By Robert Walton
When it became the norm to add conjoining chords (especially minor ones) to the notation of a song, which contained the very basic tune, quality popular music had really arrived. These jazz influenced harmonies (often a minor 7) enormously helped to make the melody flow so much better. Before that it was a stark, stiff and primitive state of pure ugliness. Just a little imagination was needed to produce beautiful standards with clever lyrics. It also helped top vocalists like Crosby and Sinatra interpret them even though they didn’t read music. And these chords must have also influenced the improvement in sheet music and thousand-tune books for pianists.
Another aspect that occurs with such a big change, is the penultimate note to the final one can be absolutely gorgeous given the right arrangement. In a current Republic of Ireland TV bank commercial, two vocalists singing the words (“It took a long time to come”) give a completely new meaning to just the simple process of arriving at the end of a phrase. In fact I must admit it makes me cry every time I hear it. We sometimes take these ordinary chords for granted but occasionally we have to be reminded how really powerful they are. So in many ways the sound of unknown artists (even if they’re not Singers Unlimited) can give a new meaning to a very basic melodic journey. Absolutely no need for huge resources to impress - just the voices.
The great J S Bach contributed to the groundswell of smoothing and amalgamating the music. Hard to keep him out of anything musical. In fact it could be said Bach practically invented music! It’s this simple process that has helped produce some wonderful standards - the pinnacle of popular music. Just like the classics belong to a definite period, so the music of the Great American Songbook between 1920 and 1960 is now a permanent part of that era and will remain “set in stone” forever. You Can’t Take That Away From Me!
One factor which is very strong in all well written music, whether serious classical or light, is that of tonal movement and tonal relations. It is a powerful factor in structuring a work of music, and whether we are aware of it or not, or understand the details of it, we still somehow respond to it. Its importance is due to the fact that by its influence on the structural element, it enables us to keep.our bearings when listening - they are our compass points, so to speak. And the manner in which this factor is handled and manipulated can often mean the difference between a well endowed composer or arranger and a mediocre one.
Tonal relations and tonal movement is a factor we have taken for granted in virtually all genres of music we listen to whether serious classical, light or popular; instrumental or vocal. Exactly as with grammatical syntaxes in spoken or written language, there is a musical syntax that has been understood without any further thought, originating in the overtone series which is immutable and a basis for what has been understood for generations, namely the interaction between a given note and its first partial a perfect fifth higher, boiled down to the barest essentials. Anything beyond is a further development of that basic factor.
We have seen experiments beginning with Arnold Schoenberg who attempted to develop a system wherein all twelve notes of the scale are of equal importance, whether presented in a fixed succession such as a tone row, or overall a suppression of any sort of innate relationship between any two tones or harmonic roots. This has proven to be a cul de sac as far as further development is concerned, along with a limited capability of expression - perhaps expression is not even the main goal. Unfortunately, it has been a boon to those wishing to be professional composers but in the process having nothing of significance to say. A listener attempting to absorb such music would have no way of discerning whether there is any substance behind it, or to put it more crudely, whether the "composer" is in fact wearing any clothes.
I needn't go further into it except to say that Bob's article very strongly states that we do respond to these tonal relations and relations without necessarily understanding them - they are subconsciously felt even by the musically less endowed who are not able to read music.
I agree wholeheartedly with what Bob is stating, if I understand him correctly.
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