I’ve been thinking a lot about simple musical structures the past few weeks. It seems like every time I’m really struck by something lately it turns out to be a pentatonic scale, a major triad, or something else deceivingly simple. It’s easy to get caught up in tricks and extra harmonies when soloing and exploring, but when it comes to pure melodies simple and solid musical structures have a serious impact.
The major triad is one of the most recognizable sounds in the music world. They are so common to our ears that major triad sounds can be easily recognized within dense harmonies. Play the polychords A/C, Eb/C, and Gb/C. These triad pairs will create jagged sonorities when stricken together but you will find it relatively easy to focus the ear on one or the other triad. They don’t become lost together.
The minor triad is another of the most common sounds in our daily diet. Minor chords are very recognizable on their own, but may take a little more effort to discern within other structures. The minor chord is a little more cloudy and doesn’t ring as brightly as the major.
Using these two chords, with a few augmented or diminished triads here and there, you can navigate your way through any chord progression.
The following exercise is something that I’ve been using to practice voice leading, ear training, and simple polyrhythms all at once. One of my saxophone teachers, Paul Novoros, introduced me to some simple piano exercises similar to this and I’ve been expanding the idea to incorporate my own chord changes and voice leading experiments.
This example uses the chord changes to a beautiful Jazz standard named “Emily.” The time signature is 3/4 and the left hand plays dotted quarter notes consistently. The rhythm in the right hand consists of 3 quarter notes per phrase starting on the upbeat of 1. Once you get into it the exercise plays itself. Because the right hand is displaced you get more of a swing feeling out of the rhythm than you would if the quarters started on the downbeat. It starts to become really fun and calming to play.
I suggest playing through this exercise 4 bars at a time until it becomes comfortable. The voice leading movements are as subtle as possible. I start with an E minor chord, which is taken from the first melody notes of the song. It works over both C major and A minor. Moving on from this starting point I’ve used mostly stepwise motion to continue the triads, adjusting only the most important accidentals. As the piece went on I made a few choices to break the implied pattern because I thought it sounded better. At bar 12, 16, 27, 30, and 32 I chose to highlight the 3rd on the dominant chords. At other points in the exercise I leave the minor chord unchanged between the II and V. In these spots I felt that the motion of the song could be supported with less active harmony and every now and then a good ole’ dominant 7 sus4 chord goes a long way.
I really enjoy the motion of the second half of the song. Moving from bars 21 to 28 is very fluid and interesting. I had to change the inversion of the triad for the A minor at 25 and chose to stick with the same shape for the B7. Both of these triads are in 2nd inversion which gives this small portion of the progression a nice edge. I have also added a b9 on the G7 in bar 38. It just had to happen.
Noting the amendments to my triad exercise I think it’s important to mention that it is best to follow your ear when writing things of this nature. There were times when I thought, “well it’s not fitting the formula exactly,” but in those moments I chose to go with my ear and make decisions that I thought sounded better then the ones my initial formula set up. I didn’t stray that far in the end though. The ultimate goal is to keep the movement as close as possible and not break the flow.
Play through this a few times and once you start to hear the root of the exercise try and apply it to one of your favorite songs or chord progressions.