Slash Chords – Part II Beyond Western Harmony

September 5, 2007

Last time we covered how to substitute slash chords to simplify complex harmonic situations. Now we’ll look at how to use slash chords to create modal chord structures and interesting re-harmonizations. These techniques can be useful in creating a more modern sound in your writing and arranging.

What Mood Is Your Mode?
Modal music has intrigued jazz listeners since Miles Davis first released Kind Of Blue. Modal jazz has even influenced hip-hop artists such as Erica Badu and Outkast. Often the simplicity of modal music makes for some lazy writing, however. Rather than finding new ways to evoke a certain feeling, writers will just stack up 3rds or 4ths from the chosen mode. While this can be very effective, there are other ways of finding innovative and unique chord voicings. Slash chords can effectively create new tonalities within a mode. In Example 1 I�fve written a modal melody based off of the raised 5th from the E�� Lydian Augmented scale. This scale is the third mode of C melodic minor and has an eerie feeling to it.

Example 1
Example 1

Rather than harmonizing this example with tertian or quartal harmonies, I chose to use slash chords to generate my harmonic material. I did so by creating a worksheet with just the simple triads from the mode. Armed with my simple triads, I sat down at the piano and experimented with different triad/bass note combinations. After getting used to the sounds I was creating, I harmonized the melody with simple triads. The next step was to find the appropriate bass note for each triad. After some tinkering, I came up with the harmonization that you see above, which complements the melody accordingly.Next time you�fre writing modal music, try experimenting with slash chords to evoke new modal moods.

20th Century and the Avant-Garde
Slash chords can be a great way to get away from your typical diatonic chord progressions. One of my favorite ways to use slash chords almost completely disregards Western harmonic concepts. In the prior article on slash chords, we were only concerned with slash chords that do not appear as some form of a chord inversion. Today we are going to discuss every possible combination of triads over bass notes. But beware, for these chords are not for the faint of heart. They will definitely result in some sounds that your mother wouldn�ft approve of.

Below you�fll find a chart that contains every possible major triad and bass note combination (Example 2).I�fve organized it from what I find to be the most consonant to the most dissonant. Each new chord is labeled in levels of dissonance, with Level 1 being the least dissonant and Level 12 containing the most dissonant harmonies. You might want to experiment on your own to create a similar chart for yourself. This chart was created using only a piano and my ears. You may find that you would like to re-order the levels of consonance/dissonance. In addition, you may want to try to generate a similar chart using only minor triads rather than major triads.

Example 2
Example 2

Once you�fve decided what order to put the chords in, there are two different ways to apply these chords to your writing. The first way I use this chart is to create the feeling of constant structures or stagnant harmony. This can be quite effective when scoring for horns or improvising solos at the piano or on guitar. To do this, simply pick a level that gives you the sound you�fre searching for. I happen to like Level 4 and use it quite frequently when stuck in a harmonic rut. Now that you�fve picked a level, you may harmonize each melody note three different ways. Using Level 4 on my chart as an example, I�fve harmonized the note E natural three different ways (Example 3). Try playing these on the piano and notice that although the chord changes, the level of dissonance stays the same. Experiment on your own by harmonizing your favorite melody with a level of dissonance that tickles your ear.

Example 3
Example 3

Another way to use this chart is to increase or decrease the level of dissonance perceived by the listener. This can be very effective at high points in an arrangement. Take a look at Example 4, where I�fve harmonized part of the melody to the tune �gMy Favorite Things.�h The first time through, you�fll see the traditional harmonization of this melody. The second time, I started on Level 3 and moved up to level 12, increasing the level of dissonance with each new melody note. Try playing these on a piano and notice how the level of dissonance increases each time a new chord voicing is played. The top voice can act as the root, third, or fifth of a chord. This gives you three different ways to harmonize any melody note at any given level of dissonance.

Example 4
Example 4

Try This at Home!
Armed with these techniques, you can start to form new sounds and harmonic movement with some of your favorite tunes. Remember to experiment with the tools and use the techniques as guidelines, not as strict rules. The sonorities produced by many of these chords are about breaking the rules. Stravinsky didn�ft become famous for his easy listening; he broke rules and as a result he revolutionized western harmonic concepts.Be a rebel; write like you don�ft know what a major scale is and perhaps you�fll find new harmonic backgrounds to incorporate into your next masterpiece.

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Chaim Burstein is an active jazz musician and educator working in the greater Philadelphia area. He is currently working towards obtaining his Master of Music in Jazz Studies from the University of the Arts. www.myspace.com/chaimburstein

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