Harmony: A Call to the Colors

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

The faster a piece of music moves the less need it has for added harmonic (or melodic) color. Excitement can be generated through rhythmic intensity alone, especially if you’re doing traditional rock ‘n’ roll or pure country. But in contemporary pop-style music at medium to slow tempos, we have an opportunity to enhance the music with more color. 

We aren’t saying pure triads can’t be beautiful—much great classical, folk and pop music and nearly all worship songs have been written that way. But it’s the trite, overused progressions of triads, the monotonous, machine-like bass lines with too many roots and 5ths, that can become insipid. We aren’t suggesting that you use color tones in every chord—sometimes the “right” chords are pure, unadorned, ringing triads—your ear will tell you. The idea is not to toss colors around indiscriminately, but to know how to use them effectively to enhance the music and the message when it’s appropriate. We’ll show you some examples. 

Get ‘Em While They’re Hot 

Times change, and so do fashions in music. Every now and then a different harmonic device enjoys its turn at bat.  In time it becomes commonplace, grows into a cliche and eventually falls out of favor because of overuse. It needs a rest for a while, sometimes, it seems, for a period of even a few decades. Then a new generation discovers it, and off it goes again.

 • The major 6th chord, very popular in music of the 1930’s and 40’s, is for the time being little used, except in passing, (although the 6 and 9 added together to a triad make for a beautiful chord.) 

• Augmented and diminished triads aren’t heard much these days, unless they’re passing quickly through a progression, although the diminished 7th chord is still a valuable tool in some styles. 

• The major 7th chord. It hasn’t been too many years since this chord was heard nearly everywhere in dreamy pop ballads, but now it’s used more sparingly, and rarely on the end of a song. Because it keeps the ear from coming to a complete rest on a pure triad, it lends the music a wistful, nostalgic quality. 

But in recent years the major 7th chord has been making a comeback, this time in a different way. It’s being used in an aggressive alternative style of music. Listen for it in bands such as Coldplay and Switchfoot. And check out the opening major 7th chord on Paul’s, “My Reward.” 

• Much pop harmony today, including a lot of praise and worship music, is mostly triadal. But simple doesn’t have to mean boring. You can use an unexpected triad or a pretty inversion. Or you can add one tone to a triad, such as a non-triadal melody tone or an alternate bass note, and give it more color. 

• The color tone of choice today seems to be the added 9th. In major it has a ringing beauty, in minor it’s even more dramatic. 


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