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Block chords and their various uses - Chris Spyratos - 01-31-2019

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 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.

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 independence) 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...