When we last left off, we had just finished with interval terminology, how keys work, and major/minor chording.
Let's go back to our old friend, C Major. If you took all the notes in the key and built chords over them by adding two thirds above every note, this is what you'd have:
The large roman numerals denote a major chord, while the little ones denote a minor chord. But what about that funky one at the end built over B?
That is a diminished chord. A diminished chord occurs when you stack two minor thirds. Because the interval between the root and the top of the chord is not quite a perfect fifth (as with major and minor chords), the chord is not stable. For this reason, it has a very high resolution tendency - if you tried to end a musical phrase on a diminished chord, it would drive some people mad. In major keys, the diminished chord that occurs naturally over the seventh note in the scale points very strongly to the tonic note (in our case, C), and makes that note feel like home base when we resolve that tension.
1. What other notes would you need to build a diminished chord over F#? 2. What other notes would you need for a diminished chord if the third of the chord is E?
Now, seventh chords. If you take the naturally occurring chords in the key and add an additional third on top, you get four note chords that are called seventh chords (because the distance between the root and the top of the chord will always be a seventh).
Ignore the C6 and F6 chords for a moment. Theoretically speaking, you get a major 7 chord (M7) when you add a major third on top of a major chord. You get a minor 7 (m7) when you add a minor 7th on top of a minor chord. These two types of chords occur naturally in the major scale except for over the V chord (in C major, this would be the chord built over G) and on the vii, which is a diminished chord. Over the fifth note in a major scale, you have a major chord with a minor third on top. If you look at the top three notes of the chord (in this case, B, D, and F) you'll see that you now have a diminished chord inside your seventh chord.
What you get when you add a minor seventh on top of a major chord is called a dominant 7th chord, and it is the most powerful chord in all of music. You have the round, warm sound of a major chord combined with the dissonance (and therefore, resolution tendency) of the diminished chord. Dominant chords primarily want to resolve to chords with a root that is a perfect fourth above the dominant chord's root. So in C major, the naturally occurring dominant 7th wants to resolve to, surprise, a C major chord.
1. What notes would you need to build a major 7 chord over Bb? 2. What notes would you need to build a minor 7 chord over D#? 3. What notes would you need to build a dominant 7 chord over A?
Do you see a pattern here? The vii diminished chord points back to C, the V dominant 7 chord points back to C...this is why C feels like home base in a C major scale. This is the beginning of tonality, and it is the system that produces almost all the music you listen to. Without the creation of tension and its resolution, what motivation do our minds have to prefer one chord over another? How would we give our music the feeling of progress? It is tonality that gives our music a sense of overall purpose.
Want to hear what happens when you delight in the creation of diminished harmonies?
Just listen to the beginning. This is Richard Wagner's landmark piece Tristan und Isolde. Why is it a landmark? Because Wagner broke the rules. For centuries music was dominated by pure tonality - and Wagner annihilated it. One may think that breaking the rules wouldn't be so hard, and you'd be right. But you try breaking the rules and managing to make it sound like this: that difficulty is what made this piece so magnificent. Do you hear how he keeps you away from any sense of "home" for most of it?
Over two centuries later, an eccentric young man named Jim Steinman, who idoloized Wagner (in fact, Steinman regularly visits his grave) would seek to recreate Wagner's sound, creativity, and theatrical style (gesamtkunstwerk). He would seek to write mini-operas that dripped of Wagner's over-the-top emotional style and pushed the envelope of what was "normal." This would keep his record-breaking (for sales and longevity) album Bat Out of Hell, recorded by Meat Loaf, from being produced for four years.
Steinman would go on to write many songs you've all heard of. Like Wagner, Steinman is almost obsessively involved with his music at every step, and you can see his style in all these videos (if you haven't guessed, I idolize Steinman...he's the greatest composer I've ever heard). Wagner is notorious amongst singers for writing music that is neigh impossible to sing because of the combined range and power it demands...Steinman follows suit. This is why he spent many years writing for Meat Loaf and his natural heldon tenor voice, as well as Meat's theatrical pressence as a singer:
There are many others. It all comes down to tonality, which gives us the ability to create expectations in the ears of our listeners, from which we can either meet them, or take them down a completely alternative path (or dash those expectations upon the rocks, as Wagner did). Tonality is the very heart of thousands of years of the evolution of music. It's the essence of what music has become. It is what allows us to pull on the heart strings.
Very very cool! I learned stuff from this entry! :D And you're jealous of me because you wanted to be a science major. psha. (which you can still do btw.) But really, I can tell you really know what you're talking about and you LIKE this stuff. Which is AWESOME.
Btw. It's all coming back to me now, I think was ORIGINALLY Meatloaf's song, he gave it to Celine Dion because he wasn't ready to produce it or something....? I don't really remember the details.
Lol. I don't know that because I'm a huge fan of Meatloaf, actually know that because I'm a huge fan of Marion Raven, the girl he's dueting with in that song.
Which, as a musicy person, that probably totally hurts you. :P But really, I like her voice a LOT.
Good post! And today is Wagner's birthday! I know cause I went and looked him up... We played some of his stuff in band, "Ride of the Valykries". I always liked playing his music. I like a lot of the songs by Steinman, too!
"Tonality is the very heart of thousands of years of the evolution of music. It's the essence of what music has become. " This is Western-centric. In other parts of the world, tonal music is not the culmination of the evolution of music. And even here in the Western world, atonality pervades music more than perhaps anyone realizes. Tonal music certainly has powerful function (no pun intended!) in our musical world, but it is not the end-all of music. Tonality and atonality are most effective when they are mixed.