TONAL FUNCTIONS IN THE MAJOR SCALE

HOW SCALES ARE TAUGHT ON GUITAR?
20 November 2018
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After speaking about major scale and how the fingerings can be organized on the guitar, I’d like to talk a little bit about harmony, trying to keep it simple by following a straight path that starts from the fundamentals and adds a bit at a time.

For what I’m going to say to make sense we must remember that in the end the comprehension of music can only come through “active” listening, otherwise there’s just words.

First of all, tonality represents a system basically built on harmonic thought (meaning on the concept of chords), which is what makes it different from ancient modality, which preceded it and was a system of melodic organization (“modern” modality is still somewhat different and I’ll be covering all this aspects in due course). 

Sure also in composition of XIII century you will find what we are used to call chords, but in that time they were not conceived as autonomous unities but rather as the consequence of the intersection of single voice lines (the so-called counterpoint).

[Even if, as said before, my idea is to start from fundamentals, I’ll have to refer once in a while to more specific concepts, like now, because I’m also addressing -and maybe in particular- to those who already have some theory and instrumental knowledge but still have a feeling that something’s not quite fitting yet; which had been my feeling for quite some time during my studies]

At the very basis of tonality we have the major (and minor) scale, deeply linked to harmonic thinking; during XVI century the compositional process started to be organized in terms of chords (triads) and the way they followed one another. Chords came to have a specific function depending on its position inside the scale and eventually three principal tonal functions were identified that make the frame of a tonal composition: tonic, subdominant and dominant. (Even if in reality composers had already been been doing so, the codification of this system came at a quite late stage, mostly thank to theoreticians as Jean Philippe Rameau in ‘700 and Hugo Riemann a century later).

Let’s start then by considering the major scale. I won’t be discussing here the different type of triads and how there are built, but I’ll analyze right away the way they interact with the others. 

Tonic chord (T) is the one built starting from the root of the scale. It represents the stability, home. Peace and love. 

Subdominant chord (S) is built on the IV degree of the scale and represents a slight departure from the Tonic influence. 

Dominant chord is the one built on the V degree and is the one that mostly express a feeling of tension that asks for the return of the tonic (especially because it contains the VII degree of the scale, the leading note).

In a major tonality these three chords are also major and they express a tonality without any other chord being necessary. Each note of the scale belongs to one or more of these chords:

The I degree (tonic) is common to the Tonic and Subdominant chords, while the V degree is found in the Tonic and Dominant chords. The other notes belong to just one triad:

  • Tonic and Subdominant have one note in common and their roots are an ascending 4th (or descending 5th) apart; 
  • Tonic and Dominant have one note in common and theis roots are an ascending 5th (or descending 4th) apart; 
  • Subdominant and Dominant have no common notes and their roots are an ascending 2nd (or descending 7th) apart.

Chords are of no great use if they’re not supported by a melody. Here lies the great power of music. Even if we just think in terms of chords, it’s the way in which the single voices are developed that makes the difference, and so becomes crucial what is called the voicing of the chords.

First of all let’s consider the Tonic chord in root position (to who doesn’t know, this means that its root is the lower note), followed by the Subdominant and the Dominant to go back to Tonic:

This way there’s no doubt we are in C major, and that is what is called a cadence (sort of a musical “punctuation”).

The principle beneath the choice of this particular voicings is the idea of the “shortest way”: if two chords have a note in common this remains in the same voice, while the others move to the closest chord-tone of the following chord; if there’s no note in common all voices move to the closest tone of the next chord.

On the guitar we have three different shapes for each of the above chords:

In this figure each row shows the three shapes for each chord, using different sets of strings while retaining the same voicing. In each column the three chords are shown in a relative position so to move from one to another in the same neck position.

Since the chord shape for the set using the strings 4-5-6 is the same as it is on strings 3-4-5 I didn’t include it in the figure, you will just have to move it exactly down one string. 

The notes in the box represent the root of each triad (not the tonic of the scale).

By playing the shapes in a single row built on the same root you’ll end up with the same exact chord (differing just on the timbre). 

If we do the same starting from the Tonic chord in first inversion (with its third on the bass) the scheme becomes:

Finally, starting from the second inversion (fifth on the bass):

It can be noted that the shapes on each set of strings are always the same three, what changes is just their relative position on the neck.

At this point it’s your turn to experiment with these shapes by using different rhythms, arpeggiating the chords or changing their order and using them to harmonize a melody in a major tonality.

Let’s see what you came up with.