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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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September 9, 2007 | Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2

We mentioned living in two worlds when it comes to music analysis, the trivia of notes and chords versus the larger pictures of phrase and overall form. We can glean much information about the progression of a music architecture from individual accidentals or seemingly unorthodox chord changes, but we must always be willing to frame our conclusions within the context of larger points of the whole song.

Let's look at some very basic road signs of change; we'll call them "Accidental Indicators." If you're reading standard notation print music, these are excellent visual clues to important changes. Even aurally when a note strays out of the diatonic scale, there's a good chance of an imminent change in tonal center. Let's look at some very basic tricks.

Raised Note. (Sharp, natural in a flat key)
If a sharp sign indicates more than a chromatic passing tone, there's a strong chance you have more than a melodic or vertical embellishment. This could very well be a "leading economic indicator" of impending harmonic change. If it's a note outside the scale, it may very well be the Leading Tone or 7th scale degree of a new tonal center.

Example: Playing nicely in the key of G major, a C# appears. Since C natural is part of the G scale, this alteration could be the 7th scale degree of the key of D, a 4th up from the home key of G.

Another possibility if a G# is not far away, these two notes are setting up for the key of A major (think three sharp key signature), but again, the G# is also a candidate for Leading Tone. The new tonal center moves from D up a whole step. We used joke in High School about calling this a "Barry Manilow Modulation," a trick the popular songwriter frequently used in his hits in the 70's and 80's.

Lowered Note. (Flat, natural in a sharp key)
This half step departure from the home key could be setting you up for a tonal center a 5th down. It becomes the 4th scale degree of the new key (resolving to the new 3rd). Take our key of G again; if we see an F natural, it could very well be the sign of a transition to the key of C. In this context, the F is a powerful pulling tone, being the defining 7th note of a Dominant G7 chord.

In the same manner, if you see a lowered F and a lowered B to Bb, you could be setting up for tonal center of F Major, a whole step down from our original key of G.

This is very obvious in the song, "How High the Moon." Starting in the key of G, the third measure introduces a Bb, and the tonal center moves into the key of F. (Note the Gm7 chord is not the key of G minor, it functions as ii minor chord of the new key). This is repeated by introducing an Ab, everything shifts down another whole step to a temporary tonal center of Eb major. (Fm7 is iim7 of Eb)

Accidental Indicators are a terribly simple clue to change. What you need to do is see how they change the music and come up with your own conclusions and patterns of where they direct the harmonic progression. If you can develop your own personalized subset of harmonic protocol, you'll be able to reflexively define these tonal centers and improvise effectively in the appropriate keys.

Posted by Ted at September 9, 2007 7:47 PM

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