Orchestral strata

We sometimes hear about orchestral, or harmonic, strata. As so often happens, in any field of endeavour, seemingly obscure and complex ideas actually exist all around us.

The idea is this: by treating large groups of sound as collections of smaller layers we not only achieve a more controllable method (especially of combining instrumental sections) but also introduce subtle changes in effect.

There’s nothing new in this. Take the simplest form of writing for an eight-piece brass section in the jazz orchestra or ‘big band’. It simply comprises one four piece ‘block’ harmony, trumpets, above another, an octave lower, from the trombones. This simple scheme, along with a few less obvious forms, was dealt with in more detail in a previous post:


Theoretically, it requires little further justification; it really works.

When, as frequently happens, we open up the trombone harmonies and/or use more active trumpet work above the more static trombones, we introduce refinements into the scheme.

The big band ensemble is another example. Typically (but not always) the brass will be in close position but the saxophones will be in open harmony, often carrying the bulk of the harmonic tension. Their richer sound enhances the effect which is to form an acoustic cradle for the brass to ‘sit’ in. Early arrangers arrived at these schemes without ‘schools’ to guide them, which makes their novelty all the more remarkable.

Occasionally, trumpets will ‘fan out’ into simpler chords in the high register, accentuating the feeling of ‘altitude’. For example, they might play a simpler form, which might be, say, a chord with added sixth – or even a simple triad with octave doubling of the melody. The harmonic fullness is carried down below in the trombones, or saxes and trombones. Exact doubling will be required down here to avoid stragglers in the blend, which will stick out at the expense of the surrounding parts (to cut a long story short). The compound effect will be that of the full chord, say, 13th, but the orchestral treatment introduces a different effect altogether than one that simply piles the chord upwards from the root. With smaller ensembles the latter method has to be used of course.

In the full orchestra, the present technique really comes into its own, with sections of homogenous instruments cohering together but, at the same time, combining to produce the ‘master’ harmonies.

A further and, I would say inevitable, development lies in the field of polytonality. Although the limit of this idea will be reached (in equal temperament) with a staggering twelve instrumental layers, with up to four parts in each, it’s more usual (because the listener’s auditory response has to be born in mind!) to show more restraint and limit the number of vertical strata.

It’s essential (I would say) to select equal intervals between each stratum in the compound group. Minor or major thirds (or their inverted forms) and fourths (or fifths) are easiest to manage. Chord transformations will generally be required to differ (i.e. we can’t just transpose groups from one stratum to another) because of the need to avoid overlapping but different activity between them, coupled with the effect of different tone colour, will alleviate this problem to an extent plus, as always, ‘logical’ tendencies have to be carried through in the movement of parts.

There are, as everyone knows, four minor chords and three major within the span of an octave, which can also be divided into six whole tones. These subdivisions limit the number of strata but the roots of more ambitious groups can exceed the range of the octave. Everything can be generalized, too, with semitone = 1 and building out systematically from there. The augmented fourth divides the octave exactly in half and this form of bitonality was a favourite with English comedian Les Dawson when he played the piano badly on purpose. You have to choose just the correct wrong notes for success in this area, if anyone is interested. Les was no fool. Oh, and by the way, it was used by ‘modern’ composers, too.

Although all this might seem, at first glance, to be a mechanical process, the procedure is no different to the subdivisions we all happily live with every day such as, for example, the habit of writing in the major and minor scales and the various modes, which are themselves selected from the full range of audible frequencies. In other words, the FBI won’t come knocking on the door. Strata harmony isn’t a Federal offence.

This kind of treatment often favours an open key signature and it might also be an idea to write the score in ‘concert’ rather than transposed, especially since each stratum might be in a different key (multiple strata can be diatonic, too). Have some pity for the conductor.

The result does not need to be a succession of sustained chords. All instrumental effects ­– alberti bass, oompah figures etc. etc. – are fine.

A melody will ideally be developed from the tonality of one stratum, generally, but not always, the highest, and contrapuntal schemes can be developed. To avoid the end product being hopelessly confusing, unessential notes require to be closely systemized. Pre-set patterns may be derived and I find that graphic diagrams can help keep a ‘handle’ on things and keep them tidy.

People will think you’re really clever when you present your arrangement but, to be fair, this type of architecture can be brain-wrenchingly difficult to ‘construct’. The trick is to be methodical in our working methods and not try to make too many different decisions at the same time. I find that, as I work, artistic selective processes begin to dominate, breathing ‘life’ into the music, generally in ways that would not otherwise occur.

Music written in this way can be very dissonant. The environment will form an important factor. An audience sitting in a palm court environment during a lunchtime concert will not expect to be scared to death but writing the background music for a film about a catastrophic volcanic eruption will be a different ball game altogether plus, as always, listeners differ in their musical awareness and their ability to assimilate extreme forms.

It’s a lonely business, being a composer.


Rhythm is my business

A while ago I was standing in a bar with my son and a group of his friends. The juke box was pulsing out its message at very high volume. Now, I have very wide musical tastes and sitting in a trombone section right in front of five trumpets for much of my musical life means I’m no stranger to volume, either but my younger comrades perceptively picked up on the fact that I was approaching the boundary of my comfort zone. ‘Oh well, at least it’s got rhythm’ one of them reminded me, beating his fist on the bar top in time with the music to emphasise the point.

I didn’t want to wreck the atmosphere by pointing out that the thud, thud, thud of the music, which sounded like someone building a chicken pen, was merely the continuum, or scheme of reference, which gave meaning to the rhythms, so I simply said ‘That’s just the beat, not the rhythm’ and left it at that.

The most comprehensive treatise on this subject was surely the one written by Russian-born Joseph Schillinger who eventually landed in the USA and rose to the position of teaching some of the most respected musicians and composers around at that time, including George Gershwin.

Joseph has tended to be on the fringe of music education because, amongst other things, he attempted to create mathematical systems controlling ‘art production’ (to cut a long story short). For example, he claims that, had J.S. Bach been aware of his system, he would have achieved more consistent results! Such statements alienated many with the result that relatively few musicians, to this day, have availed themselves of the wealth of information and advice that is actually to be found in the two volumes that, together, comprise the ‘Schillinger System of Musical Composition’. I’m not sure if these books are still in print but I understand that Schillinger courses still exist.

If readers can ignore the naïve positivism that, to be fair, was typical of the era between the two great wars, there’s a wealth of important ideas and information in this publication. There are, understandably, in a monumental work of this kind (that had to be collated by editors after his early death), a number of errors in the text, including a couple of entire sections that are out of order. I shall be pleased to convey those I found to interested parties. It will save them a lot of time.

Joseph discovered that what we call ‘rhythm’ is the result of interference patterns between different periodicities. I still read statements that ‘we don’t understand rhythm’ (or words to that effect) but I’m convinced that he was right about this.

He goes on to show that rhythm not only governs individual phrases but it also gives shape to the order of formal sections, movements etc. Rhythm can also be serialized by means of permutations and patterns that give meaning to a subject that can become hopelessly subjective in the wrong hands. Do we go ‘doo-wap-be-doo-wap’ or should it be ‘der-doo-wap-be-doo-wap’? The point is that, relying purely on intuition, we might do it one way and then, later, do it another. Was there a reason for this or did we just not notice? The ‘choice’ might be governed by all kinds of circumstantial factors and this, to my tidy mind, just aint good enough.

My earlier blog on WordPress might be worth reading at this point: https://composerarranger.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/musical-form-why-do-we-need-it-and-where-does-it-come-from/

Google comes up with a wealth of information about Joseph Schillinger which will serve the reader better than this ‘introductory’ post, in fact there’s a very fair and, in my opinion, accurate assessment on Wikipedia.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons with architecture when discussing musical form. Of course, music is a temporal medium, which raises important differences right away but the superstitious tendency to believe that music (because it is so abstract in nature) belongs in the realms of the inexplicable has done much to damage our efforts.

My own book is a hands-on, musician-to-musician journal that expects readers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty but those who choose to approach the Schillinger System should realize that it is a scientific work and, as such, every statement has to be rigorously justified, sometimes with pages of lengthy examples. My only warning would be to avoid the belief that using the system is a short-cut to success (which Joseph never claimed!); a composer’s work still requires content, a word that I hope will suffice in the present context.

More than anything else, the system streamlines many down-to-Earth problems. For example, it becomes easy to predict when two or more schemes in composition will ‘come out even’. In fact, temporal planning becomes so manageable that it’s easy to understand why the system was so popular in Hollywood.

At the end of the day we shouldn’t think of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ because Shillinger’s work represents a theory and theories, as we all know, remain in force until they are superseded. The most quoted example is Newton’s inverse square law of gravity. This theory evolved in the 17th century and is still used today every time we launch a spacecraft or put a satellite into orbit. We had to wait around 300 years for a man of equal stature to point out that the theory is required to be relativistic.


Passing chords and all that jazz…

[Passing chords and the related subject of unessential notes in general are treated in detail in the book. The purpose of these blogs is to try and achieve a deeper insight into problems that usually appear in the A – Z of music-writing.]

Jazz and ‘dance band’ arrangers of old were obsessed with voicing styles and substitute chords. Many writers of the time felt that success lay in the skilful use of such features as, sometimes, it did. In fact, effective arrangements often use fairly orthodox treatments. It’s just the happy coincidence of all elements that ‘clicks’ with the listener. It’s also possible to write effective arrangements in which the rhythm or percussion instruments steal the limelight.

Nevertheless, the concept of ‘passing chords’ became an important feature of voicing styles for instrumental sections and ensembles. And it is important; I’m not saying otherwise. But there’s no simple formula for success. From the simple harmony exercises we all learn about early in our studies to the rapid flurries of strings and woodwinds used in more ‘advanced’ arranging different criteria have to be met.

Very slow ballades in the jazz environment will frequently feature a chord change on every beat or even under each note of melody, in which case there won’t be any ‘passing chords’ as such, whereas up-tempo music is characterized by simpler, more streamlined harmonies. Rapid chord changes have the effect of slowing the music down. (The basic chord sequence of the old standard ‘Limehouse Blues’ has a chord change every four bars for most of its duration.)

Inexperienced arrangers first encounter difficulties where there are two or more notes of melody to each chord. Decisions then have to be made regarding whether to designate a note to be either chordal or non-chordal and, to add to the problem, smoother voice leading can sometimes be achieved by treating a chordal note as being non-chordal.

Part of this process involves identifying the nature of ‘unessential notes’ – a useful term from ‘straight’ harmony I still use a lot. Jazz musicians tend to call all unessential notes ‘passing’ notes, regardless of their function but there are many types.

Another decision that has to be made is whether or not to allow reiterated notes in the voicing. This, again, is tempo-related. The more rapid the music becomes, the more important it is to write in a way that allows all voices to (approximately) follow the contours of the lead voice or melody. Slow the music down and the requirement for harmonic fullness takes priority.

Most of the time passing chords function as ‘chord changes within chord changes’ where harmonies used to voice passing chords will retain their conventional interrelationships. Whereas the chord sequence of a composition will have a rudimentary rhythm of its own, chords tending to change, say, on the bar or half-bar, the voicing of a melodic line will involve chords of shorter duration which are designed in such a way that the result doesn’t undermine the underlying harmonic sequence of the piece. So, basically, it’s the same thing over a shorter time-span. I’m tempted to say ‘only the time element has changed’ but that isn’t strictly true; as mobility increases, the need for smoothness in the parts increases, too. It’s all basic physics, really. Bodies moving at great speed can’t accommodate all the nooks and crannies they encounter.

Usually, passing chords will be chosen that use a minimum of notes that are foreign to the key. Where this can’t be done the diminished chord will always save us (this is because any diminished chord can be used as the starting point to modulate into any other key, both major and minor). In the context of good old four part ‘block’ harmony, we’ll use the diminished seventh chord in which, as everyone knows, the seventh appears in the guise of the sixth of the chord. (It’s already minor so if we flatten it again it becomes diminished.) The use of diminished chords in this way is especially successful in minor keys.

Where the lead voice or melody moves semitonally, all voices may move in exact parallel, particularly at fast speeds. This doesn’t prevent us from using a more conventional passing chord that permits the same semitone movement in the melody. The result may be stronger.

An interesting situation involves voicing a lead-in or ‘run-up’. These phrases are often harmonically un-motivated. The method is to write the last chord in such a way that it moves smoothly into the first bar of the following section of the piece, using an appropriate chord ‘shape’ (open or close harmony) and then to work backwards in each voice, following the contour of the lead voice but using only notes of the prevailing tonality, without considering the type of chord that results in each vertical ‘cross-section’ of the music. Other methods will seem clumsy, especially as the tempo goes up. Sometimes, a lead-in will anticipate the tonality of the approaching bar, especially in an ‘abrupt’ modulation. More adventurous arrangers can use such a voiced run-up over the top of sustained chords that are bringing the existing passage to a close. The clash will be tolerated by musically aware listeners and the ‘coming together’ at the end of it all creates a powerful tension and release effect. In music, we’re only concerned with where we’re going, which is the source of the surprise element.

As stated above, effective arrangements can be written using very simple effects. We don’t have to use every trick in the book. Nevertheless, in heavily-scored ensembles, the ability to combine sections skilfully is very important. Having said that, a powerfully written ‘bottom end’ involving middle and low pitched instruments will tolerate many apparent ‘transgressions’ aided by the difference in tone colour of the various instrumental parts. Passing chords in the upper parts are accommodated fairly easily by the simpler forms lower down. There is always a physical correspondence in nature and, in this context, it feels right for the lighter, upper parts to enjoy more freedom.