Harmonic Charge

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I've been thinking quite a lot recently about what music theorists call harmonic charge – that is, the amount of inherent oomph a chord has. Quite clearly some chords are more surprising, more jangly, have more of a frisson of energy than others. Having some way to diagnose the relative level of harmonic charge is useful for making both arrangement decisions and performance decisions.

My aim in working through this at a theoretical level is not to replace our intuitions. In fact, the primary way of testing the model is testing it against real music and seeing if it feels right. But sometimes (or maybe this only happens to me) we feel a bit lost or indecisive, and having a structure for making musical decisions can help us out of our dither.

So, I think there are three dimensions to harmonic charge. The y axis is the root of the chord’s position relative to the tonic, and is organised around the circle of fifths. The higher up the y axis we go, the more active the chord is. This is like potential energy: the gravitational pull of the tonal system will inherently pull progressions back home, so the further away from the tonic we go, the stronger the internal pull.

harmonic charge

The other two axes are binary rather than scalable. The x axis is about the presence of a major or a minor third - the former being brighter, the latter softer. The z axis is about the presence or absence of a tritone in the chord – making the distinction tense/relaxed.

(By the way, I’m aware that my x and z axes may be better articulated at a theoretical level by some kind of formulation about degree of dissonance using set theory. However, I suspect I am not the only musician working primarily in tonal idioms who find a theory developed for the post-tonal avant-garde a bit unwieldy for practical musical decisions.)

I find this model helps in identifying expressive qualities for performance – what the harmony is asking us to feel about a particular moment in the musical narrative. It also helps for making arrangement choices – matching the charge of the chord choices to the emotional climax of the lyrics and/or the focal points of the melody.

This is all about the chords in the abstract, though – the basic sonorities. There are a whole set of arrangement questions about how this relates to voicing and tessitura, but I’ll save them for another post.

consider the cording possibilities of this keying arrangement and how it visualizes "harmonic charge", this theory of harmonic charge proves this arrangement the best arrangement possible for understanding music



I'm afraid I find your comment somewhat incomprehensible, but I'm publishing it as you clearly find some relevant link with your work and other readers may make more sense of it!

the comment itself says nothing , its the geometry of the note arrangement in the figures that says it all if one contemplates the diagrams. the keyboard guitar harp and bowed strings are only some of the ways the notes of a polyphonic instrument might be arranged into a system, music notation and music theory resort to the keyboard arrangement which is simply the result of historic accident, originally it was the same arrangement as a harp, just the white notes with a fixed diatonic scale, the black notes were added in later, how we "visualize" music has everything to do with the pattern in which we arrange the notes, some patterns are more helpful than others, the very worst is the keyboard where every key signature is played with a different fingering pattern so each song must be relearned to change key and where a key signatures notes are interspersed with notes not in the key signature so mistakes are very likely, the array arrangement is played with the same fingering pattern for every key signature so a song is played the same way in all key signatures and the notes of the diatonic scale are united into an area without notes outside the key signature making mistakes unlikely. Trying to understand harmony using the keyboard geometry is a real accomplishment, but the arrays geometry, based on octave rows and the circle of fifths makes it remarkably easy but one must look at the diagrams with note names and think about how harmony maps out in this geometry. You can see all the notes of any given key signature united together and you can see the circle of fifths ordering of octave rows, the investment of time is worth the understanding gained. The periodic table used to be a strait line of elements but modern chemistry only began when the modern 2 dimensional periodic table was adopted, geometry MATTERS, its not of secondary importance its of primary importance. If you move a chord to the right on the array system diagram tension ascends, if you move it to the left it tension decreases, if the chord is WIDE in width on the array system it sounds dissonant and dramatic, if its narrow in width it sounds consonant and dreamy, these geometric correlates do not exist on other arrangements, moving a chord right or left on a keyboard is just higher or lower in pitch not more or less tension, a chord with wider or narrower width tells you nothing about its dissonance or consonance on a keyboard. narrow chords fit into the diatonic area on the array system where as wide chords do not so we can instantly see how many positions there are in the diatonic scale for a given chord, for example on the harmony array a major or minor chord can be seen to have just 3 positions within the diatonic scale, you can't see that on a keyboard in this way, it takes inference.

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