterpoint in his original:

Using some parallel movement, we could add to this very nicely:

Now, I’ve done the first four measures: what can you come up with for the next four? (Considering the fact that Kern has set this up very nicely with the use of patterns, it shudn’t be difficult – in  fact, it should almost do itself.)

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Over The Bridge

There is one more example of Jerome Kern’s use of the fourth worth mentioning before turning our attention to how beautifully this piece lends itself to the use of guide tone lines – and how easy they are to find.

That example is to be found in the pickup notes and first measure of the bridge:

On the surface, it seems to be an inverted fifth (going from the fifth degree of the scale to the root), followed by an upward jump of another fifth – sort of like the the opening notes of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare For The Common Man. However, let’s think like Schenker for a moment. Recall that every melodic line has tonal objectives and hierarchies – specific notes that are more important than others, and to which all other notes lead up to and away from. In Schenkerian terms, the D in the first beat of the first measure of the B section appoggiatura (accented upper neighbor tone) of C. And while some may argue on this, I think the preceding D in the last beat of the previous measure can be disregarded; it falls on a weak beat, and – to my ear, anyway – the melodic line at this point is still pointing toward the C..

- thus tying it to the A section of this melody very nicely.

Incidentally, can you think of another famous piece of music that opens with two upward leaps of a fourth? (Hint – go back to my very first post on this blog.)

In the next post, I’ll start exploring specific guide tone lines for this piece. In the meantime, if anyone has a particular tune they would like to see analyzed or discussed, please leave a comment.

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Part 3: Not Not-Quite-As-Amazing (But Still Useful) Augmented Chord

When we arrive at the “B” section of All The Things You Are, the piece returns to the key of G major, where it started in the verse. Harmonically, this part of the piece consists of nothing more than a couple of ii-V7-I sequences in two different keys. Following a VIIo7 in order to get to the Am7 (a E7 or E7[b9]  would have worked just as well – do you remember why?), the progression is as follows:

Am7 –  D7 – G

F#7(b5) – B7 – E

Kern really didn’t need those ii chords; in reality, those are nothing more than a pair of embellished perfect (V7 – I) cadences. He could have done it this way, but that would have been pretty boring to listen to. Hear the difference  for yourself.

Kern ends the “B” section in the key of E major, which harmonically speaking, is quite a distance from F minor. Notice how he handily modulates  back to  the song’s home key, however:

Significantly, the original sheet music (I recommend any arranger and/or jazz player study the original sheet music editions of these songs, even if they don’t wind up using a lot of the material there) identifies the pivot chord (circled in red) as C(+5)/E bass. Why?

Because the editor was a theory jock. Functionally, that’s what the E(+5) chord at that point actually is; an altered C, which is the V7 of the original key of F minor. What’s the difference? Not a thing, really. Do you remember that there only three diminished seventh chords? Likewise, there are only four augmented chords, which are nothing more than stacks of major thirds (again, ignore the way they are spelled and focus on how they sound) :

Although not quite as versatile as a diminished seventh, the augmented triad can be a handy pivot chord. From that E major chord, the composer has a few different options, simply by raising any pitch by a half-step:

Remember that the diminished seventh chord can also move in several directions by dropping any pitch by a half-step. However, the logical resolution of an augmented chord will always be to a minor triad (unlike the CTo , which – through the resulting V7 – can resolve to either a major or a minor chord).

We took a break from our exploration of Kern’s use of the interval of the fourth in this song, which doesn’t seem as apparent in the B section. Those fourths are still there, however – and will be discussed in the next post.

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