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Full Version: Block chords and their various uses
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I have been studying lately the concept of block chords. I stumbled upon them when I begun to feel a need to "thicken" my melodies in a more sophisticated way beyond instrument and octave doubling. Although I was partly familiar with them from my jazz guitar studies (drop chords), it wasn't something that I had grasped thoroughly, let alone put into practice.


So I started my experiments by simply adding the diatonic intervals of a 3rd, a 5th, a 7th and an octave, in a melody written on an ionian scale and I immediately felt I was on to something. I gave the voices some space to avoid those ambiguous 2nds and I got myself a pronounced melody on the soprano and the bass, as well as harmonic content inbetween. It reminded me of a big band sound, simple as it was, a bit on the modern side, very useful for lighthearted parts. However it was not the sound I was craving for

Enter the octatonic (or bebop) scales...

These scales are based on normal scales (major, minor, dorian, melodic minor etc) but incorporate a strategically placed chromatic passing note. This passing note balances the scale, without losing in harmonic flavor.

For example, if we take the C ionian scale, and add the passing note #5 we get these notes: c, d, e, f, g, g#, a, b. If we build tertian 4-voice chords on each step of the scale, we get only 2 chords and their inversions, namely the major tonic with added 6th and a diminished 7th. So what we end up with is 4 tones that belong to the tonic, and 4 tones with tension (the dim7 functions as a rootless V7b9). If we harmonize our melody with these chords, we get a constant sense of major sixth harmony as well as harmonic motion.

If we want a dominant major harmony we can take the mixolydian mode and add the natural 7th as a passing note.
For minor tonalities we can use the natural minor (aeolian) with a natural 7th note added or the melodic minor scale with the b6 as a passing tone. The first give us a min7th harmony, while the latter has the darker quality of the harmonic minor used over minor 6th chords.

I am still experimenting applying this concept on functioning dominant harmony...

Over the previous year I've been testing this concept on various settings and I have seen it coming up in the works of Ravel, Debussy, Ellington among others. I have used it for string parts in orchestral settings, brass scoring in jazz band settings, as an excellent (for bass independece) comping device in jazz guitar/ukulele/banjo, as a compositional tool and as a harmonic analysis aid. That being said I am surprised I do not see this as a core theory material anywhere...