Stretching minds to hear in four voices

February 16, 2011

Today in our freshman music studies we left species counterpoint and entered the world of harmony. Four voices, fewer rules, more expressive possibilities: the students are very happy.

For texts, I have, for the past three years, tried to find good online resources or public domain resources for my reading requirements for the class. A) Students are hardwired to their computers; they will have no problem doing their reading using their computers rather than paper books. And B) the price of music textbooks has skyrocketed, and I feel for our students–already having their tuition raised in the past year, and peeps of another increase on the horizon–saving them some money is a GOOD thing. So I looked around online and found a wonderful introductory book for basic traditional classical harmony from 1897 by Ludwig Bussler, completely scanned and in the public domain. I put it in on the class’s website as a free resource.

I bring this up because today I put on the brakes in feeling the need to plow through ALL the diatonic chords. Today we spent an hour just dealing with the I or i or tonic chord (the key the piece is in). And having a class of some 80 voices, I was able to demonstrate a simple C major chord in women’s voices. LISTEN TO THIS SOUND I’d scream at the class. Then I would have the men sing the corresponding chord. Interesting. And those who had ears to hear, heard. Then I blended men and women. First a closely spaced chord. Sweet; intimate. [I write it on the board, then they sing it and hear it] Then, a widely spaced chord. They sing it.

To demonstrate tessitura, the women sang in a low/weak range of the voice; then they’d sing in a higher range/tessitura. Then I had the men do the same thing. As I’m just getting over a cold, I have a really wide vocal range, so I wrote the whole group a big ol’ C major chord and I provided the low C. Very cool. I felt very Russian. An octavist to be exact. I actually had a low B flat this morning.

Then I wrote out a melody that was essentially a slow arpeggiation of a chord, and we harmonized it in two ways: first with a pedal (a sustained or rearticulated note that doesn’t change) so that only the upper three voices move up and down; and the second, the bass would harmonize with the soprano in a pleasing manner, and the middle voices “write themselves” according to doubling and voice leading rules.

So what was interesting about this story is that I decided to devote one lecture to JUST the tonic chord and its various manifestations. On one side of the white board, we concentrated on SATB voicing, or singers; on the other side of the board, we would see the same chord but in keyboard voicing, with two to three voices in the right hand, and the bass in the left.

This approach was used in the 1897 book I discovered AFTER I thought of this lecture. Cosmic. I should have played Wagner’s fabulous E flat pedal Rhine music and some Terry Riley. Ah well, never enough time.

I flashed back to my first experience trying to imagine hearing an entire orchestra–one must do that when you compose for orchestra. In the voice of Monty Python: MY BRAIN HURTS I kept saying when I first composed orchestral music. Then you get into this alpha state and actually start HEARING the music in your head. Just like anything, it’s a skill that one can develop. But it HURTS at first, and I feel for some of my students in trying to HEAR even just the tonic chord in four voices.

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