They Do – Except When They Don’t

A Master Composer

“The verse was nothing – but the Chorus was Art – And its Music was enough to tear you apart…”

Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party (1926)

In my very first post to this blog, I said “…the harmonic progressions of all of these great and not-so-great songs are made up of fewer than 35 different sequences.”

I should have said “almost all of these great and not-so-great songs.” It’s true that once someone understands the standard “rules” of voice leading and harmonic progression, s/he finds them to be nothing more than what they have known all along on an instinctual level (assuming they’ve been brought up in the Western musical tradition). Remember, these are not the “rules” in the sense of a mandate from some divine or self-styled authority,  but rather more akin to the “natural laws” of physics.

Among the repertoire that makes up the Great American Songbook (incidentally, there are a fair number of songs in there by English, French and Italian  songwriters, a host of songs by Hispanic and Latino composers as well a couple by a Greek , one by a German and one by an unknown Russian – but I digress), there are a handful of songs with harmonic progressions that are unique.

Case in point: one of the most popular standards of all time, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are.

This version is perhaps not the “coolest” or most hep, but it is (IMHO) one of the cleanest performances I have heard – and probably the closest to what Kern was hearing in his brain when he composed the piece.

Although the harmonic progressions used in this song are definitely not the ones you hear in most standards, it actually works very well according to the “rules;” although exotic-sounding, there is nothing there that our Western ears would find jarring or unexpected. Quite the contrary – it’s quite pleasing and logical sounding.

Can you tell why? In the next few posts, I’ll be deconstructing this piece and demonstrate how, despite its complexity, it’s fairly easy to find the guide tone lines (experienced players will probably hear them in any event).

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About KJ at Guide Tone Lines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at
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5 Responses to They Do – Except When They Don’t

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