Linear Harmony #1: Almost Chords but Not Quite

I started talking about linear harmony a while ago in “Lines Intertwining” (with apologies to Spinal Tap), and a few other Top-Down posts, like Melodic Pedal Points; in other posts I’ve discussed freeing up lines and counterpoint and not worrying so much about chords and progressions.

So now it’s time for back to basics–this post is the first installment of a series specifically about linear and non-functional harmony.

So, for the moment, forget what you know about chord “progression” and instead thinking about broader and less defined tonal movement. Tension and resolution happen (though not necessarily where you expect it)…and perhaps there is never a cadence, a ii-V, or even a tonic key center.

Linear motion can imply sharp harmonic movement, or more subtle sound/color movement, with or without a predefined chord progression. Chords can happen though, and if you look up and down you might see some recognizable harmonies. You’ll definitely hear them. So let your ear be your guide as you write, stop playing roots and start writing lines.

The coda of my piece “Princess Tongora” from Hudson City Suite uses one key center: G major. I have a few lines noodling around that spread and amplify G, and for our purposes this few bars is simple and direct example of the power of linear movement. The section repeats three times, each time the band gets a looser and more free, so you get a swirling cacophony of organized but moving sounds and colors. Chords? You be the judge.

In the reduction below (Ex.1) you can see the lower voice moving down chromatically G-F#-F, then to D, while the upper voice moves up, down, then up higher and down, then up to Eb-E-F-E before moving back down to the chord tone B. There’s a lot of motion and melody in this phrase, and a lot of dissonance. Using the power of linear motion I create pressure, then let the air out at the end. When you look at the vertical structures, in this case the green whole notes, you can see the tonal areas that our ears momentarily settle into before moving on–we hear these momentary tonalities. The phrase starts with a solid Gmajor chord,  but the second “chord” in this example can be heard in (at least) two ways: Gmaj7 with an 11th, or D7 with an 11th. The third stop along the way is a G7–or is it?–there’s an Eb, E and F above, and it doesn’t really sound like G7. Then, at the end we’re back at Gmajor.

Check it out–here’s the audio clip:

Linear 3

Ex. 1) Each stop along the way is a tonal area. There is a melody, and there are “chords”, born from the liner movement of the inner parts. Notice how the contour, the spread of the voices change over time: widening then moving in. What are the chord changes?

Now look at Ex. 2 a more fleshed-out reduction showing the full orchestration, numbers 1-4 refer to the implied chords:

Ex. 2) The upper melody moves away from the first and last B, and the Eb after #3 is quite dissonant. The lowest voice on the top staff moves down G-F#-F-D, while the lower voices mix it up a bit, but still move down, like right after #1: F#-D, and right before #3: G-F-D. I’m getting a lot of mileage out of just a few notes.

The full score excerpt:

And here’s a full score of the entire piece with the audio. Hudson City Suite by the Scott Healy Ensemble is available here, at, and on iTunes.

Click here for the score.

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Arranging/Orchestration, Harmony, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Jazz Theory, Linear Harmony, Theory and Harmony and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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