Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chord Progressions

I haven't done a post about music theory for a while, so here is one about harmony. I've talked a lot about harmony, especially about how it is a problem for composers of contemporary music. Here is one of those posts.

But today, I want to talk about harmony in a more practical way, about chord progressions, to be specific. The Wikipedia article is worth looking at, though it is written from the point of view of popular music. The author seems to have very little knowledge of how classical musicians understand harmonic progressions as witnessed by the tiny last paragraph, "Chord progressions in classical music."

As understood by popular musicians, a chord progression is a kind of cyclical harmonic gesture that repeats. One song that is a pure example of this is "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan:

Here are the chords in that version. The most famous version is the one by Jimi Hendrix, who does it in A minor instead of the C# minor of the original:

What both versions share is a kind of floating, eternal quality that I think comes from the harmonic progression. This song is extremely focussed: there is no bridge, chorus, middle-eight, nothing except that harmonic progression and the words. In Dylan's version the only contrast is provided by the harmonica solos and in Hendrix' version by the guitar solo.

Here is the bass line which I am going to notate in A minor, not C# minor because, as Dylan capos his guitar on the 4th fret, from the guitarist's point of view, it feels as if you are in A minor! Actually, Hendrix' version doesn't quite sound in A minor as he seems to be tuned a semi-tone flat so it comes out in G# minor. I suppose it is possible he is playing in G# minor, I just kind of doubt it.

And that's it, the whole song just cycles back and forth between these three chords:

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What you hear is more complicated because of the rhythmic execution of the chords, but those are all the notes. In terms of harmonic analysis, the progression is i VII VI VII over and over (minor chords indicated with lower case Roman numerals, major by upper case). The "key" is actually the Aeolian mode on A. It is not the conventional A minor because there is no leading tone. Part of the floating quality comes from the fact that the chords move only by whole tones.

There is another song by Bob Dylan with a bit more complex and directed progression. These are the chords to the verses of "Lay Lady Lay":

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The bass player has a number of options, most logically either follow the chromatic line down, or play A, C#, G natural, B, which are the roots of the chords. Perhaps A, C#, D, B. And, of course, you can do different ones at different points. The harmonic analysis would go I iii VII ii. Here is the song:

The "bridge" or "middle-eight" as it is conventionally called, moves to the the dominant with this progression:

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The harmonic analysis would be V vi I.

In both these songs, conventional cadences are avoided as in all music of the "post-tonal" era that we are living in.

Well, I seem to have written a complete post and I haven't gotten anywhere near what I really wanted to talk about, which is chord or harmonic progressions in classical music! I guess I will save that for next time. In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a famous introduction to a string quartet by Mozart, nicknamed the "Dissonant" quartet because of the extreme chromaticism of the harmonies. In this recording, that introduction is the first 1'43 which is followed by a more conventional allegro:


Logan said...

When did Bob Dylan learn to sing like that?

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't think I know the answer to the exact question you asked, but Bob Dylan is a remarkable singer who, at first, seems to be a bad singer. But his singing is exactly right for the songs and draws upon various indigenous American traditions. Someone should do some research.

In this post I compared the singing of Bob Dylan to that of Celine Dion:

Logan said...

Yes, of course. Notwithstanding all that, "Lay, Lady, Lay" displays a little more technical skill than many people suspect Bob Dylan ever had, don't you agree? I see I should have elaborated, but of course I imagined that my meaning would be as clear to other people as it was to myself! My intention was an admiring comment, from one who already had admired Bob Dylan, to the effect that he is evidently a more versatile singer than the popular imagination gives him credit for, and that his characteristic roughness of voice may be a deliberate choice rather than something he was happily forced into by a real inability to sing "well". I wanted to say this because I hadn't known it before either and was happy at having discovered it. Striking how easy it would have been for me to just say all that at the outset...
I understand that I flout Internet etiquette by commenting on posts and comments so long after they go up, but I hope I'm not wrong to think you probably don't mind a whole lot.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Logan,

No, I don't mind long-delayed comments. People occasionally still drop a comment on my post about what's wrong with jazz from a couple of years ago!

Oh, absolutely! I took your original comment as a serious question because it might have been. But yes, Bob Dylan is a very adroit performer on voice, guitar and maybe even harmonica. His long, long career is an indicator that he is doing something right. Plus, hugely important songwriter.