The mu­sic the­ory be­hind modal and tonal har­mony

In the first of a two-part in­stal­ment, Dave compares and con­trasts two dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to har­mony

Computer Music - - Video -

When dis­cussing tra­di­tional Western mu­sic the­ory, we use the term ‘har­mony’ to de­scribe how a melody works with the chords that ac­com­pany it. For the most part in this Easy Guide se­ries up to this point, we’ve been ex­plor­ing what’s known as ‘tonal’ har­mony – the kind of thing re­lied on heav­ily by com­posers from 1700-1900 or there­abouts, and from which the vast ma­jor­ity of mod­ern pop mu­sic is de­rived. We’ve been talk­ing about chord pro­gres­sions that move in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion, are based mainly on three-note chords or tri­ads, and have a gen­eral ten­dency to grav­i­tate to­wards the tonal cen­tre or ‘tonic’ chord. There’s an­other type of har­mony, how­ever, that can also be used to great ef­fect, and that’s ‘modal’ har­mony.

The type of modal har­mony I’m talk­ing about here is the kind that’s a favourite of mod­ern jazz com­posers, rather than the kind you’ll come across in the dis­cus­sion of me­dieval Gre­go­rian modes – fas­ci­nat­ing though it is, this kind of thing is of lim­ited ap­peal to com­puter mu­si­cians!

So over the next cou­ple of is­sues, I’ll turn the spot­light on each type of har­mony and high­light the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two, with some practical il­lus­tra­tions of how to make each idea work for you in your pro­duc­tions. We’ll start this month with a look at what makes tonal har­mony tick, fin­ish­ing up next month with an in-depth look at the ba­sics of modal har­mony.

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