The ‘Tetrachord’ – Part 1

By Chris McNulty

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The following is an excerpt from Chris McNulty’s Vocalist As Complete Musician – VCM

Discovering the Tetrachordhas had a significant impact on my learning and teaching as a vocal musician and jazz educator. In fact I’ve found tetrachords to be one of the most effective tools for integrating all three components of study: theory, ear training, and improvisation – especially for vocalists. VCM (Vocalist as Complete Musician) provides a method for hearing and integrating scales along with the chords that source to them. Using a step-by-step approach, starting with source templates, we move through a series of simple to more complex exercises. The work provides students with tools to help them gain a more thorough understanding of the interconnectedness between scales and chords while learning how to identify both visually and aurally how to pitch and improvise with more confidence and accuracy. While the main focus of VCM is expanding hearing and developing keener improvisational skills, the method also provides a more complete theoretical template for developing composing and arranging skills as well as offering both student and educator an excellent college preparatory resource.

Outside of enhancing your knowledge of theory and improving musicianship, doing a little of this work every day will keep your ears and pitch in shape, especially during those lean times. I hope using these exercises will benefit both professional and student alike in helping to stay in “ear” and “musical stamina” shape.

Before We Dig In!

Let’s start by defining what a tetrachord is and what it isn’t. A tetrachord is a four-note scalar fragment. It is NOT a scale. Throughout this book we’ll be working with the following six tetrachords:

  • Major
  • Minor I (dorian)
  • Minor II (phrygian)
  • Diminished
  • Harmonic
  • Whole tone (lydian)

All six tetrachords above are found inside the following scales we’ll be working through:

  • Major
  • Melodic Minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Diminished (1/2-whole)
  • Diminished (Whole-1/2)

You will notice that each named tetrachord mirrors a scale name. In all cases the quality of each tetrachord appears in the first four notes of any one of the parent scales or scale degrees listed above. The first four tetrachords: Major, Minor I (dorian), Minor II (phrygian) and Whole tone (lydian) source to the first four degrees of the Major scale. It’s not until we get to the 7th degree of the Melodic Minor scale that we identify the 5th tetrachord, the Diminished. The sixth tetrachord, the Harmonic is located in the Harmonic Minor scale and occurs in the first 4 notes of the 5th degree with the intervalic structure of 1/2 step, minor 3rd followed by 1/2 step. Working from the “C” Harmonic Minor scale, the 5th degree would start on G. The first four notes being G, AH, B and C. This is the true harmonic tetrachord.

From chapter one through chapter eight the entire scope of the scale work involves using a combination of the six tetrachords listed above. The VCM method focuses on learning to integrate the sound of each of the tetrachords as they appear in scales and across chordal harmony by using them in combination. These exercises are also designed to help vocalist (and young instrumentalists) identify which notes to sing/play, pitch more accurately and improvise more freely and confidently over a myriad of simple to more complex harmonic passages. The method works across all twelve keys.

Parallel and derivative scale use can take a little longer to absorb. I’ve systemized the information by adhering to a set order of events across all templates and keys. I’ve also included two extra drilling exercises, the Altered scale (7th degree of Melodic Minor) and the Arabic scale (5th degree of Harmonic minor) to reinforce how Parallel and Derivative use work. Work at your own pace through to the end of chapter three. Hopefully by Chapter Four, when we introduce singing over chord progressions you will have developed a better understanding or at least have grasped the difference between Parallel and Derivative use and their functions.

I’ve found most of this work is best played at the piano, however the audio tracks will assist vocalists of all levels. I’ve intentionally kept the rhythmic notation simple to allow non-readers and those less proficient on piano to be able to complete this work more easily. Always keep in mind that theory was never written to dictate what sounds great. I hope this work will not only expand hearing but also provide tools that lead to greater independence and empowerment.

Working with the Basic Tetrachord Template

In order to be able to sing through the scales used in this book you will first need to integrate the sounds and shapes of each of the six tetrachords. The first exercise works with the Basic Tetrachord template. This is a simple drilling exercise to help prepare you for the work you’ll be doing on scales, so take your time to learn the sounds and shapes of each tetrachord as all six occur in just about every exercise in this work. They’re the glue for sourcing a myriad of scales and chords.

Throughout VCM the term bookend applies to the two tetrachords which outline each particular scale you will be working with – from the first to the last note. The bookend delineates the first 4 notes and the last 4 notes of the scale. For the purpose of keeping things simple the opening source templates are all in the Key of “C” or use middle “C” as a starting note.

Getting Started: Singing and integrating the six tetrachords

Sing each of the six tetrachords up and then down, starting on middle C. Then focus on singing/playing a Major tetrachord starting on random notes at the piano. Then move to a Minor I (dorian) tetrachord and so on and so forth until you have sung through each of the six tetrachords starting on as many notes as you can. Then try switching them up. Sing a Major tetrachord starting from F. Then sing a Diminished tetrachord from C then a Minor II (phrygian) from EH and so on and so forth. Sing these tetrachords within the limits of your range. Spend a few minutes a day on this. Do it whenever you think about it. Once you are comfortable you can sing all six on call or with ease move on to the next exercise.

Chapter Two — The Major Scale — Maj 3rd, Maj 7

For Beginner Students

I’ve included the Major scale and chords as a starting point for beginner students. However, Intermediate/Advanced students should move straight to the Melodic Minor scale. In all instances I’ve included the home scale as well as the modes and chords that source from each scale degree. Students not piano proficient should use the sing along tracks first with my voice and then without my voice as a guide. Intermediate/Advanced students once you’ve spent time working with the audio tracks I’d suggest doing most of these preparatory exercises at the piano. A good way to deal with this is to play the chord (root, 3rd, 7th) in the left hand using the sustain pedal. Then play/sing the bookend tetrachords which make up the scale. Hear how the scale sounds once you sing the two tetrachords back to back. Then move to the 2nd degree of the scale and repeat the process of singing bookend tetrachords up each scale degree, making sure to use the accompanying chord that sources to each degree of the scale. You’ll soon hear why some of these chords and scales are used more often than others. Keep in mind theory is most useful when seen/used as a road map or template for explaining systems and why and how scales exist. However by hearing and recognizing aurally, we learn a lot more about why certain sounds and harmonic choices are used, not only in composition and arranging but also in improvisation.

The Melodic Minor Scale — Min 3rd, Maj 7th

Intermediate Students

The Melodic Minor scale introduces us to the Diminished Tetrachord along with the four tetrachords already identified from the Major scale above. In this exercise we’ll discover the source of some of the more colorful and interesting chords and scales used in jazz harmony. Take your time to familiarize yourself with the information I’ve included above and below the staves. The first thing you’ll notice is the delineation of Parallel and Derivative use. Parallel defines the scale from the root of the chord. Derivative defines the scale from its Parent scale” – the parent scale referenced in this exercise is the Melodic Minor scale. This may not make sense immediately. However, as you move through this work the difference will become clearer. Learning how it can assist you as an improvisor in analysis and choosing/hearing scale choices over chords is integral.

The first degree of a scale is the only instance where Parallel and Derivative are one and the same. In each system event (above the stave) both Parallel and Derivative uses are suggested, as well as the chord quality and its name. On each track you’ll first hear the chord, the root or starting note, followed by tetrachords. We always start at the first degree of the scale then move to the 2nd degree, playing/singing the accompanying chord and tetrachord and so on and so forth. Go through this exercise either with the track or at the piano a few times a day for a week or more or until each scale degree and its accompanying chord are identified and heard (using the tetrachords I’ve given you) before moving on to the Harmonic Minor scale.

Look for part 2 of the article in the August/Setptember 2019 issue of JAZZed.

Chris McNulty is an award-winning vocal jazz musician who was based in NYC for 28 years. She is currently residing in Perth, Australia as the recipient of a Bundanon Trust, Prelude Composer Residency award. VCM is a method Chris specifically designed for vocalists which utilizes tetrachords as a tool for integrating theory, ear training, and improvisation. “It’s like taking a core music course that has everything you need to become a well-rounded, versatile musician.” – Bob Stoloff, jazz educator, author

www.chrismcnulty.com/vcm-the-book

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