The layering of chords, with inner roots and strong voice leading are an important part of linear harmony; it’s a melodic way of writing with chords, and with apologies to Schoenberg and Debussy, a jazzy way of using “Klangfarbenmelodie”, or “timbre-structures”, or “sound-color-melody”.
I’ve used my tune “Take it Inside” in a previous post to show linear harmony composition techniques. I want to explore some more of the details of writing music that implies layers of chord structures. Remember that linear structures/chords/counterpoint may be harmonically non-functional–the normal rules may not apply.
Example 1 shows a distillation the tune’s main progression. This “white key” modal texture forms the background harmonic layer.
While the rhythm section repeats the above chord phrase, the horns have figures that move in and out of the hazy tonality–I wouldn’t say that you can hear these chords once it gets going, especially if the bass player improvises and doesn’t always play the bass notes indicated. Plus the piano player’s voicings will probably be much different from the simple version above, and this will add to the haze and fog. With the horns playing increasingly dissonant and non-conforming lines and phrases as the piece evolves, we might lose our ability to hear traditional chord progressions and even chords. This effect will be heightened if the rhythm section starts to play more “out”.
The real action starts to happen after the full melody goes around once (it’s close to an AABA form): the two-part counterpoint in the upper voices follow the chord loop, at least for a while (Ex. 2):
A few bars later at next repetition of the progression (Ex. 3), the melodic idea from M. 80 grows. This excerpt is overall more outside the “chord”, but still sounds relatively consonant. As long as the counterpoint works, and especially if the bass player is playing freer and not laying heavily on the roots, this dual layer harmonic approach works well.:
The audio clip:
I think of the lowest horn voice as a functional, if momentary bass note, or “root”, which establishes a middle chord which is layered over the background. Is it an illusion? I call this middle bass part (for now at least) an inside root. Check out Ex. 4, a reduction of M. 96-102, and see if you agree with this idea:
The strong inside line attracts your ear–t’s what might be called a power tone or guide tone line in traditional jazz harmony, or a suspension in classical-speak. In the examples below this inside line pulls focus, and you may start to hear it as the bottom of the chord; we naturally compare what’s above with what’s below, and the sound of what’s above can change in an instant depending on the line underneath. Strong voice leading holds it together.
The layering of chords, with inner roots and strong voice leading are an important part of linear harmony; it’s a melodic way of writing with chords, and with apologies to Schoenberg and Debussy, a jazzy way to invoke what Schoenberg termed Klangfarbenmelodie, or “timbre-structures”, or “sound-color-melody”.
I think this is something I think we do naturally by ear when we start layering harmony by improvising with chords. Think of playing a low note on the piano, holding it in the pedal, or in your ear, then jumping up and play something in the midrange, then back to the bass for a new note. You can usually make anything work, including weird dissonances. as long as everything is melodic. Along the way, you may start to see some inner structures that resemble and sound like chords.
More about the particulars of strong voice leading in the next installment. Here’s the full score and a live performance of “Take it Inside” by my ensemble:
“Take it Inside” full score: