Progression: Music Theory 104 – Voicings, Voice Leading, and Counterpoint

- Posted September 1st, 2017 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Tuberz here with another installment in the series of articles centered around the understanding and application of music theory. I took last month off to look over the brand new Fearofdark album (and *SPOILERS* it’s a banger */SPOILERS*) but it’s given me a fair amount of time to get together an idea of what I’m going to cover today. Last article I covered extended chords like sevenths and the multiple ways you can build these chords using intervals and simple counting schemes. It is highly recommended that you read through my previous articles before venturing into this one, as it’s gonna get heckers (Adjective: frantic af). This article is going to be all about taking our chords that we’ve set and making them flow smoothly, or not depending on circumstance, as well as notes in our melody and counter-melody flowing smoothly.

Let’s jam.

Ah yes. More of that prehistoric paper for me to write my hexadecimal microsoft excel tunes on

Preface

So essentially, I’m going to try and relate this all to the example I’ve been using for the majority of this series. Bit Shifter’s ‘Reformat the Planet’. This process can be done for any piece of music though, and I’ll explain a few different ways of going about it, and even how I might use it in my own composition process. Feel free to play around with it and get a feel for what you like and don’t like. Now… I feel that it would be a disservice to *not* bring up the rules of counterpoint, harmony, and cantus firmus here. Don’t feel concerned if this sounds like another language, I’m going to paraphrase it for you all later.

RULES AND STUFF

The Fundamental Rules of First Species Counterpoint
Never move to a perfect consonance by parallel motion.
Rules for First Species
1) Use only consonances
a. Imperfect consonances are preferable to Perfect Consonances
b. Avoid unisons except at the beginning and end
2) Begin and end with a Perfect Consonance
a. If your Cantus Firmus is above your counterpoint you must begin with
a unison or octave.
3) In the penultimate bar use a 6th if the Cantus Firmus is on the bottom; or a 3rd if the Cantus Firmus is
on the top.
4) Never use more than three of the same intervals in parallel motion
5) Avoid melodic tritones (e.g. B-F or F-B)

NOW IN ENGLISH

The fundamental rule of not moving to a perfect consonance by parallel motion means that you shouldn’t have two lines (one a perfect fifth above) moving the same distance in the same direction. The first point says to use only consonances, with are our Firsts, Thirds, Fifths, Sixths, and Octaves. These are divided up on perfect and imperfect consonances. The First, Fifth, and Octave are perfect consonances, and the Third and Sixth are imperfect consonances. To help you out with this you might want to backpedal to my last theory article and brush up on your intervals. It also says to avoid unisons except for the beginning and end, which essentially means to avoid using a Perfect First (Unison) in the middle of your counter-melody line. The second points instructs us to start and end with a Perfect consonance, though if your counter-melody is below the melody you mustn’t start with a Perfect Fifth. In the second last bar use either a Sixth if your melody is below your countermelody, and a Third if the melody is above your countermelody. Don’t use three Thirds in parallel motion in succession, or Sixths… or any interval. The final point is to try and keep any movement of a Diminished Fifth out of your counterpoint.

So if I were to follow these rules, applying them to ‘Reformat the Planet’ I would end up with this (I have taken some liberties, as the original melody doesn’t really follow rules of Cantus Firmus):

Yeah, Bach is cool and all… but does he write bangerz™???

So what’s going on here? I’ve highlighted all of the intervals between the bottom and top line above, and I’ve even written in RED FONT where I did a nasty Perfect Fifth (it sounded alright and allowed for some cool voice leading up to the G or down from the E). Now… this is totally a way to write harmony lines and I would never discourage people from doing this. It should be noted however that rules are for nerds™ and everyone (including Bach who sort of made the rules) broke them after a while. I think it’s fair to say that if you know the rules, you can break them. Harmony and counterpoint lines are cool and easily approached with this mentality. Now, to move onto something dear to my heart.

Chord Voicings are totally rad and cool and have functions aaaaaaaah

So last blog post I went over voicings for seventh chords… and to be honest, I sort of lied. You see, the word voicing is actually used to explain the order of notes in the chord. For example:
C major = C, E, G. This is what we call root position, and is called this because ‘C’ is at the root of the chord (the bottom). We also have what is called First Inversion, and Second Inversion.

First inversion is E, G, C. We still have the three notes in C Major, but they are in a new order with a new note on the bottom. Second inversion is G, C, E for the same reason. Why is the bottom note really important? It plays a large part in determining how smooth a transition is. Let’s look at how we can make the chords in ‘Reformat the Planet’ smoother and discuss the voice leading associated.

Major Chords: Root: 0 4 7,  1st Inv: 0 3 8,  2nd Inv: 0 5 9,  Minor Chords: Root: 0 3 7,  1st Inv: 0 4 9,  2nd Inv: 0 5 8

I’ve included all of the necessary annotations to assist in reading this easily. My main focus when worrying about voicings, is to try and determine what the lowest note of the chord is going to be. In the first three bars we have a pedal G (pedal just means that it’s sustained) which lets us know that we’re in the key of G Major before we ever have an F# show up. The bassline only ever moves by a second or a third up or down, and finishes on an F# to give a strong pull back up to G as the figure repeats. You can actually reverse engineer this too, and write your bassline first, and then base your chords on this. I’ll show you an example.

So here I’ve outlined the melody and bassline. I can write in my own chords informed by the notes within the melody, as well as the bassline that is written. This offers a new approach to writing chords, where the melody actually comes first. Most people don’t write like this, but it can be a very effective way to reharmonise existing material. How would I harmonise this?

Wow. That’s way different. I mean, I’m still staying within the relevant key area but there are some really interesting artifacts here to talk about. The first three bars are all on the G pedal, but the D at the top of the root position G chord expands outwards to become C, and E. This gives us a C Major 7 chord spread over two bars. The fourth bar carries a change in harmonic rhythm (how quickly the chords change) though it’s almost functioning as a suspension. I would say the overall chord of this bar is the G9 with the 7 (F natural) omitted. The G at the top of the A Minor 7 stays where it is for a long string of chords. The fifth bar reintroduces the C Major in root position, walking down to a C Major 7 in 3rd Inversion before drastically changing to the E Minor, followed by the F# Half Diminished with the E at the top resolving down to a D to voice a D7 chord. That’s a lot of info for a short phrase. It just goes to show that the most important parts of your chords are not what’s on the inside, but what’s directly on the outside. What’s the bass note, and what’s the top note. The rest can be filled in relatively easily.

Thanks for tuning into another set of nerdy music theory lessons. Next time, we’ll be going over the art of modal mixture and borrowed chords adding spice and flair to your chord progressions. As always if you need to reach out for assistance, or even just want to share your own counterpoint example and get some feedback you can always email me at tuberzmcgee *at* gmail *dot* com. Go forth and write some cool tunes!

Tuberz
xoxo

 

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