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Sick of Rock Harmony


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This post has a lot to do with Tusker's modern prog-rock thread, but in more musical detail. A lot of you may disagree with the kinds of things I'm about to say, but that's fine with me.


I am completely sick of the harmony used in rock music. In fact, I'm sick of hearing the way most modern music conceives of creating tonal music. There is a static quality to the way that the chorcds are used and a lack of imagination in the progressions that really gets to me sometimes. I feel like people either see music as white-note tonal or as so called experimental, but there's no middle ground, there's no extended romantic harmony or third-modulations or even simple secondary dominants in music anymore.


In many ways, people writing rock, pop, movie soundtracks, or nearly any kind of contemporary tonal music, see tonality as an even simpler thing that the early classical composers did. I mean really early, like J.C. Bach... even though they saw chords as mere triads back then, they had a more flexible idea of modulations and use of inversions and dominant chords back then than people do now. They may have focused on V-I cadences a bit much, but their idea of phrasing and modulations was much more harmonically interesting. Certainly a lot of movie music uses extended harmonies typical of romantic era composers, but I can often tell that when they create simple melodies, they're still looking at harmony from a rock-paradigm - devoid of modulation and lacking in harmonic variety.


Then there are the "experimental" people like King Crimson who tend to focus on strange ideas, whether that be in time signatures or more atonal harmonic sounds.. but it never stretches the system, it just makes it weird and different.


I think that using more complex harmony isn't about sounding weird or ground-breaking (after-all there's really nothing new that anyone could do anymore) but rather about being more direct emotionally. I continue to admire the music of Debussy because it's not just about colors and complexity, but it's about expression. I find some of his music to be the most directly expressive of any piano music.


A lot of this post is coming as a reaction to hearing Jordan Rudess's piano playing in the last part of the Musicplayer videos. While he is clearly displaying his chops, I just crinch at the harmony he uses throughout.. the chords are just so plain and static feeling. I feel like his sense of harmony deters his expression.. or maybe he's just not trying to express anything. His right hand chops really have the pyro-technic thing down, but his comping is nowhere near that of any competent jazz pianist, and his sense of chord structures is really limited.

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I have been thinking exactly the same thoughts for a number of years now and I am just as frustrated with the standard harmonic palette. It is difficult too, because I love playing and creating music. However, I think that the standard 12 tone harmonic structure has reached the proverbial brick wall. Do you have any idea what could supplant it? I am not convinced that microtuning is the answer. I think that maybe some kind of timbral music that is not tone-based but "sound" based may be a possibility. That being said, I studied electro-acoustic music in college and nothing is more boring than music generated by computers (C-Sound, etc.). I am really glad that someone has broached this topic and I hope that more folks will chime in and perhaps we can create the next musical epoch! I'll think some more about this and gather some more thoughts.




This message has been edited by richt on 04-03-2001 at 08:33 PM

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I tend to think that Richt may be correct in his assertion that there's only so much that you can do with the 12-tone scale before it just sounds weird. As far as complex chord structures in rock music go, I think that Steely Dan takes it about as far as you can go without actually crossing into jazz; and, I suppose that it could be argued that they do actually cross that line. Once you're into the jazz thing, of course, all bets are off...I could site Monk, Cecil Taylor, Wayne Shorter, and many others - but then, we're back to Steve's statement about complex harmony sounding weird or ground-breaking. I tend to think that the King Crimson folks live a bit more in that realm, even though they are traditionally thought of as a rock band.


There was a period when odd time signatures were also somewhat popular in rock - mainly the prog era, but I don't hear so much of that anymore.


I find that when I want to experiment, I have more fun dealing with timbral palettes than I do with chord structure. I find that I have more fun trying to come up with new and different sounds than I do playing around with complex voicings.


As a matter of fact, I find that the right sound frequently indicates (and in some cases dictates) the voicings that I use...





:keys:==> David Bryce Music • Funky Young Monks <==:rawk:


Professional Affiliations: Royer LabsMusic Player Network

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I think there's a "static quality" to much of the music being pushed these days. It doesn't matter what genre; I feel like I've heard it all before, and it is very boring. But I would not fault the 12-tone harmonic structure, no more than I would fault a finite vocabulary or bad syntax for writing good prose or poetry.


What's "hitting the proverbial brick wall" is limited imagination. A good song, whatever that is, sounds good no matter what it's played on, even a cheap wooden recorder. A good song stirs the emotions -- makes you happy, sad, whatever. (I think Eddie Van Halen said that. I really liked his enthusiasm for the instrument far more than his music.) In short, there's no push button for "good song," and if there ever is, music is dead.


I read a quote by an orchestral composer that stuck with me. I forget who, but he said if he were tasked with writing a new composition -- no limits, just "write one" -- he would not know where to begin. But if he were to try and write a particular kind, with certain instruments, then he could do something. I think we need limits. In ways I can't begin to articulate, somehow surpassing those limits is what connects people emotionally -- makes us more human, as it were. People who do that (whatever their occupation) always are standouts. In relationships, doing that is what we feel/know to be love.


I experienced this recently. I'm a novice guitar player, and for the longest time I played my electric unplugged or just straight into my Roland VS. When I finally bought an amp, a Tech 21 Trademark 10, within days I traded it back because the choices distracted me to no end. I realized what I mostly wanted was a clean sound. And for that, I got a Fender Princeton 65. Not surprisingly, I am hearing things I never heard before. Without the endless sonic choices at my fingertips, I find that: (1) I play more and enjoy myself playing, (2) I don't enter these spiral time warps where hours drift by searching for "that sound," and (3) I'm becoming a better guitar player.


Sorry if I belabored this.


This message has been edited by swright50@excite.com on 04-08-2001 at 11:19 AM

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I think this is one of the great hidden truths... the average jazz piano player has more harmonic knowledge and sophistication than any most any rock keyboard player. This is not to start a flame war, or proclaim jazz "better" than rock. They are just different styles, with different requirements. We've probably all heard a good jazz player who doesn't understand rock try to play it, and rather unsuccessfully. Same with rock and funk, etc.


But when you listen to a jazz piano player play a tune, they are constantly inventing and creating a part on the spot, influenced by what the other players are playing. Dynamic harmonic interplay. In most rock, the idea is to play parts that fit together, not to change your part every time you play the song, especially the harmony. Of course I don't mean note for note the same parts, but obviously in rock the parts don't fluctuate harmonically as often and as subtly as they do in jazz.


There really isn't a need in rock to learn advanced chord substitutions and use them dynamically throughout a song, and expect all band members to be able to do the same. The closest I can think of this is jazz rock or early fusion, before it got watered down commercialized. There players who could understand and play both rock and jazz styles could mix rock rhythm, instrumentation, and attitude with jazz level harmonic and melodic ideas. Of course this falls in more the jazz than rock camp; most fusion bands were instrumental only - no vocals on Birds of Fire.


I think music created on the stylistic edges is very interesting. When one style absorbs something from another, it opens up new possibilities. Think of Stravinsky and Bartok combining folk music elements with western art music, Steely Dan using jazz harmonies and horn parts, ELP using sophisticated harmony derived not from jazz but from 20th century classical music, the above mentioned fusion, Bela Fleck's bluegrass jazz fusion, etc. etc.


One thing I think of when I hear the accolades for a band like Phish is, while they are good musicians, their audience seems to be interested in a type of music like jazz where there is a lot of interplay, not just playing parts, but in a language they are comfortable with, which is rock, not jazz. In other words, without the harmonic (and melodic and rhythmic) sophistication of jazz. In other words, a richer and more expressive interplay between musicians can most likely be heard in their hometown, with just the local jazz combo. Of course, I do understand people have different stylistic preferences, and also that people want something they can identify with as part of their cultural demographic; i.e. my generation's music. While it could be argued that once reaching adulthood most people's search for personal identity involves searching for certain cultural subgroups to join (I'm a doctor, I'm a mother, I'm a rock musician, I'm middle aged, etc.), it is too bad that the strong urge to adopt one's generational choices regarding the arts is to a certain extent exclusionary - i.e. jazz is for old people (or nowadays, rock). I remember reading an article in the New Yorker a few years ago written by someone at Stanford, who was commenting on how their young lab assistant's music tastes were widely eclectic, and remembering how their own tastes were when they were younger. This led to (some level of formal or informal) research that concluded that most people decide on the style of music they like in their teen years, and keep that preference all their lives.


As far as getting too weird goes, weirdness is relative - some people find Bartok's piano music too weird, or King Crimson too out or something. I remember the first time I heard the Rite of Spring, I couldn't understand it and didn't like it. Two years later, I fell in love with it, and I took that as an important lesson - your ears can (and probably should) change and grow. Or another way to look at it is, some things in life you have to work for - I had done a lot of studying and listening in the meantime. Nobody expects to be a musician without years of practice (disclaimer - here in the age of rising impatience the tools and styles for avoiding so have coincidentally appeared), so why should listening to music be any different? Remember we have all had years of practice listening to basic popular and commercial music; just growing up in our society we are exposed to radio, TV, movies, commercials, etc. Just like statistics say the average child has been exposed to x number of murders by age 12 by watching TV and movies, this same average child has heard thousands of hours of pop music, that is, rock, movie ballads, now rap and electronica, etc. What they probably haven't heard is very much jazz, or King Crimson, or classical music written since 1900. In other words, music with challenging harmonies. If society raised children instead on the two Bela's, rock music would have a lot more interesting harmonies.


I think putting more sophisticated harmonies into rock is great, I'm all for it, but musicians who do it run the risk of alienating their audience. I think there is a lot of possibilities left with combining harmonies from jazz and modern classical to popular music in general, but most people with the ability to do that are either off in jazz or classical exclusively, or working as soundtrack and commercial composers (a place where different styles and ideas can meet and one can still make a decent living).


- jarrell

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I appreciate hearing all of your intelligent comments, and they all thoroughly address issues that I've thought of at some point. I think I must listen to some Steely Dan, dB, thanks for the recommendation and the info. I'm glad to see that all of you really know what's going on harmonically, and I welcome all of your lengthy posts http://www.musicplayer.com/ubb/wink.gif. Right now I'm considering two possibilities: alternate (yet still 12 note) tuning, and progressions of mismatched chords.


In regards to Richt, I originally balked at your comments. In the past I've thought that the realms of "alternate tuning" were restricted to odd notes per octave (5, 7, 19, 31) or what I perceived as silly medieval and renaissance era music. But then last friday I went to a harpsichord factory and heard a di Lasso piece written in 5th note mean tone tuning (I think) that really stirred me. It began with an augmented chord, A-C#-F-A, but only the top and bottom thirds were in tune, while the middle interval was truly a diminished fourth. There's a lot more emotions in alternate tuning than I realized, as it's often hard to remind myself that because my perfect-pitch hearing pigeon-holes all sound into those 12 boxes. I'm also really into Balinese music which uses a 5 note scale that changes relationships from octave to octave. When I'm away from those instruments it's hard to remember what it sounds like, and while I have tried incoporating the patterns of the music into my playing, using the five near equivalents in a 12 tone scale (C# D E G# A) just doesn't cut it. I just recently noticed a cool example of the directness of emotions in alternate tuning: the sound of a train whistle.(!) Usually it's just a minor triad in second inversion, but one or two of the notes is just detuned enough so that you can't tell what it is and instead you just hear pure sorrow and longing. I often think that a train whistle is the saddest sound. Maybe this is what you meant, richt, by a timbral system.

So I need to get into programming alternate tunings for my keyboards.



As I've said before, what I'm currently looking for is harmony that doesn't necessarily say "this is complex and intelligent" in an elitist way, but instead is simply more emotionally direct than I-IV-V, or I-vi-ii-V. I do, however, credit some of the simple progressions for being very emotional - I sometimes find that the simplest I-IV-I funk jams are incredibly expressive, and one of my favorite pieces of music ever is basically just VI-VII-i over and over again (Un Canto Per La Paz by Roger Kelloway). I also recognize that there have been some great rock tunes written, but I just don't identify with the kind of stuff going on now. In fact, I don't even identify with the current jazz stuff, I find all of current music's harmony sounding dated to me. I especially cringe when I hear a i 6/4 - V7 in a minor key techno piece. It just sounds old.



The solution I'm leaning towards now involves creating unique progressions by chaining together different chord relationships that will hopefully lose their "weird" quality and instead become part of the texture. For instance, I love successive major chords that are thirds apart, both minor and major. But they have a characteristic sound to that movement which is kind of uneasy. I want to be able to make a progression that conveys that momentary uneasiness without making the whole piece feel groundless. I also deal a lot in hexatonic and whole tone harmonies. While I used to consider these closed systems, I'm now looking for ways to integrate their sound into a progression, either by using a whole tone "chord" or by doing whole step root motions. Essentially, I'm looking for a way to integrate several extended harmonic techniques into a system that is not pompous but completely focussed on expression. Since I am a free improviser, that is by far my main goal. My secondary goal is to use complex harmonic progressions in creating dance music (once I get an Electribe sampler) to see if I can infuse that style with more harmonic ideas.


I'll tell you all if I'm successful...



P.s. Richt - I'm currently in an electro-acoustic music course. I find the stuff fascinating, and while a lot of the composers aren't great at designing good timbres (which often makes it sound boring overall), the people I'm around are making very interesting pieces. I often find it strange that the current users of music technology have no idea that the roots of this kind of music making was in 1950's and 60's serialist compositions in the so called "classical" studio. It also amazes me that there is so much "tape" music out there, but so little public awareness of its existence.

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