Archive for April, 2012


Chords: invisible barriers

What on Earth can that title mean?!

Here’s what I mean: Well over half the tonal (or “tonal-ish”) repertoire I come into contact with and am required to play/learn/spend time with suffers from “chorditis.” Many composers think chords are the irreducible building blocks of music. We have Rameau and his treatise to thank for that.

But this is most emphatically not the case. Certainly Rameau was not incorrect insofar as we can identify certain specific vertical entities. But these entities are emergent; that is, they result from horizontal movement governed by more fundamental, contrapuntal considerations. Chords must be achieved via logical horizontal movement. It is poor music that consists only of chords, plopped down one after the other, with no thought given to how (or even if) the first chord should proceed to the second. Frederic Chopin lamented this compositional weakness when he said (in a criticism of Berlioz): “It has become customary to learn chords ahead of counterpoint, which means, ahead of the sequences of notes by which the chords are formed. Berlioz simply sets down the chords and fills the interstices as best he can.”

So what’s wrong with simply stringing a bunch of pretty or interesting chords together, as virtually all pop “composers” (think Ben Folds) and a good share of classical composers (think Gerald Custer or Stephen Paulus or Eric freakin’ Whitacre) do? The answer can be found in that qualifier: “simply.” It’s simple. For Pete’s sake, a person with no musical training or experience could find some interesting chords if you put a piano in front of them and gave them enough time. Also, the illogic of the way the individual chord members proceed, as is unavoidable if you don’t explicitly think about and control their movement, is audible. It really, really is audible, despite the dismissive grunts uttered by many musicians: “Pfft, how can you hear that? Don’t be so picky!”

Don’t we want our art to be well-crafted? The composer who first sets down chords and then thoughtlessly fills in the notes would be rather like an architect that roughly sketches the facade of a building and then says to the construction crew: “Okay, now get building.” No. Detail is required. But so many musicians resist dealing with, or even learning about, the detail. They are apparently content not to penetrate the invisible barrier imposed by this idea of “chords.” “That’s far enough”, they say. “No”, I say, “you haven’t even peeled back the first layer yet!”

April 2012