Joe's Blog

Tonal balance in chords

October 12, 2019

What ways are there to determine whether the notes of a chord you just played were balanced with each other.

#1

Play the chord as a whole then release all the notes but one and listen to the sound quality and loudness of that one note. Is it in any way in keeping with the effect of all the notes sounding together.  Repeat the same process for  each note of the chord, I.E. playing all the notes together and then after a moment or two releasing all but that one note.

Point of view for the ear:

During this process you may hear surprising things. Some notes will be surprisingly louder than you expected from a balanced chord, and others  will sound surprisingly softer than you expected. The goal is that each one be in the same ball park as the others, if not exactly equal to all the others.*

When a chord has sufficient notes to span two more more octaves, the higher pitches in the chord, depending how far they go into the treble, will  be faint in comparison to the overall effect of the chord when all the notes  are played. This is due to the decreasing resonance of higher pitches imposed by the general acoustics of the piano. Once you have heard the disparities, by reviewing the notes one by one, the ear and the body will automatically make adjustments to enrich the higher pitches (within the acoustic capabilities of the piano). But even a small change in the resonance  of the higher notes will produce a surprising large change in the character, richness and color of the chord.

A more specific point of view for the ear: take into consideration the power  of the third of the chord.

As an experiment, push the pedal down and play at a moderate speed the notes: c2 g2 c3 g3 c4 g4 c5 g5 c6 g6. In other words the root notes and fifths of a chord, that depending on the third (which has not yet made its appearance) may turn into a C Major chord or a C Minor chord.  Pause for a brief moment to listen to all the notes resonating together, and then softly insinuate into the mixture of roots and fifths a single, third (e3 or e4 for  example). The entire sound profile of the many notes you have played so far  suddenly, within an instant, change their quality of sound, and all seem to  belong to the ‘effect’ of a comprehensive major chord – just from adding a single, understated third.

The same experiment can be repeated almost exactly except that the notes, the third, you enter at the end, to all the roots and fifths, is an ef3 or ef4.  again, like magic, the entire panoply of sounds ‘sound’ minor and no Longer major.

Thus thirds need to be handled carefully because of their power. Too many Thirds among the roots and fifths, and the chord as a whole sounds heavy, too dense, too logy. Too few thirds, especially when those that there are are in the higher, attenuated range of the piano, and the chord lacks luster, body, and clarity as to what type of chord it is. In the former case subduing the thirds is in order.  In the later case adding an extra ping to just the third in the highest range is in order so that the entire chord comes alive and shines; Its aesthetic qualities more pronounced to our aesthetic feelings.

*  Unless you are aiming for a specific effect, orchestration or mood.

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