How (and Why) to Identify Melodic Dissonances

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I wrote in general terms last year about melodic dissonances in barbershop arranging as part of a wider discussion about the relationship between structure and ornament. I’m coming back to a specific, practical aspect of this today to try and help out with a something I see people struggling with in the arrangements they send to me for advice.

It is a reasonably common error to make an inappropriate choice of primary harmony for a whole bar through mistaking a non-harmony note in the melody for a note belonging to the main chord. And it matters because, while a very easy mistake to make, it throws the whole musical narrative off kilter. However well-controlled your use of voicing, tessitura and voice-leading is, life is more confusing for both singers and listeners when you get this wrong.

There are two conditions that commonly inveigle people into this mistake; when the non-harmony note is:

  • on the first beat of the bar (and thus metrically strong)
  • longer than the subsequent harmony note (and thus durationally strong)

The note is thus strongly accented - in Cooper & Meyer’s terms of accent resulting from ‘a stimulus marked for consciousness’. The error is to read these signs of melodic attention-seeking as an assertion of structure, whereas in fact the dissonance is itself another means to create accent.

So, it is easy enough to describe the problem. But it is one thing for me to point out this error; it would be more helpful if I could tell people whose arrangements I am reviewing how they could have avoided making it in the first place. After all, a good many first notes in the bar do belong to the prevailing harmony. The knack is identifying which is which.

Trying to articulate a rule from first principles is the hard way to do this. Music theory does like to have pretensions of rationality, and there are aspects that do respond neatly to systematising. But a question like this is always working within concrete contexts - genre conventions for melodic shape, for harmonic language, for expressive gesture. So any rule you might invent would have to be hedged about with all kinds of caveats for this circumstance or that stylistic quirk.

The reason people need to be able to get this right is entirely pragmatic (it makes their arrangements sound better), so we need a pragmatic answer to this one. And, you know, it’s really quite straightforward. You need to ask:

What do other people do here?

Where ‘other people’ may be what’s on the sheet music, guitar tabs, or in recordings. Or any combination thereof. In real life, you see, you are very rarely arranging from a bare melody line with no performance history for reference. The only time you ever really do that is doing arrangement exercises where chord choice is part of the test. When you’re arranging for real people to sing, you are allowed to remain connected with the musical tradition you share with them.

But, I hear you cry, what about reharmonisation? I don’t always want to use the chords found on the sheet music or the original recording! And of course it is a well established part of a cappella traditions to re-work songs’ harmonic trajectories, whether for the technical needs of contest barbershop, or the sheer creative fun of it.

However, we still need to recognise the melodic structure of a song, even while we reimagine its harmony. A tune isn’t just a specified collection of notes, you see, it is a narrative with meanings. So if your reharmonisation turns dissonances into consonances and vice versa, you are messing with those meanings, making it hard to understand, sometimes to the point where it no longer makes complete sense.

By all means substitute chords in as you arrange. But let your choice be guided by the relationship between melody and harmony in the original. Where melody notes are treated as dissonances in your reference version(s), choose chords where they will continue to function as dissonances, and resolve in the right place. Don’t rewrite appoggiaturas as assertive, functional downbeats - leave them to lean.

Yes, this will narrow the range of alternative chords available. But it will - helpfully - restrict the choice to those that make sense of the melody.

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