Uncommon Chords – Discords

By Frederick Corder

Many people love to have their untrained ears tickled by elusive combinations, which they describe as “weird,” and which, after all, are only the ruble and waste scraps of the musician’s material.

Let us examine our stock a little more closely. I am purposely leaving the minor key intentionally. At present we know – or we did know – the common chords, major and minor together with their first inversions, comprise all that we have in the way of concords – that is, harmonies complete in themselves. All others are called discords (which does not necessarily mean ugly sounds), and require one or other of these concords to be taken after them, exactly like jam after medicine, to soothe the supposed irritation of our nerves. The chord of Dominant Seventh, is the mildest and pleasantest of these discords, because it is of nature’s own manufacture. But some musicians in quite early days looked at the written scale and failed to see the difference between a step and a half step and argued that if you could build a common chord on one degree you could do so on all; if you could have a chord of the 7th on the dominant, why not have one on every degree? There are the notes, certainly, but if your ear does not rebel at the sound of a triad on the leading note and you can perceive no difference of quality between these chords:

uncommon-chord1

Or, still more, between these:

uncommon-chord2

All I can say is that you had better sell your piano and buy a typewriter. Now, I wonder whether you could find out for yourself which of these chords are hopelessly ugly and which are only slightly so. To do this you need to play a few familiar chords in the key (C major and minor) and then, playing just one of the sevenths (not more than one at a time) try whether you can make it sound possible. If you are really musical it will soon occur to you that the top note (the 7th), being the one that jars, if it were sounded as a note in the previous chord its harshness would be mitigated. Thus:

uncommon-chord3

This is called preparing a discord. Try to realize the difference between a harsh sound occurring thus by the note in the previous chord its harshness would be mitigated becoming plump and unexpected. This preparation is an idea very likely hit upon by accident, as when some singer held a note too long and came after the rest. The harsher the discord, the more desirable is preparation.

Having got your discord you then need to resolve it. Notice two things, which should be already familiar to you in handling the dominant seventh.

  1. The dissonant note, whether 4th, 7th or 9th, want to fall.
  2. The underlying harmony wants to be followed by a chord whose root is a fourth higher.

So the chord in our last example wants to be followed by a chord of F, and the B wants to fall to A, not rise to C, except in one instance. We have seen, in discussing the dominant seventh, that instead of resolving a discord upon a concord, we may follow it by another discord. This may be continued ad infinitum, if you don’t mind the risk of losing all sense of key, and so making nonsense of your music. But in following one discord to another, it is noticeable that any note in a chord may move up or down a semi-tine (half step) or may remain to be a note of the next chord. To know when notes may do more than this demands considerable experience and development of ear.

To return to our ugly chords of seventh. You ought, I say, to be able to discriminate at least between the unmitigated harshness of the first chord in examples 1 and 2 and the comparative harmlessness of the last. In the minor key this chord on the leading note is very music used. Of the others, the least harsh is that on the second of the scale. The hardness of this is still less noticeable if it is used on the first inversion, thus:

uncommon-chord4

Because when the treble and bass sound nice and the discord is not a discord with the bass, a chord naturally sounds at its best. The chord in this form has a special name, Chord of Added Sixth, which was conferred upon it by some ignoramus who did not grasp the fact that C was the added note, not D. And so conservative are musicians that they have kept this wrong name, knowing it to be wrong, to the present day, even take the trouble to say, “the so-called Chord of Added Sixth,” to preserve their reputation for knowledge.

Notice that this chord (so useful in a Cadence) may either resolve directly upon the dominant (with or without the seventh), or with the interpolation of the Tonic Second Inversion. (Notice, also, how ponderous is this last sentence to read, and how simple are the facts mentioned.)

uncommon-chord5

The only other tolerable chord of seventh in the major key is that on the leading note. If resolved upon a chord a fourth higher, this would land us on the common chord of the median, which is unsatisfying to the ear unless it is part of a sequence, so it is generally treated as though it were part of a larger chord, called the dominant ninth.

uncommon-chord6

Which you will perceive to be an extension of the dominant seventh. It is a tiresome chord to use well, being apt to involve consecutive fifths, especially in the inversions. The only safe rule is: Keep the ninth at the top and the root as far from it as possible. You will find it sounds best with the fifth omitted, and the following are the best positions:

uncommon-chord7

Notice the exceedingly disagreeable effect of 5, caused by the ninth being lower down than the third; 5a avoids this by treating the ninth as a mere passing note, when it becomes another kind of discord altogether.

And now we are prepared to grasp the fact that discords are of two quite different species, which ought to be distinguished thus, though I have never seen this distinction made:

  1. Dis-chord: One belonging to the harmony
  2. Dis-sonance: One outside the harmony

To the first class belong diminished and augmented triads and all these chords of seventh we have been describing, besides others.

To the second class belong passing notes and a curious disorderly set of transient discords known as suspensions.

But before turning to these there is an important matter first to speak of. We have suggested above that the chords of the seventh on all degrees owe their origin to the eye, rather than to the ear, and sight rather than hearing is undoubtedly responsible for that curious kind of musical pattern known as sequence. If you play any natural phrase of melody and then repeat it on other degrees of the scale, it will sometimes sound well and sometimes sound ill, owing to the whole steps and half steps in the scale coming in different places. But it will, of course, sound slightly different each time, and the difference is not enough (save in very peculiar cases in the minor key) to be unpleasant. The ear is, in fact, better satisfied with this imperfect repetition of the pattern than it would be with an exact transposition. Thus:

uncommon-chord8

If the third phrase here had B flat instead of B natural the pattern would be followed more exactly, but it would change the key and not sound so agreeable. Yet observe that our melody skips between F and B, which is generally an uncouth thing to do, and for the preservation of a sequence in the scale in which it begins the quality of the intervals can be quite disregarded so that we get some rather rough effects sometimes, as of the leading note jumping down, etc. Sequences thus sticking to their key whatever happens are called tonal sequences, while those that preserve the quality of their intervals become mere transpositions, and when these occur scale-wise can be very repulsive, owing to the lack of key relationship. Thus the pretty song of Schubert beginning –

“I’d cut it deep on ev’ry tree that grows,
I’d shout it loud to ev’ry flow’r that blows.”

uncommon-chord9

Would not be at all nice if the F’s in bars 3 and 4 were F sharps. To have a phrase repeated a note higher with its harmony going as above is one of the most usual and pleasant musical effects. If you will exert your memory you will be able to find countless examples. Of course good composers, to whom anything purely mechanical is abhorrent, are always trying to make sequential repetitions more interesting and less trite by devices which I cannot go into here. What I want to impress upon you is that this idea of pattern is largely responsible for, and best applicable to, those ugly chords of seventh we have been speaking of. Thus:

uncommon-chord10

Here each chord prepares the seventh of the next and they fall into natural sequence which can only terminate when we arrive at a dominant seventh. This is the most satisfactory way of using these chords.

We will not turn to another class of discords which you will at first find perplexing. They are called suspensions. If you have two successive chords of any sort, any note that is going to move a step down (not so well a step up) may be delayed and come in after the rest, in the mean time making practically a wrong note.

uncommon-chord11

When the moving note has settled down we perceive that after all there were only two ordinary chords here and that the combination sounded on the first of the measure is a new kind of discord, more akin to a passing note than anything else. But it must be prepared – hung up – suspended – and then fall into its place, or else it does not sound aright. Any suspension that is going to move a semitone (half step) may rise or fall, but one which is moving a whole step sounds well only if it falls. It is of course better than the note it is moving to shall not be already present, else you get the ugly jar of a 9th going to an 8th. You may suspend even two notes of a chord at once, or the entire chord bodily, but this is not often done except thus:

uncommon-chord12

So chords of seventh, passing notes and suspension comprise all the harmonic effects that are possible so long as we confine ourselves to the notes of one major key. You will not find it easy to discriminate between these different kinds of discords nor to use them well except by acute listening. People of imperfect aural development give themselves away hopelessly by employing “bogie” effects without rhyme or reason. There is, indeed, no wiser advice to be given to the young musician than Mark Twain’s to the literary aspirant: “Above all try to keep your fingers where you can reach for them with a dictionary.”