Quartal harmony… or the search for the grail

Debussy's opening to 'The Sunken Cathedral' (La Cathedral Engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, also known as 'planing'.

Debussy’s opening to ‘The Sunken Cathedral’ (La cathédrale engloutie) employing the use of parallel fourths, a technique also known as ‘planing’.

I’m following on from a previous post, Harmonics, Fourths and Fifths, where I had discovered that I was inadvertently drawn to a particular type of harmony based on intervals of perfect fourths and fifths, especially when these intervals are ‘stacked’ and become the basic unit for constructing harmony. In the Western tradition, our sense of harmony is usually based upon stacked intervals of a third, which gives western music its particular ‘colour’ or sound characteristic, and leads us to label chords as having either a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ tonality. Over many years of playing and listening to music, I’ve found that as well as the Western harmony that I’d grown up with, I was also often drawn to what I perceived as a more intriguing and interesting sound, that of the open and more ambiguous harmony of fourths and fifths. I found this in the most diverse of places – in medieval music, sometimes in British pop music from the 1960s, sometimes in Scottish bagpipe music and Irish traditional music, in Georgian and Bulgarian vocal music, and more recently in some of the music of Debussy, Bartok and Copland. Quite often this music would be underpinned by a drone or continuous tone, against which these intervals would be stacked to form odd sounding but rather compelling harmony. I enjoyed the sound of these chords, which in conventional western harmony usually had exotic names like C7sus4 or Gadd69. But of course, these are seen as aberrations in harmony based on the principle of thirds, and it’s been only recently that I’ve discovered that this type of harmony indeed has a name, and is a perfectly legitimate (and alternate) method of writing music.

Known as quartal or quintal harmony (as opposed to the Western tertian harmony approach), as a writing system, quartal harmony has been around in various forms since the Middle Ages (though in traditional musics throughout the world it appears much longer) and interestingly, a fourth was considered a consonant interval up until the common practice period (from Baroque through until late romanticism in western European music) when it became to be considered as dissonant, as a suspension that necessarily need to resolve to the third degree of a scale, unless it was the interval between the fifth degree and the octave. I’d actually like to believe that the fourth can be recognised as an interval worthy of constructing a system of harmony upon (and the fifth, being inverse intervals of each other) in it’s own right – it has a purer tonal characteristic and of course is more naturally related to the natural harmonic series and just intonation, as opposed to the thirds and sixths of 12 tone equal temperament which have had to be adjusted (albeit notionally) to accommodate changes in key. It also has an ambiguous quality that seems to hang indeterminably in air, like sunlight or activity, life itself – the opening to Stravinsky’s Petrushka is a good example of this, but other composers such as Bartok and Copland have also exploited this quality.

It was quite a revelation to discover all this only recently: after 30-plus years of playing and listening to music, it was almost a holy grail moment to discover what I thought I was imagining actually did exist, and indeed had a name. I’d been hearing snatches of quartal harmony for years, darting fleetingly in and out of the various musics I thought possessed  the quality I was looking for – I almost stumbled across it last year through my research into the harmonic approach of the Beatles (see my essay “The Harmonic Series in the Music of the Beatles“) where I thought this phenomena had to do with relating tones back to natural tones within the harmonic series – as it turned out, I wasn’t that far off the mark. But now I have a name for this, and it makes sense in so many ways in relation to what I’m investigating, the idea of composing a ‘vertical’ music that negates the sense of time passing

The sound of quartal harmony is very different to tertian, or thirds-based harmony – without the notion of a third, there is a very open quality, conveying almost a bell-like ‘ring’ to chords built upon this interval. It also makes for some interesting chords: dominant7 suspended4 chords are the most obvious example (for example, C, F, G, Bb, low to high) but by logical extension using fifths, you also get add 6/9 chords (C, G, D, A, low to high) and the various inversions of these. Of course, by using this kind of terminology (suspensions, ‘add’ chords), it implies that these are chords that would normally fall outside standard Western harmony standards, and herein lies a problem: what do we call these chords if we aren’t relating them back to a western system based upon thirds? Musicologist Phillip Tagg has very recently addressed this problematic in an entire chapter devoted to quartal harmony for an upcoming book, Everyday Tonality 2. He suggests that if we are to use quartal harmony as our approach, that we need to think of chord names in particular in quite a different way. As he puts it:

“if there’s nothing suspended, added or omitted about a chord, it’s perverse to designate it as if there were” (Tagg, 2014, p. 259).

He suggests ‘sus’ and ‘add’ are clumsy and should not even be used in a quartal harmony context, instead labelling chords simply ‘C4’, ‘C2’ and using up or down arrows to indicate the direction of stacked fourths, i.e. G4↑ would indicate G, C and F, with G the lowest note of the triad: F5↑ would indicate F, C and G, with F the lowest. (p. 260).

The most interesting aspect of quartal harmony from a compositional perspective for me however, is that modulating, or changing key, dictates a completely different, and quite subtle approach. Being based on fourths, it naturally relates closely to the circle of fourths or fifths, and allows for quite understated, sideways movement into a new ‘key’ (for want of a better word) by altering only one note. Moving this way in western harmony would dictate that two notes would need to change, and the shift is far more obvious. There’s nothing of course in standard harmony that would stop one from changing key by changing only one note of course (i.e. from C major to A minor, or perhaps C Major to C minor) but this is usually fairly obvious – there is a distinct mood change. In quartal harmony, this change is quite subtle, and given the ambiguous quality of this harmony, it becomes almost imperceptible – there is a sense that something has changed, but you’re not quite sure what it is.

Of course, if we include five notes of stacked fourths, we now have the notes of a pentatonic scale, and we can hear the relation back to many traditional folk musics throughout the world, which, given the harmonic materials we’re working with here, makes a lot of sense – this relates back to Pythagorean theory on the construction of early musical scales. But if we limit ourselves to only four notes in a chord, the sense of ambiguity and suspension is retained – and for a project that centres on a ‘timeless’ approach to composition, I believe I’ve stumbled upon a very useful and appealing system of harmony to use, at least to my ears. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, it’s been staring at me for many years, enticing me with an enigmatic quality that I never entirely recognised or understood, and now it’s been handed to me like a gift. A holy grail indeed…

More musical developments as they come to hand. Until next…

References

Tagg, Philip (2014). Everyday Tonality II; provisional text, 2014-05-07; http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/FFabBk08/FFabBk08.zip [accessed May 21, 2014]

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3 thoughts on “Quartal harmony… or the search for the grail

  1. Peter,

    Thank you for writing about your discovery of Quartal Harmony, I enjoyed reading it.

    Simply stated, the world of jazz after 1959 has had many quartal harmony proponents, such as: McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock. As you mentioned in your post, quartal harmony of this time was approached from a tertiary notational perspective, for example: D9sus or Am7/D. I believe this is because that’s what musicians of that time would understand. However, I think a pure quartal notation, as Tagg suggests: D4, would be understood and accepted by players today.

    I wish you all the best with your harmonic journey.

    Sincerely,
    Mike

  2. Pingback: Affect in music and imagery | Adventures In Sound & Vision

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