Joe's Blog

“Chorale-ing” – the inner illumination of a passage

June 13, 2018

Transforming a passage into a chorale for harmonic clarity.

This is an excellent skill for the pianist to develop, though it depends on a well developed sense of harmony and the ability to recognize a chord in the piece even when all its notes are not sounding together.

What does doing this achieve?

Playing becomes more assured and more “informed,” as if you are simultaneously playing a passage and explaining it to the audience, only the “explanation” is not verbal or conceptual.  It lies in the very sound of the notes.

Two basic skills are required:

  1. Identifying what chord is ‘controlling’ the current notes in a piece (see “details” below).  The chord is like a magnet which is surrounded by a magnetic field that causes nearby objects (note) to realign themselves.  We need to determine the ‘domain’ of the chord: how far does it’s control and influence extend over the notes (what notes are under its spell).  Where, in a measure or measures, does that control begin; where does it end.

This skill entails knowing which notes to weed out because they are still under the influence of the chord.  They are not notes that belong to the chord (chord tones), but rather tones of embellishment (passing tones, appoggiaturas, neighbor notes, etc.).

The last part of this first skill is creating a version of the chord that specifically has four notes (sometimes more) and lies in the range of a vocal chorus (within an octave and a half to two octaves of Middle C).

2. Taking the chord just created, and “voice leading”* it to the next such controlling chord (and so on). By repeating this and ‘voice leading’ from one controlling chord to the next, we can turn a passage into something like a Bach Chorale.**

These two skills are most often taught in music theory classes at college, where unfortunately they are approached conceptually, with pencil and paper, but not at a piano.

Details of using this method:

It is a basic tenet in music that there is ordinarily something simpler and more basic that underlies the notes that are sounding.   Sort of a distilled version – a more basic idea or concept of what is going in all the notes.  If you find that more basic idea, you will be able to think of the previous totality of the notes as literally an embellishment on the notes of the more underlying entity.

Underlying all the notes of a melody, even when unaccompanied, are certain chords that go well with the melody – which make sense when sounded with the melody.  In that sense the chords represent a more fundamental aspect of the notes that are sounding one after another.

How does one find these chords? 

If, by no other means, then by randomly playing in the left hand, one chord and then another.  Your tonal intuition will be able to tell you that some chords go well with the melody, others go just OK with the melody, and some just sound silly or awful with the melody.   Eventually your ear will find the chord that goes best with the melody, the one that seems to best elucidate its character.

As you play through the tune, you may find that a left hand chord that worked well with melody up to a certain point in the melody stops working well.  This is the time to find another chord that takes over for the first chord.   Knowing these boundary lines between the sway of one chord and the sway of the next is a very important part of the process we are describing.

You don’t need to know anything about formal harmony to do this.  Simply experiment randomly with chords, and using your aesthetic judgment as to whether a chord is a good or a bad match for the current group of melody notes.

Why chorale-ing is good.

I can best describe it by analogy.

By abstracting the piece into its underlying chorale, your role switches from that of a single member of an orchestra to being its conductor.  No longer are you playing just the notes assigned to your own instrument, and tuning out the notes from the other instruments. You become the conductor who understands the music as a whole so that you are able to guide the various players and form them into a good ensemble.

While playing, by bringing back into your present consciousness the memory of what the chorale sounded like, and fitting the sounds of the individual notes that you are playing into that chorale, all the notes you play will suddenly seem more translucent: every one transmitting its meaning in the whole.

“Chorale-ing” is a good term because of the suggestion of a pun on ‘corral’ (the process by which the cowboy rounds up a dispersed group of individual animals and herds them into a smaller, more defined, more concise, space, where they can be dealt with all at once).

If you would like specific examples of applying these principles to a particular passage from a piece you are playing, let me know and I will provide it for you.  In the meantime, I will try to find out if there is a way of printing music notation into a blog.  If anyone happens to know this, please let me know (I am using WordPress).

* A simple but acceptable definition of voice leading is: a process that makes the change from one chord to another sound as smooth as possible to the ear.

** You can find a model of a chorale in the “chorale” movement” of any of Bach’s 215 Cantatas or Passions.

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