Berklee Today

Thinking Outside the Box: Generating New Harmonic Ideas

by Matthew Nicholl

  Matthew Nicholl
  Matthew Nicholl is the chair of the Contemporary Writing & Production Department. "Silent Picture" is from the upcoming CD Nicholl and Farquharson with Strings, featuring saxophonist Tim Ries. Nicholl and Professor Michael Farquharson (bassist) cowrote and coproduced the CD.

The process by which a new piece of music unfolds is a little like a game that creates its own rules while it's being played. The essential motivic material, whether it's melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, textural, or formal, contains the seeds of the entire piece. In this way, the opening four notes of a symphony, for example, set forth a logical musical proposition that the rest of the movement serves to prove.

This article explores two of the germinal ideas of my recent composition, "Silent Picture," written for alto saxophone, string orchestra, and rhythm section. I present my ideas here with the hope that they will be useful to those interested in expanding the harmonic language of their writing beyond the typical seventh-chord language so common in contemporary music.

One of the main harmonic motives in "Silent Picture" is the device shown in example 1 (see music page 21) that first appears in the introduction and is then used throughout the piece.

Notice that these parallel quartal structures move by half-step above a single bass note. This type of harmonic motive is extremely common in the recent music of Marcus Miller. The harmonic implications of these structures can be thought of as a kind of modal interchange. The first structure can be understood as a voicing of a Dmaj7(#11) chord, a form of a Lydian tonic chord. The second structure, formed by parallel motion of all voices up a half-step, suggests a Dsus4 chord. Although the structure contains no seventh, the seventh scale degree was an important note in the previous structure, so the implied mode of this structure is D Ionian. The fourth scale degree, normally a harmonic avoid note in a tertial voicing of a tonic Ionian chord, is present here as an important color tone.

This harmonic pattern has a few important characteristics that have wider implications for the other harmonic devices explored in the piece. First, these chords are not tertial structures and any attempt to revoice them as chords built in thirds would completely change the sound of the pattern. These types of patterns often form the nucleus of the pieces I write; their individual qualities create the basic ideas out of which other ideas flow.

  Musical Examples

Second, an important harmonic principle is illustrated here. In the absence of a strong functional harmonic relationship, voice leading (especially motion by half-step) becomes extremely important in giving a chord progression coherence and continuity.

This same harmonic device, in a slightly developed form, is the basis of the changes for the sax solo later in the piece. The harmony now moves to the relative minor key, and several quartal structures move above a bass line outlining B minor/blues (see example 2).

Labeling these structures with chord symbols is only useful to help the players understand the implied chord scales. A passage like this has to be fully written out in the keyboard part. I notated these voicings, along with the implied chord scale, instead of chord symbols in the sax part.

To provide variety and contrast, a slightly different application of this harmonic device appears later in the sax solo, over an A pedal in the bass. Here the structures retain a common note in the upper voice and involve only two notes moving by half-step. Notice that the moving notes are a perfect fourth apart (see example 3).

Another harmonic device used extensively in "Silent Picture" is the harmonization of the melody in nondiatonic triads. Example 4 shows the first eight bars of the melody. Notice that the melody is almost entirely diatonic to the key of D major. The exception-and it is important-is the F-natural in the melodic cadence in measure 14. This is flat-three of the blues scale, an extremely common chromatic alteration to a melody in the jazz style. This cadence is harmonized with two triads foreign to the key (see example 5).

While conventional chord symbols could be used to label these structures, they are more clearly notated using slash chords. However, like the quartal structures described above, the voicings should be written out in the piano part to avoid confusion.

Later in the piece, these same triads appear above the second and fifth scale degrees in the bass, creating a kind of faux II-V-I progression (see example 6).

These two harmonic devices, parallel quartal structures and nondiatonic triads used to harmonize the melody, are combined in several places to create an expanded yet coherent harmonic vocabulary. At the end of the first section of the piece, the two chords shown in example 6 are embellished with parallel quartal structures moving below the melody (see example 7). These same structures appear above a stepwise bass line in several places (see example 8). The climax of the piece combines these devices to create the final melodic, harmonic, and structural cadence (see example 9).

While these ideas have been presented here in a fairly dry, intellectual manner, the sounds themselves initially came about from the intuitive process of finding pleasing sounds at the keyboard. Once I found a set of sounds I liked, the more cerebral process of applying, developing, and transforming them into a piece of music followed. I found these ideas to be rich in implication from which the piece grew easily and organically. A more complete examination of the process by which these small motivic fragments unfolded into an entire piece of music is beyond the scope of this article.

To apply the specific ideas presented here, I recommend that you first listen to the piece, then play through the examples shown here. A recording can be found at bt/173/lesson.html. The complete score can also be downloaded there. If you find any of these sounds interesting, explore them to see how they might be used in your own writing.

If the sounds themselves aren't attractive to your ear, try to develop your own structures based on these ideas. To start, find a structure you like and see what happens when you move the structure up or down by half-steps above a fixed bass note. Alternatively, see what it sounds like when you keep the top voice common while moving the lower voices down by half-step. Find a stepwise bass line that harmonizes with the upper structures.

Explore and experiment with these sounds. And above all, don't think about the structures as typical chords in the conventional sense. Think outside the box and listen outside the chord.