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Posted by on Aug 6, 2013 in Consonance, The Lattice, Tonal Gravity | 0 comments

Polarity

The following video compares the perfect fifth with the perfect fourth.

These notes are the next-door neighbors of the tonic. They are equally close to the center. They are both harmonious. Yet there is a great difference in their character.

The difference between these two intervals is polarity.

I learned this term from W.A. Mathieu, in his amazing book “Harmonic Experience.”

Polarity is the main driver of tension and release in tonal music. I think it’s much more important than harmonic distance, the other component of consonance.

Here’s how I think polarity works:

Almost all sounds are actually a bundle of waves, of different frequencies. The frequencies in these bundles tend to vibrate at multiples of each other — 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x some base frequency — a harmonic series.

Our ears are highly attuned to such relationships. They help us figure out which frequencies belong together, so we can analyze them and identify the source. If we hear two frequencies in lockstep, three cycles to one, it is very likely they come from the same object.

I think this is why we can hear harmony. It’s a byproduct of our built-in orientation software. The overtone series of a sound is a powerful source of information about the object that made it. The harmonic content tells us whether it’s a barking dog or a friend or rustling leaves. Something in us sorts out and analyzes many harmonic series at once, in real time, identifying sound sources, locating them in space, and even sensing their texture at a distance. It’s a phenomenal processor.

So the processor recognizes the 3-wiggles-to-1 dance of the perfect fourth. But something is wrong — the 4 does not belong in the overtone series of the 1. The overtone series is generated by multiplication, not division.

This is a strange input for the mighty processor.

  • The 4 has to belong to the 1, because the two are in step with each other at three beats for one. In nature, that’s a dead giveaway.
  • But the 4 can’t belong to the 1, because the ratio is the wrong way around — natural sounds do not contain 1/3 in their overtone series.
  • Maybe the 1 actually belongs to the 4. The 1 is three times the 4, so if the 4 were the base, all would make sense.
  • But every other clue, all the harmonics in the drone (and, importantly, the listener’s memory), are pointing to the 1, hollering “This is the basic frequency!”

What’s a supercomputer to do?

I feel this sensation as unrest or instability, a need for something to change. Either the 4 needs to resolve to an overtonal note such as the 5 or major 3, or the root needs to change. Moving the root to the 4 will resolve the dissonance, introducing a new reciprocal tension — now the root “wants” to go to the 1, because the ear remembers. There are videos of this here.

On the lattice, there are two basic polarities, overtonal and reciprocal. Some notes combine both energies.

Overtonal notes are created by multiplying the base frequency. They appear in the natural harmonic content of sounds. They sound stable, restful, resolved — more so the closer they are to the center of the lattice, where tonal gravity is stronger. Pure overtonal notes are in the Northeast quadrant of the lattice.

Reciprocal notes are created by dividing the base frequency. The mind recognizes them as being related to the base frequency, but they do not appear in its natural overtone series. They sound unstable, restless, tense — and, like the overtonal ones, the effect is stronger closer to the center.

Polarity is our sense of the tonal gravity field. It is how we orient ourselves in harmonic space.

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Posted by on Jul 22, 2013 in Consonance, Just Intonation, The Lattice, The Notes, Tonal Gravity | 0 comments

Consonance and Dissonance

I just passed the 10,000 photo mark on the stop motion animations, good thing I’m not hand-drawing them like Winsor McCay!

The one I’m working on, Real Girl, has a lot of dissonant notes in it. The melody ranges far from the roots and makes some slightly dizzying harmonic jumps. I want to use it as a framework for discussing consonance and dissonance. While it’s in progress, I want to lay down some groundwork.

The Wikipedia article Consonance and Dissonance is really thorough. Here’s a quote from the introduction:

In music, a consonance (Latin con-, “with” + sonare, “to sound”) is a harmonychord, or interval considered stable (at rest), as opposed to a dissonance (Latin dis-, “apart” + sonare, “to sound”), which is considered unstable (or temporary, transitional). In more general usage, a consonance is a combination of notes that sound pleasant to most people when played at the same time; dissonance is a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant to most people.

This definition has two distinct concepts in it — the “stability” of a harmony, and whether the notes sound pleasant or unpleasant together. I used to think of consonance/dissonance as a linear spectrum, with consonant notes at one end and dissonant ones at the other.

After working with the lattice, and reading Mathieu, I now see consonance as having two distinct components, that do not necessarily track together:

  1. How the notes sound together, away from any musical context. The range would be from smooth and harmonious to rough and grating.
  2. The stability of the interval. Does it create a sensation of rest, or does it feel restless, ready to move?

I propose that these two qualities can be directly seen on the lattice as follows:

  1. The way the notes will sound when simply played together is a function of the distance between the notes in harmonic space (how far apart they are on the lattice). The farther apart the two notes are, the less harmonious they will sound when played together.
  2. The stability of the interval is a function of the direction of the interval on the lattice (whether it’s generated by multiplying, dividing, or a combination of the two). Intervals generated by multiplying (moving to the East and North on the lattice) are restful, those generated by dividing (moving West and South) are unstable and restless.

The interval quality is also powerfully affected by which primes (3, 5, 7) are used to generate the interval, but I hear this as a sort of flavor or color, rather than as consonance per se.

The first component, the sound of the notes simply played together, is a property of the interaction of those frequencies in the ear. It isn’t dependent on the musical context in which it appears.

The sense of stability or instability, on the other hand, depends entirely on context. This sensation comes from the direction of the interval, which implies that the interval must start somewhere (the tonic or root) and end somewhere (the harmony note), so as to have a direction. One note is home base, the other is an excursion from that base.

Here a couple of examples to show the difference.

The perfect fifth is the most consonant interval on the lattice that actually involves a distance. (Octaves and unisons are more consonant, but on the lattice, they cover no distance at all — multiplying the frequency of a note by 1 gives a unison, which is of course the same note, and multiplying or dividing by two gives an octave, which, by a miraculous quirk of human perception, also sounds like the same note, harmonically.)

To make a fifth, you multiply by 3. You can then then multiply or divide by 2 at will, (which doesn’t add any distance) to put it in the octave you desire. The frequencies of the two notes in this video are related by a ratio of 3:2. There is no context, just the two notes sounding together.

This is clearly a consonant interval. There is a smoothness, a harmoniousness to the sound that I imagine would be perceived as such by anyone in the world. Two notes in a ratio of 3:2 will sound like that no matter what the context.

So how do stability and instability enter in? It happens when there is a reference note, which can be the tonic (the main key center around which everything is arranged), a root (a local tonal center that changes from chord to chord), or even a bass note, which, if it is not the root of the chord, shifts the harmonic feel of the chord.

The music in this next video establishes that the tonal center is the 1, and then introduces the 1-5 interval.

The interval sounds stable; the ear does not crave a change. There is resolution.

In the next video, the music establishes a new tonal center in the ear. Now it sounds like the 5 is home. Listen to what happens when I introduce the very same 1-5 interval:

The interval is exactly the same, and the effect is quite different. There is tension. Something’s gotta move!

I can make this point more clearly by resolving the tension. Hear the unfinished quality, and how it resolves?

Aaaaah.

In the first video, home base is the 1, and the 5 is an overtonal note — that is, it is generated by multiplying the home note by 3. It sounds restful and stable.

In the second video, the tonal center is the 5, and the 1 is reciprocal, that is, it is generated by dividing by 3.

So the same exact interval can be stable or unstable according to harmonic context, even though the “degree of roughness” is the same. That’s why I think Wikipedia’s two-part definition is referring to two different things, which should be thought of separately.

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Posted by on Jun 21, 2013 in The Lattice, The Notes, Tonal Gravity |

The Power of the Seventh Chord

The V chord, the major chord based on the 5, is a powerful compositional tool. It points, very clearly and with a lot of tension, directly at the tonic. If you want to lead the ear to the I, the V chord is the top-of-the-line triad.

Why this is so is still a bit mysterious to me. It’s been discussed a lot. It seems to have both melodic and harmonic elements.

Melodies “like” to move short distances in pitch, and the move from the V to the I is elegant melodically. The 7, or major seventh, resolves up a half step to the 1. The major seventh is called a leading tone because of this very property. The 2 drops a whole step, also to the 1, and the 5 stays put.

In harmonic space, voices, especially roots, “like” to move short distances too. The shortest move of all is a fifth, and when the V goes to the I, the root moves down by a fifth. It seems natural that if the ear is anticipating the next chord, it will place its bet on the change that expends the least energy. All three notes could be seen as moving that same short distance, the easiest possible move.

I like to think of it in terms of tonal gravity. The tonic, the 1, is like a sun at the center of a solar system, and it exerts a gravitational pull. Moving away from it creates tension, collapsing into it creates resolution. Just as with gravity, the closer in you are, the stronger the force. The V is right next to the I, harmonically, so the tension is very strong.

The V chord isn’t the last word, however. It’s possible to crank it up, by adding another tense note.

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The 4 and the 5 are the closest notes to the 1, in harmonic space. These two notes have the strongest tonal gravity of all. Their effect is different — 5 is the strongest overtonal note, and 4 is the strongest reciprocal note. Both point straight at the tonic.

Melodically, the 4 is two half steps below the 5. This makes it a flatted or minor seventh, added to the V chord. So the final chord is called a V7.

Of all the notes we could add to the V chord, the 4 creates the most tension, and it’s pointed directly at the tonic. I say this is the source of the power of the dominant 7th chord.

In Be Love, I add even more tension before I’m through. The melody dances around, and right before the final resolution, it lands on the 6.

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I’ve added yet another tense note to the mix. It’s not as strong as the 4, but it jacks up the gravity another notch. The root is on 5, so the 6 is two half steps up from it melodically. This makes it a ninth chord — start with the basic major triad, and add a seventh and a ninth.

Now I’m set up as strongly as possible for a return to the tonic, and sure enough when the drop happens it lands with authority. I’m in major land now, and the chorus will feel entirely different from the verse.

Here’s the whole effect:

 

 

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Posted by on Jun 19, 2013 in Consonance, Just Intonation, Resonance, The Lattice, The Notes |

The Compass Points

There are two basic directions on the lattice: multiplication and division.

If I start with a note, and then multiply it by 3, or 5, or 7, I will get a harmony note with overtonal energy. Such a note is in the natural overtone series of the original note.

Overtonal energy is stable, restful, it belongs where it is and wouldn’t mind staying there.

If I divide by 3, 5 or 7, I get a completely different kind of note. I call this division energy “reciprocal,” after W.A. Mathieu’s suggestion in his amazing book Harmonic Experience.

Reciprocal energy is restless, unstable. The note wants to move, or for the music to come to it, until it is overtonal.

On the lattice of fifths and thirds, there are two axes, fifths and thirds, and two directions, overtonal and reciprocal.

This makes four total directions one can move on this lattice. Each direction has own characteristic flavor, or energy. I use the following names for these energies, mostly after Mathieu.

  • Dominant = East = Overtonal fifths
  • Subdominant = West = Reciprocal fifths
  • Major = North = Overtonal thirds
  • Minor = South = Reciprocal thirds

Compass Points

Every interval has its own unique recipe of moves in these four directions. The perfect fifth has pure dominant energy, the major third pure major. The minor third, b3 on the lattice, is a compound note — dominant and minor.

It’s interesting to look at the minor third (b3) from the viewpoint of tonal gravity. On the horizontal axis, dominant/subdominant, the b3 is overtonal, stable, restful. On the vertical axis, major/minor, the note is reciprocal, unstable, restless.

Tonal gravity is stronger the closer you are to the center. To make a minor third, you multiply by 3 (an overtonal jump of a fifth), and divide by 5 (a reciprocal jump of a third). I know, 3 generates fifths and 5 generates thirds, a confusing coincidence.

Fifths are closer to the center, harmonically, than thirds are, so the overtonal energy is stronger than the reciprocal.

This makes the minor third a stable note, although less stable than the major third. Songs can end on a tonic minor chord and they will still sound finished.

 

 

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Posted by on Nov 19, 2012 in The Notes | 0 comments

The Major Seventh

The notes get more exotic as you move outward from the center. The ninth is quite consonant, but not nearly as consonant as the fifth. (Consonance and dissonance are descriptions of feelings; they are part of the flavor of an interval, and I don’t think the last word has been written on them yet. I’ll be taking my shot later in these pages.)

For very small ratios such as 3/2, the ear has no trouble perceiving where it is on the map. The signal given by 3/2 is so strong, in fact, that it’s the primary tool used in classical music to move the ear to a new key center.

As the numbers get bigger, the signal gets weaker, and the interval gets more dissonant. To get to the major second, you multiply by 3 twice. Then, using octave reduction, you can put it in any octave you want.  I chose 9:4 in yesterday’s example, giving an interval of a major ninth — an octave plus a major second.

Compounding a fifth and a third gives somewhat larger numbers (3×5 = 15, or a ratio of 15/8) and, sure enough, the note is more dissonant against the tonic. Yet it has its own unique beauty. Presenting the major seventh:

Tomorrow, another kind of flavor entirely, another primary color in the crayon box, if you will.

Next: A Reciprocal Note: The Fourth

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