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Capitol Music Center Blog

Theory and Composition: Startling Harmonies

Charlie Hiestand

"Theory and Composition" is an occasional column for Capitol Music that I'll be putting together. It is intended to give me an outlet for some of my musical thoughts, and maybe to tell you something about music you didn't know. I hope to range all over the place, so sometimes it might be really simple, sometimes hard, sometimes in between.

All my degrees are in composition, starting with a B.M. from Berklee College in 1977, an M.A. from Mills College in 1982, and a D.M.A. from the University of Washington in 1993. All that education has left me fantastically ignorant; I find I am learning things as much if not more than when I was in school. While I am happy about all the great stuff school taught, I am surprised by all the important stuff it didn't teach. So my life as a musician has been rich in learning.

Some of what I've learned since finishing school at first seems unrelated to music - like how to get along with other people. How composition is both perfectly personal and ultimately collaborative. Or how most people want something other than your music; you have to trick them to like something new. I've learned lots of stuff like that.

Or this one: being left-handed is (mostly) an advantage for a musician.

I am particularly attracted to the beauty of harmony. In all my music I am working with the tension between a linear melodic imperative and the exquisite beauty of harmony that makes you just want to stop and listen.

OK, piano players: here are some examples of startling harmony from the classical repertoire. Do you know who wrote these?

Example 1.

Example 1

Example 2.

Example 2

Example 3.

Example 3

The first one is without any context, the other two I provided a little bit of a clue, but what would be the analyses? Solutions next time!


| 1 Comment

1 Comment

Ok Charlie,

1.) You could call it an E Aug. / F, but because of the key signature and how it is spelled I think that you would more logically call it and F minor/major 7th. I have no idea what it is from, but it reminds me of the "scary" bridge from Fur Elise.

2.) The second chord is obviously a D7 in 3rd inversion, which I assume gets resolved to a G minor chord (the key of the piece.)

The first chord is tricky. I'm going to call it a G minor/major 7 flat 5 that's missing the root. It's resolving IV-I style. (Try sticking a G in there below the Bb and resolve it to an F#. It still works!) But that's just one way to think about it. You can also call it an A sus4 13 b9 b11 that's missing the root and the 7th. So the D in the bass is the 4th, the Bb is the b9th, the C# is the flat 11th and the F# is the 13th. I sort of like that explanation better even though it's more complicated because it implies root motion up a 4th which makes everyone happy!

What is this from? No idea. Chopin? Schubert? Debussy?

3.) It starts out clearly as an an F# 9, but when you add the D and B to the bottom, it's hard to hear them as an 11th and 13th since they are in the bass and especially since the other notes have faded slightly by that point. But I think that's the whole idea. To me it sounds like it goes from a clear F# 9 to a fuzzy F# 11 with the 11th in the root and then becomes a B minor chord as soon as you hit the low B while the higher notes are just suspended for half a beat before resolving.

You told me what this was from but I forgot.

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