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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Shout Out To All The Music Theory Nerds

(I'm not sure how many "clicks" I'll get with that title, but what the heck...)

Page from "Be Here Now"
I've always liked certain chord progressions in modern jazz, and I felt like there was some common thing that I liked about them, but I didn't understand what it was.  I wanted to figure that out, not only due to general curiosity, but also so I could improvise over them better, and use those harmonies in my own compositions.  The result was an essay I did as part of my masters degree at U of T, analyzing two compositions by Canadian-born trumpet player/composer Kenny Wheeler, and two composition by my friend and Circles-bandmate, pianist/composer Hayoun Lee.  The essay was titled "The Flimsiest of Screens: Moving Beyond Traditional Harmony In The Music of Wheeler and Lee".  The title is a reference to a quote by the American philosopher and psychologist William James which I had read in the book "Be Here Now".

Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.

This is an analogy for me about key to understanding this particular type of harmony I was interested in: it was just taking harmony we were already familiar with, and adding just one or two more elements to create a whole new effect.  I made the point that "The comparison is not entirely metaphorical, since music with different harmonic languages will inspire different states of mind, and vice versa."

Anyway, I was pretty happy with the approach to analyzing this new harmony that I ended up with.  Modern harmony feels less mystifying to me now.  I think it is an approach that is practical for the jazz composer and/or improviser.  In jazz, it is very important that we can "hear" a chord progression, but what do we mean by this? I would contend that one of the main things we mean is that we are aware of the voice-leading. So my analysis centers around that - both with scales and chords.  I like the idea I came up with of thinking of scales as having a kind of family tree, where the modes of melodic minor are related to the modes of the major scale, and the symmetrical octatonic scales are related to the modes of melodic minor through "splitting" one note of the melodic minor scale, and the wholetone scales are related to the modes of melodic minor through "merging" one note in the melodic minor scale. Anyway, now we are really getting nerdy.  Read the whole essay if you are sufficiently interested.  There may be a few small factual errors remaining in it. If you find one, let me know, you win a special prize!

If you want to listen to the compositions analyzed in the essay, here are some YouTube links to the Kenny Wheeler tunes:

Gentle Piece
Everybody's Song But My Own

As for the Hayoun Lee compositions:

"Pegasus" is the first song that loads when you visit Circle's website.
To listen to "Autumn Dance", check out our bandcamp page.

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  1. Hi Matt,

    The link doesn't seem to work anymore but I'd love to read your essay!

    1. Thanks for the interest Priscilla, the link should be fixed now!