By César de la Cerda.
Taking advantage and enjoying harmonic resources of music depends on our auditive capacity. In other words, on our natural aptitude to perceive, integrate and evaluate simultaneous combinations of different sounds. Therefore, harmony may be defined as the human ear’s ability to synthesize simultaneous sounds. It is not about a mere sensory discrimination, but about brain processes that organize stimuli of auditive sensations making them comprehensible. The brain integrates musical stimuli in significant units which are subject in a way to cultural and educational factors conditioning, or to the assimilation degree that musical resources have reached in a specific culture throughout its historical evolution.
Consequently, the problem with harmony must be addressed from its cultural perspective history. A successive combination of sounds generates melodies; its simultaneous combination -the sound chords- is a fundamental element of harmony. When combining two different sounds simultaneously one obtains a musical “interval”.
The interval’s characteristic for audition is its fusion quality or discordance with which they are perceived, the degree of acceptance or tolerance which is commonly paired to an affective connotation that leads to qualify sound effect as “pleasant” (consonant) or “unpleasant” (dissonant). Objectively, we will say that a combination is perceived as having a greater or lesser degree of tension in comparison to others: understanding by this the easiness or difficulty with which audition integrates sounds to form with them homogeneous units. It is important to say that this integration process keeps the exact order set by natural harmonics sequence, which starting from unison and octave, progress orderly by decreasing intervals (octave, fifth, fourth, third, etc.) until it reaches very small interval measures. However, to generate a sound chord, the combination of at least three different sounds is needed. In its simpler expression, such combination is obtained from the superposition of thirds intervals (for example: do-mi- sol, re-fa- la, sol-si- re, etc.).
Formation, order and application of chords in our western music have been a result of a large evolution process from the music of ancient Greece up to our days. In Greek’s classic music, from which our musical system comes from, there was no simultaneous combination of different ounds. It was sung in unison and octave which were the only accepted combinations. The evident octave consonance must have been recognized almost immediately when masculine voices were confronted with feminine voices in choirs and with children’s more acute voices. For centuries, neither harmonization nor measured time was needed.
Gregorian chant was maybe the biggest contribution in the first centuries of our era. It was in the music style in which Greek scales were called “Gregorian modes” (or liturgical modes), successions of tones or half tones in conventional sequences, where it can be appreciated in our musical scale (do major scale, for example).
The first attempts to combine different simultaneous sounds are unknown. Birth of harmony, however, may be located in the 9 th Century. The earliest way to join different voices at the same time was called “organum”, a habit registered by writers of the 10 th and 11 th Century, that consisted in adding two or three voices to an original melody at a distance of one fifth and one fourth in between moving in parallel. On the 11 th and 12 th Century an attempt was made to overcome this style’s monotony granting more freedom to the combination of voices: the composer took the main melody (cantus firmus) and added a part that was sung freely, being able to differ in rhythm and imply other intervals besides the fourth, the fifth and octave. It was called “discant” (separate chant), a style that allowed the intervention of third and sixth intervals forbidden then for its apparent dissonance according to the level of auditive integration of the time. Assimilation of the third interval gave birth to the first chord that was able to combine a main sound simultaneously with its fifth and third. This step is attributed to the Englishmen of whom it was said that their popular chants were “harmonized with thirds”. The formation of the first harmonic triad was obtained advancing towards the fifth harmonic of the natural series (or third interval). It was called perfect major chord (do-mi- sol) and perfect minor chord (do-mi bemol-sol), formed by the alternate combination of two thirds, a major and another minor. These were the fundamental harmonic units of our western music until the 16 th Century. History of harmony development offers a progressive and continuous change perspective on the human ear’s aptitude to integrate in homogeneous units, sound produced simultaneously following the order signaled by nature’s harmonics. This way, more complex chords emerged that were considered auditively unacceptable in other times. In the 16 th Century, Claudio Monteverdi, an Italian composer scandalized his contemporaries introducing for the first time a four sounds chord known today as a dominant seventh chord (sol-si- re-fa), accessing the next natural harmonic. This sound chord implied a new interval incorporation in harmony, besides the seventh interval (sol-fa),–diminished fifth (si-fa) considered then as highly dissonant (the famous triton –three tone interval- named by some as “diabolus in musica” –the devil of music- for its association with the devil’s trident). In the romantic period and towards the end of the 19 th Century, the use evermore frequent and free of chromatism in chord sequences and in tone change -mainly in Wagner’s music- began the old harmonic language’s transformation (used extensibly in baroque and classical periods), being faithful to one main tone and its relatively limited chords. An extreme deviation of this tendency led to the emergence of atonal music in the 20 th Century. Atonalism, mainly represented by Arnold Schoenberg (dodecaphorism) drifted completely from tonal order ignoring its support base consisting of a framework perception that makes melody design comprehensible. As a language, musical expression requires these structures that are generally shared by members of a specific culture. The main principle on which sound organization rests in tonality is the constellation formed around a central note called “tonic” and being linked between them by two senses of attraction: a centripetal or of repose sense (over tonic) and another centrifugal or of movement (towards the dominant). This sense of attraction or fundamental olarity unites notes in organic groups giving melodies an intelligible meaning of coherence and continuity. Tonality is a dynamic scheme, a background of apprehended associations unconsciously or intuitively that makes melody understandable, turning it into a means of expression, in a language capable of transmitting ideas and feelings. Significantly, at the beginning of the 20 th Century, impressionist musicians (mainly Debussy and Ravel), introduced harmonic innovations in chords structure
that led to a broader acceptance of simultaneous sound combinations. This way, harmonic structures formed by five, six and seven simultaneous notes began to be used freely, keeping the third intervals superposition (9 th , 11 th , and 13 th chords respectively) and preserving the natural harmonic series order. Other important contributions included the use of fourth intervals combinations to form chords (innovation introduced by Scriabin). Jazz music took advantage of these innovations expanding vertiginously in North America halfway through the century and keeping its faithfulness to a tonal reference framework concept. Jazz took the use of harmonies considered before as “dissonant” to a broader level of acceptance, especially in its greater development period in New York City.
Arrangers and composers, linked directly or indirectly with European traditional music, enriched their musical language extending their resources until covering the limits reached by the human ear evolution in the simultaneous sound combination, without quitting the fundamental framework set by tonality. This is the base for what we understand as MODERN TONAL HARMONY, an extensive good use of innovations carried out by the tonal frame represented by the seven notes of the musical scale. In a broader sense and beyond its gestation and development in the bossom of jazz music, Modern Tonal Harmony integrates itself to all musical expressions of any gender that is faithful to the major-minor system (diatonic, in general) of traditional harmony that has prevailed in our western music throughout its millenary evolution.
By César de la Cerda.
There has been much discussion about the sounds that are perceived aurally and if they reach our consciousness in such a way that it allows us an exact knowledge of their objective nature.
In other words, if there is a continuity solution between our audible perceptions and the external stimuli which cause them. Generally, a valid correspondence has been established between the events from the outside world and the knowledge that we have of them through our senses.
This, of course, if we admit the possibility of certain limitations and mistakes which our sensory faculties are subject to as a result of external and own conditions. Regarding audition, the existence of a great variety of mistakes produced by anatomic and physiological limitations of the ear have been proven due to situations which favor an incorrect perception of sounds and because of certain economic principles of ordinary audition and artistic audition. These deviations from the direct correspondence between acoustic stimuli and its sensory equivalent are known as auditive illusions, or normal illusions, since under the same conditions every
listener perceive them. Normal illusions are not simply mistakes, but serve economy and efficiency purposes, and they make possible also a broad modality of musical effects- such as vibrato for example- with which they serve the aesthetic interests of mental life (Seashore, C.E., The Psychology of Music).
When talking about auditory illusions it is of special significance to enhance the organizational function with which perception configures the stimuli for its integration in the level of consciousness. The study of laws that govern this primitive organization has been a favorite theme of Gestalt Psychology (or the Psychology of Form) specially that which is related to visual perceptions (the so called “optical illusions”). An example of the action of these laws in audition is given by our rhythm perception, which, as has been noted by gestaltists, is also an organized perception. What is apparently arrhythmic frequently becomes rhythmic to an exercised perception. There is a natural tendency to perceive organized groups according to biological principles that determine the sensory action motor pattern. The mind, actually, shows a tendency towards that organization as is proven when hearing the periodic series of knocks in a metronome, or the “tic tac” in a clock, in which the accent falls invariably at regular intervals as a psychological necessity. In general, it can be said that the organizational principles of perception discovered by Gestalt Psychology in the field of visual perceptions has also a use in the domain of auditory perceptions of sound stimuli.
The action of configurational tendencies in the successive combination of sounds (melody), has important aesthetic implications, closely related to musical thought processes. It may be illustrated by elements which conform melody (motives, phrases, periods), which are expressive units in which it is highlighted, in the successive order, the organization of the sound structure through different grades of configuration. The adequate perception of these entities depends vastly on the listener ?s education, training and level of appreciation.
The organization of sounds in its simultaneous combination (harmony) has also very significant consequences. Aurally, the superposition of two or more sounds does not imply a fusion between them, as happens with colors, for example, which merge in a third mixed color. Sounds always keep a relative independence in respect to the joint group of which they are a part of, no matter how numerous it may be. Attention as a subjective factor exercises an arguable influence in the perception of sound complexes. When various simultaneous tones are produced (like in chords), it is possible to consciously locate in the first plane of attention -alternatively- each of
them in such a way that it stands out from the others. The masking phenomenon (hiding a weak sound for the predominance of another which is stronger) may be modified through differential attention.