MCTC #5: Chord Circuit
Johnny Five is Alive!!! This is technically the 5th installment of my theory corner, not counting the introduction, hence the Short Circuit reference! What’s goin’ on theory enthusiasts! I hope your respective seasons have treated you well (for all my Southern Hemisphere readers). We are making quite a trail so far in this music theory forest, but there is much more to explore. So let’s punch some trees, make some paper, and get to some theory!
We talked about inversions last time, but if you didn’t join us, then hop in your TARDIS and correct that (or just read it, but if you know the Doctor, hit me up). So we can stack all these chords, we know how to invert them, and we even have a method for categorizing the chord qualities and what they are in the key, but these chords all play a role as well. A couple posts back I reference a song by Stewie from Family Guy, and talked about how he referenced a chord as being his home. We are going to start with a chord that is typically the first and last chord you hear in a piece of music, or song. This is the I (roman numeral) chord, or, a more forgiving name in the written medium, the tonic.
Yes, the tonic you don’t mix with your gin, if you’re of age. If you’re under 21, MCTC® does not condone the consumption of alcohol; go read a book about music theory.
Sorry. Ok, but the tonic is just a starting place. To preface, what I am about to present to you is merely the tendency of composers studied by theorists, and in no way is a strict set of rules for how to compose your music. This is for the composition of tonal music, but learning new things never hurt. So don’t fight it. Let’s go ahead and pick a key!
The dice roll video posted on Lindby’s instagram last week was to help us decide the key (wanna know how that works, hit me up), which it looks like we are going with the key of D-major. Two Sharps (pound sign/hashtag/tic-tac-toe board – ## <-those things) So the tonic chord is a D-major chord. Pretty straight forward like that. The beauty of the tonic chord is its’ ability to go to any chord without an unsettling amount of dissonance. A tonal partner to the tonic is the dominant chord, or the V chord. In the key of D-major, that would be an A-major chord. Before continuing further I have included the tonal chords in D-major to help with the discussion.
One aspect about the dominant (V) chord in a key is that you will typically see the seventh of the chord being used as well. This is important because adding the seventh will create a sound of tension between the 3rd and 7th of the chord (C#-G in an A7 chord). This is interval, as we know, is a diminished fifth, or tritone. The tension naturally wants to resolve itself inwards, with C# ascending to D, and G descending to F#. So the tritone in a dominant-seventh chord wants resolve to the root and third of the tonic. As far as the roll of the dominant within the key, it is the chord that is most likely to appear before the tonic, again because of the tritone resolution that happens. There are plenty of instances where the chord following a dominant chord is not the tonic, but we are just covering basic tendencies. Here is an example of a V65 – I progression so you can see the motion I mentioned.
The viio typically precedes the tonic chord, and that is because of the same tritone that you find in a V7 chord. The viio is also labeled as the leading tone, again because of its’ tendency to lead to the tonic. As you can see below, the viio chord is essentially a V7 chord, but the root of the V7 has been removed.
There is another pair of notes that act similarly to each other. Those are going to be the chords you should expect to precede the V or viio chord. On occasion, the V-chord will progress to a vi chord, but that is used to deceive the ear from the intended V-I sound the listener expects. We will discuss this further when we talk about cadences, but to be brief, cadences are basically the period/punctuation to a musical sentence.
The ii-chord (supertonic) and IV-chord (predominant) are going to be the chords that you will hear before a V (dominant) or viio (leading-tone). If you have played any level of jazz music, you should be familiar with a ii-V-I turn around. Sometimes I feel like jazz songs are parks where people just litter ii-V-I progressions with reckless abandon, but I digress. Anyway, you will typically encounter the ii-chord in first inversion, which you can see why in the example below. These two chords will sometimes precede one another, depending on your needs, but they are both chords that aurally set up the dominant chord well.
A ii6 chord is similar to a IV chord because of the shared notes between the two chords (similar to the V7 and viio relation). The IV-chord will also go to the I chord at cadential moments, mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, this is where those kind of relationships end. Granted, that does knock out 5 of the 7 chords we are going to talk about.
So the remaining chords are the vi-chord (submediant) and the iii-chord (mediant), which don’t get as much face-time as the rest, but still can offer great compositional possibilities! These chords also share notes, but they are not interchangeable in the sense of tonal music. The mediants (both chords) get some wicked use in 19th century composition when composers are writing more emotionally charge music, but we will talk about chromatic harmonies a little further down the road (or you can e-mail me). Here is a quick guide for harmonic progression in Major, and also in Minor.
I know I am not presenting a lot of things in minor keys, or discussing them a lot. I will be mixing things up in the future, but I want to make sure we have some solid ground before I start fracking around in minor. (frack fracking…) We have a lot of ground to cover still, and if there is anything specific you want me to focus on, I am more than happy to take some requests. Maybe you want me to talk about a specific song instead of just giving you this textbook style. By all means! Feel free to give me something to discuss. If it isn’t on a level that is ascertainable by all the readers, than maybe I can do a separate post about it. But yeah, let me know.
This post was brought to you by the sounds of The Butthole Surfers albums “Independent Worm Saloon”, and “Locust Abortion Technician”. Got an album I should listen to? Buy it for me and I might listen to it while making the next post and give a shout out about how you either changed my life, or shoved garbage in my ears! Thanks for turning on my corner.