Monica's Blog

Musical Journeys - why harmony matters

As 2020 progresses, I am missing those impromptu staff room and residential course conversations about musical matters more and more. I long to discuss observations I’ve made with colleagues. So please bear with the slightly rambling nature of this blog. I do know where I'm going and am very much looking forward to reading what other people feel about harmony and its navigational role.

Have you ever sat in an orchestral concert wondering whether you are hearing the same as the people around you? As someone with a lot of musical education and experience, I am consciously aware of, for example, the return to the home key at the end of a symphony. Some years ago I discussed this in the Usher Hall at an Edinburgh International Festival concert with my learned and cultured music-loving friend Professor Martin Chick. His suggestion that he didn’t have an educated enough ear to be aware of this even unconsciously seemed to me unlikely to be true. I remain convinced that the sense of coming homing harmonically is integral to so much music that it is one of the main things that entices people to stick with the musical journey

Harmony is used to tell stories. It takes us to unfamiliar, dark and sometimes comforting places, and tells us when we have reached the safety of home again.

I analyse harmony aurally all the time - in fact, sometimes I wish I could switch off this bit of my brain – but am aware that other musicians don’t do this and are obviously navigating the musical experience in other equally valid and skilled ways. However, I believe that an aural understanding of harmony is not only useful to musicians, but life-enhancing too. It’s so beautiful!

Hill walking

Freya Jeffs on Ben Lomond

Another great pleasure in my life is hill walking. Planning routes and trying to understand the terrain can be hard work, but I recognise the importance of understanding direction, distance and being able to tell where I am in relation to getting home. In the context of the outdoors, we need to know where we started, where we’re heading, and how to get back to safety. At the top of Ben Lomond on a glorious day recently, Freya Jeffs and I rejoiced at being able to see the mountains all around us, naming quite a few. This gave us a tremendous sense of place, belonging and security.

Orientation is not always as easy as this, and map and compass are essential companions. Walking in the hills ill-equipped is not only dangerous but also less interesting and pleasurable. Knowing where one is and recognising features in the landscape underpin a much more complete and satisfying experience.

Harmony can be likened to a map. It tells you where home is and takes you on a journey, telling you when things are becoming dangerous, and offering the chance to look at things from a different angle and perspective.  Being even a little bit aware of this must surely enhance musical experiences.

I Am Woman – Helen Reddy

On a slightly different harmonic tack, many of us will have been listening to I Am Woman, performed and composed (with Ray Burton) by Helen Reddy who died this week. It was the song chosen by the legendary Jenni Murray to play out her final Woman's Hour on Thursday. As ever, my curiosity was piqued by how the song achieved its power. Looking beyond the fabulous performance and lyrics, I realised that the verse and chorus sections are in different keys. The songs starts in the sunny and innocent key of G major but descends a tone to a strong and earthy F major for the chorus (“I am strong, I am invincible….”) The G major verses are optimistic and determined and complement the more grounded choruses in F major. For the uninitiated, harmonically speaking these two keys are not closely related. Other than this rather striking feature, the harmony is pretty standard stuff. 

Whilst I have to accept that this kind of thing is not what most people are thinking about while listening to the song, I would like to suggest that this harmonic relationship contributes subconsciously to the strength the song communicates. Have a listen; I’d love to hear what you think!


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