The harmonic convergence

Music is traditionally thought of as having four components: harmony (chords and counterpoint), melody, rhythm, and timbre (the sound of an instrument.) Music has developed throughout history by experimenting with these components. Bach’s music is relatively simple rhythmically and harmonically (at least compared to, say, Coltrane or Mahler) but very complex melodically; just observe the way his snake-like melodies—sometimes four at a time—interweave amongst themselves.

I want to talk about the component of harmony here. Over time, it has gotten more and more advanced. Baroque music had relatively simple triad harmonies like a major chord (made up of a root note, third, and fifth.) As music changed, more notes were added and we ended up in the realm of Debussy and early 20th century jazz where 13th chords (which contain every note in a scale in one chord) were developed. Chord clusters were also put to work in atonal and “vaguely tonal” music. These are chords containing notes very close together that generate that “cat walking on a piano” sound that’s often used in horror soundtracks.

However, here we are in the modern era and most popular music is again pretty simple harmonically. Chords in pop are generally triads (root, 3rd and 5th) with the occasional 7th chords (root, 3rd, 5th and 7th – four notes total.) One might be tempted to say we are regressing but I suspect we’ve just reached the end point of what we can do to develop harmonies. There’s simply nowhere else to explore, at least that will sound good to most ears.

And pop music is extensively exploring another component of music: timbre. The sounds coming out of guitar effects and synthesizers these days are unusual and revolutionary.

Thus I have spoken.

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