Using the traditional harmonic system makes us feel comfortable. We remember these chords, the progressions, the cadences are familiar.
We like what we know.
Knowing and using historically proved good sounding chords will make your work understandable for your audience. It’s a language we all share, because we share the same musical history.
The study of Harmony is the study of what sounded well until now.
But a composer has to break rules, surging for new ways to tell the stories of life. A composer must be able to tell the story in her own words.
In my personal opinion, the tragedies of life have not changed, only the way we tell the story changed these past centuries. Studying harmony helps a composer organise her harmonic thoughts into a FORM, but it is not necessary for writing MUSIC.
The only thing people will always hear and value in the end is the HONEST STRUGGLE of the composer.
“Just press the keys you like”
I have been pressing the keys I like, now for almost 3 years and still I can’t name the keys easily. It’s really annoying, but they have no meaning for me. Still people enjoy my music, they can relate to it. It’s my subconscious, music is a memory game, combining of all the chord progressions that I liked so far. Everything I played and heard is combined into my music.
“Break the rules“
I started studying “Fundamental Harmony” by H. Norden. It’s a compact and mathematical culturally neutral system of harmonic theory. I cite: “Music is a combinatorial art. The raw material that is available for artistic combination vertically into chords and sequentially into melodic lines consists of twelve tones.”
When you play a chord on a piano in ground position (I) you play 1 – 3 – 5. But when you play: 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11 – 13 – 15. You played all the notes of the scales and you found all the combinations of chords available in that key. But.. also chords from other keys .. .and … changing a chord from major to minor … you end up in a whole different world of 1 – 3 – 5 – 7 – 9 – 11 – 13 – 15 with a new (I).
Thinking in keys is a practical system of organizing chords that define HOME (here) and AWAY (there). But a composer has to break the rules of the system in a way people can relate to. You can PUSH the chords, taking listeners on a journey to a new and foreign landscape. (Remember that a score is a map for a 4D lanscape).
The only thing to remember is that people expect to be taken HOME again
Once in a while people need to orient themselves where they are, to stay comfortable knowing that you have them by the hand, sustaining trust between your music and the listener. Then you can take them from anywhere, to here to there and back again. This can be done when you use the familiar chords, what we know and break the rules of the system, traveling to a new far away harmonic world. Knowing that you can land the mission home safely.
The only thing that is really important, is to realize that people expect to go home to the initial key at the end of their journey. When you choose a key, you choose HOME. The safe starting point of the musical journey from here to there to everywhere.
Why choose a particular key?
I tend to choose keys in which instruments sound well, but when you have a whole orchestra instead of an ensemble, that advantage vanishes. Only at certain moments, when you need a full colored outburst of the lowest note of a tuba or the best sounding high note on a piccolo, it’s useful to optimize the key for those moments.
Key, FORM and story
Obviously, you have to know where in your FORM you are going to use what key. Mainly dominated by ‘what sounds good’, that means, for every orchestration there is an optimal key. Key, orchestration and FORM are deeply connected: when the orchestration dictates a particular key and you start FORM with that orchestration, you defined HOME. This is where you have to come back to once in a while for orientation purposes and for ending the journey. Now, we have not only the point in TIME where the journey will end, but also the most comfortable key.
But beware! Composers break rules! When a hero changed over the course of the journey, HOME may be very different for him, feeling “Fernweh”. A dramatic event doesn’t leave you unchanged, but your audience will leave with a feeling of “unsatisfaction”. Like real life leaves you once in a while, but do you want your story to have an open ending? Without a HOME? That is for the artist to decide…
The physics of colors of keys
The only thing I hear when I play keys on a piano, is a difference in color. I don’t think the lower octave sounds like a higher octave. And all the steps in between (alle major keys) sound a little different each step in between.
This can be explained: The absolute difference between an octave can be 200 – 100 = 100 Herz and 800 – 400 = 400 Herz. We both call them an octave, because the relative difference of 2/1 and 8/4 is the same, but the absolute difference is not. 100 Herz doesn’t equal 400 Herz. This is difference in color I hear.
The physics of colors of octaves
The absolute difference in frequency between octave (so 100 Herz compared to 400 Herz) also explains why chords in de lower frequency sound ‘muddy’, when on flutes they sound ‘clear’.
There are 2 reasons for this:
- The overtone series of the instrument: All instruments have a different overtone series that give the instrument it’s own character. The blending of instruments also depend on these overtone series.
- The appearance of the natural overtones of the chord in that octave. In a higher octave there are more possible accentuating overtones at a 3 or 5. The tone is better defined. Unless it is played really high, where the ear doesn’t work best.