How to Spell Chords

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Having inveighed at length about people spelling notes wrong in my last post, it seemed helpful to say a few words to help people get it right. This post is particularly for Matthew, who stayed after class on Monday quizzing me about spelling, but I figured if he wanted to know about it, other people might too.

The basic decision as to whether you use a sharp or a flat is based on tonal function. This often, though not always, also relates to how an individual line behaves – but you’ll get it right more often thinking about it in terms of the chord than in terms of the line. Working out what the chord is will tell you whether the non-diatonic notes have been raised or lowered, and thus whether they need to be spelt as the lower possibility sharpened, or the higher possibility flattened.

So, to take this example from my arrangement of Passing Strangers:

The first, second and fourth chromatically altered notes are all the raised third of dominant-type seventh chords – D, E and A respectively, and so have all been spelt as sharps. Note that in the first two cases, the root is missing on the downbeat, which could confuse the matter, but in both cases the melody immediately resolves to give the complete chord in its pure state. But even if it didn’t, the progressions would give us a clue about tonal function. D7 is followed by G7, E7 moves (with an intervening step) to A7, which in turn moves to D minor. If you have root movement by 5th like this, all the raised 3rds are acting as momentary leading notes, and thus want to be spelt as sharp.

The third accidental is spelt as a flat because it is inflecting the diatonic version of the chord in the opposite direction. If you re-stack the notes in the chord on ‘you’ so that they’re all thirds, you find that the root is E, and the B flat is a lowered fifth making a half-diminished seventh chord. If you try to spell it as an A sharp, you can’t actually make it stack up so that it has an identifiable root. Go on, try it and see.

In this case, the spelling by chord also works well to articulate the shape of the line – B, B flat, A – but this is by no means always the case. If you tried to spell the baritone line by shape (i.e. with G, G flat, F), you’d end up with a minor triad plus diminished 7th on ‘stran’ and another completely un-nameable chord on ‘gers’. So, working from the chord is more reliable than working from the line.

There may be times in really chromatic music when this rule of thumb can’t answer all questions of spelling. At that point you probably need to wrap your brain around the behaviour of augmented 6th chords. You may find you are playing with the Pythagorean comma – that place where the apparent rationality of the tonal system displays itself to be an artificial construct for the convenience of its users rather than an inherent quality.

But most of the time, this guide will present a pretty reliable way to make decisions about spelling that will not only help your music to make sense to its readers, but will encourage them to tune it accurately too.

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