In April, we discussed the importance of sensing musical harmony as an atmospheric guide for the listener, something which we’d notice if missing (just imagine your favorite action film without the soundtrack!). This month, I’d like to share a "soundscape" by listing some examples to demonstrate the significance of harmony’s role within a given piece or song.
An initial way to hear this is to listen to the opening of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, from his legendary Time Out album. The song opens with the accompaniment/harmony first: drums and piano. While this continues to repeat, the saxophone enters with the main theme. While the theme sounds blues like, it is the harmony of the piano chords and rhythmic energy of the drums which propel the song forward, providing a low-key sense of “cool”.
It’s no secret the Beatles were also master song writers, often creating a unique sound for particular tracks. One which has always stood out to me is “And I Love Her”. The entire song uses only acoustic instruments, and the “cha-cha” rhythm is first introduced in the guitars and claves. Listen especially to the background guitar during the singing - it provides an extra layer of finesse. While the sung melody is straight forward, it is the rhythmic interest of the harmony which provides the immediately recognizable style.
A clear instance the importance of harmony within classical music is Frederic Chopin’s familiar piano Prelude No. 4 in E Minor. The melody consists of long, gradually descending notes in the right hand. All the while, the left hand pulses chords which slowly shift downward one note at a time. Without the pulse of the chords, the melody would feel directionless and without context. Paired together, there is a languishing feeling presented, encompassing a range of emotion all within a single page of music. While recorded by many artists, this rendition by the late Sviatoslav Richter holds notable poignancy.
Consider the opening of another classical work, this time featuring the full symphony orchestra: Claude Debussy’s Prelude on the Afternoon of a Faun. The piece opens with a solo flute melody before adding colors of the other instruments: woodwinds, strings, harp, and French horn. The flute portrays the character of Pan, but only once the orchestra enters do we sense the place Debussy is seeking to recreate: a lazy summer day in a forest. This piece was revolutionary for the start of the 20th Century, and ushered in the Expressionist/Impressionist movement.
For a final example, there is a masterful scene in the highly acclaimed film, Amadeus, where a bed-ridden Mozart dictates a portion of the “Confutatis” movement of his Requiem mass to fellow composer Salieri. He builds the segment in layers, and the beauty of the scene is that the soundtrack plays the individual layers first before combining everything together.
While is may not be possible to proactively listen to each part of a piece simultaneously, layers of nuance go far in distinguishing great works from decent ones. Music is essentially aur
al color, and the right combination of these create moods in which we find ourselves exploring again and again. We enjoy many different genres, and what is compelling is that there is no “one way” to compose a piece and find the right “blend” of sound. As list
eners, we take these soundscapes with us, bringing them and memories associated with them to mind - evidence of a beautiful, albeit unseen, world.