Sunday, December 23, 2007

What is Harmony?

In response to a comment from Kris Tiner on 'What Is Melody?' (see below) I began to think about harmony in the same way I was thinking about melody and decided that the response needed to take on a larger form and some more thought, and perhaps even some new directions. In 'What Is Melody?' I referenced Schoenberg and Kris referenced him in his comment as well and I began to think of old Arnie in terms of harmony. Wasn't his harmonic language even more rigid than the language he was rebelling against? And in that rebellion his submission to form and structure was (in my mind) sometimes crippling. Perhaps, perhaps not, but the question remains, and began me thinking of harmony.

Harmony, as we know it, has a few definitions, and the definition in my trusty Harvard Music Dictionary is too long to repeat completely here, but there are a few interesting points that I would like to talk about in the multi-paragraph definition.

"The relationship of tones considered as they sound simultaneously, and the way such relationships are organized in time; also any particular collection of pitches sounded simultaneously"

Now this is a very interesting sentence. As opposed to the definitions of melody that I discussed in my last non-death related post, these definitions are something I can get behind (for the most part), in particular I like how they discuss that harmony isn't just the vertical collection of notes but also has a connection to temporal organization of tones. Now traditional purists will call that the traditional functional harmony that we all know and love ('functional harmony' being one of those terms that kind of gives me the willies) but I like to think of it as any organization of sound over time. I like to relate this to the Pythagorean idea of the Harmony of the Spheres, after all, when dealing with distance in space you are talking about time, at least as we can perceive it, (although I don't limit this to the diatonic scale like Pythagoras did). 

The definition goes on to actually say, "In principle, any chord may follow any other, constituting simply a harmonic succession." I like this very much, but of course it then has to go on and ruin it by the qualifying statement "In practice, however, the vocabulary of tonal music is greatly limited in types of root motion, and these may be regarded variously as strong or weak harmonic progressions" thus setting very limiting parameters on what harmony can do. Now this brings me to one of the main reasons of writing this. Isn't weak and strong harmonic progression all relative to an individual's ear? It says that weak progressions are, for example, triads whose root movement is in thirds, but does say in certain situations this can be effective depending on how it is used and all that, so I will give it that. 

This also hits up another point, and perhaps even an issue (for me), in music. With every rule, every functional progression, every form that we come up with, or have come up with, for things, there are exceptions, and lots of them, so many that there is usually as much in the label as out. For example, with good old Mr. Schenker, half of Brahms' music is brilliant the other half isn't music at all. This is the extreme of course, as I personally think Schenker was off his rocker, but the idea that we can make those judgements is absurd. So with each exception that arises in quantifying all past music into categories and then shoving all new music into one of those categories (occasionally having to invent new categories just to have something to shove someone into) begs the question of the point of all these things. Form, functional harmony, weak/strong, all that stuff, there is no point to any of it once the creative process has begun. The point is so that someone can call something by a name and feel they understand it (which they will never be able to, unless they are the creator themselves, and even then I am skeptical). I don't mean to say that music shouldn't have structure sometimes, my point is why bother with putting that label on it, just let it be. One thing I learned from my last teacher is that form is important, for cohesive purposes, especially with story music, but what the label of that form may be is arbitrary and doesn't need to be discussed (but I digress for this is not about form).

This brings me to my thought on harmony that may or may not have a place in this world outside of my head (or even make sense). About a year and a half ago I was working on a pretty significant piece for me, both philosophically as well as musically. It was a big form (which was not label-able), virtuosic playing and dealt with things that I hadn't really dealt with before. But without going into too many specifics of the piece, I started to realize when using key centers, and relatively traditional functional harmony, I began to develop boredom almost with what was happening. Not that it sounded bad, and it wasn't even that I disliked it so much, but I kept thinking to myself "well, that is good and works well, but what is the point?" Meaning what was the point of the key center and the functionality of the harmony. Now in examining this question the piece took a turn to a less traditional language because of this exploration, (so there is a very interesting dichotomy to the piece that I would enjoy very much if I ever listen to the piece again). But after this I began to really examine what I was thinking when talking and writing harmony. I began realizing in the next few pieces, that I was becoming dissatisfied with just clumping notes together in nice chords (even when extremely dissonant, although it was far more satisfying with dissonance). So then I began to deal with the linear aspect of harmony, moving into a more temporal harmony and not worrying about the vertical harmony quite so much (or at all, in the most recent case).

This brings me to the next interesting point in the Harvard definition, "Harmony is vertical, as melody is horizontal." I do not believe this at all, and for me it even contradicts what was said earlier in the definition, but that is neither here nor there. I believe they are interconnected and are basically the same thing (this plays into my idea of melody being something bigger than a pretty line of music). I have been experimenting with this idea of horizontal harmony, but it is too early to tell what will really come of it, as I have only really dealt with it consciously in tow pieces, one of which has yet to make its real life auditory debut. But the first was quite successful, for me anyhow, and I hope this endeavor reaps some interesting dividends.

So in thinking of harmony I have discovered, for myself at any rate, that the real notes are somewhat unimportant, or at least less important then other things. In my process they are often the last thing to be included, after overall structure, texture and temporal direction. This is significant in my mind.

And with one final thought, in looking at the definition of harmony from a non-musical standpoint, there are some interesting connections to be made. In the Webster's Dictionary the definition talks about congruity, common interests, agreement and even friendship. I like thinking of musical harmony in these terms more than in any music-specific language. Each part of a piece has a common interest, namely, to make the piece do what it was intended to do, a journey, a statement or whatever the point may be, but each part has its role to play in the process and the final product, so if the goal of the piece is reached and executed, could that be considered functional harmony, no matter the content?

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