Harmony Writing Part Three.

Piping Today #87, 2017.

Two articles ago, I lied to you: after describing the primitive harmony of the drone (or ‘pedal point’), I promised to discuss the harmony of chords in the very next part.  And then I didn’t.  That’s because in the intervening two months, it became increasingly clear that the next article should investigate the second-most simplest form of harmony, the “harmony-of-thirds”. 

Accepting your gracious pardon, I’m happy to start looking at chords today.  Right off the bat, I’d like to make three points:

  1. Having a basic understanding of chords has the potential to greatly improve your harmony writing.
  2. Understanding chords will require some knowledge of music theory, but we don’t have to go too far into the deep end for our purposes.
  3. The good news is that you’re probably already more familiar with chords than you may think; and I’m happy to help you become even better acquainted with them.

A familiarity with musical chords is one of the tools I and many others use most consistently when writing harmonies and countermelodies, particularly those that go beyond primitive pedal points and thirds.  Chords that have been well matched to a given melody can quickly reveal which other notes will work as a successful harmony.  This article is designed as a very brief introduction to the concept of chords, to matching chords with tunes, and to using chords to discover good options for harmony.

A Brief Introduction to Chords

I suspect you already know what chords are but just in case: in typical music-theory-speak, basic chords are generally made up of three simultaneously-sounding notes called a triad.  If you’ve ever heard a modern Mac computer fire up and play its opening ‘chime’, then you’ve heard the most common triad there is — the major triad, or major chord.  (In the case of modern Mac computers, the specific triad is an F#-Major triad, albeit tuned slightly flat.)

There are many different types of chords out there, but only a handful regularly apply to our piping music.  The most common triads in Celtic music tend to be major (bright, happy, optimistic) and minor (darker, sadder, forlorn).  The starker open-fifth chords are also popular, but consist of only the bottom and top notes, skipping the note that would normally sit in the middle of a triad.  Dominant seventh chords are also heard with some frequency, and generally involve four notes, adding the seventh above the root note.  Of course more advanced accompanists enjoy exploring rarer, more complex, often jazzier chords, but for the purposes of writing effective harmonies, we need only stick with the basics.

Matching chords with tunes

The above chords are the ones most often found in the common repertoire of Scottish-style piping.  There are certainly many other possibilities, but these are far and away the most common.  These chords are ‘suggested’ or ‘evoked’ in the tunes we play, most often by way of the melody unravelling or deconstructing the different notes of various chords.  For example, which of the above chords do you think is being implied in the first bar of Donald MacLean’s Minnie Hynd?

The notes present in this bar perfectly match the notes of an A-Major chord.  It makes sense then, that an accompanist would play an A-Major chord when backing this particular bar. And it would also make sense to harmonise the bar by using any of the notes of the same chord. Adhering to the prescribed notes of a given chord will help insure that you will harmonise both with the tune and with any accompanists.

Let’s look at a larger excerpt of a different tune, Gordon Duncan’s The High Drive.  Which chords from the above chart would best match the music below?

This one is slightly tricker because there are more than three note pitches in the first bar, and no single triad is a perfect match.  The same is true for the second, third and fourth bars as well.  A good tactic in instances like these is to look at which notes land on the stronger pulses.  In the case of the above, D and F-sharp seem the most prominent; and if we factor in the A, there is the strong suggestion of a D-Major chord.

The stronger pulses of the second bar feature Bs and Gs.  Lacking a third note of any standard triad, we’re left having to decide between two options for possible accompanying chords: G-Major or E-minor.  Both are possible, and choosing between the two is a matter of personal taste; and to my ear, G-Major is the most convincing. 

The next bar is a little trickier yet, because the notes seem to be expressing a D-Major chord, but there’s that pesky low-G on the strongest beat of the bar.  The low-G in this case is something I like to call a musical ‘curve ball’, in that it is a compositional sleight-of-hand courtesy of the witty Gordon Duncan: by the end of the second bar, the ear is expecting to hear a low-A on the next downbeat; but Duncan impishly sneaks in an low-G before giving you that low-A.  (He is not alone: curve balls like that are one of the signature moves of Mozart himself!)  But don’t be fooled by the curve ball; the rest of the bar is strongly suggesting a D-Major chord.

The fourth bar features As and Es on strong beats, with a high-G tossed in near the end for a little more flavour.  The A-Major and A7 (‘dominant seventh’) chords fit perfectly here, the latter naturally ‘pulling’ the ear back down to a D-Major chord in the next phrase of the tune.  For those of you with a little more knowledge of theory and chords, this tune is a classic example of the ‘I-IV-V-I’ chord progression so ubiquitous in rock and blues music.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with writing harmony parts?  A lot, actually.

Extracting a harmony part from chords

Each time you fill in an appropriate chord over a bar of music, you are instantly suggesting three or four note options that will automatically work as a harmony.  For example, let’s take the ‘root’ (or tonic) of each of the above chords, and turn it into actual harmony notes for a second bagpipe.

Try that out with another piper (or record yourself playing the melody, and then try the harmony part along with the recording).  What do you think?  I use this approach as a starting point in my harmony writing, as well as improvising harmonies on the spot.  I find it is generally much more successful and reliable than a multi-bar pedal point or harmonies-of-thirds. 

There’s certainly much more to look at and experiment with in this realm, and soon I’d eventually like to combine the three approaches to harmony writing we’ve looked at so far: pedal points, harmony-of-thirds, and chord-based harmonies.  I hope you’ll join me in these explorations.

Ross Ainslie on pipes and Ali Hutton on guitar at Piping Live! 2011. Photo: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds