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Hi, I am studying the Walter Piston's harmony book: the author talks about interchangeability between minor and major modes.

This assertion makes me think that, if i.e. I start with a composition in C major, I may use some C minor chords whenever I want, without any particular rule to follow.

The minor scale has a double version for almost all the chords, depending if the scale is ascending or descending, this allows the use of major or minor chords and would explain what the term "interchangeability" means. But it seems that the author wants to communicate something more, that there is no clear split between a major mode and its minor.

The book shows some examples: the tierce de Picardie let you to use a major I degree as a final chord in a minor composition.

An other examples shows an alternation between minor I, V, major I and V.

My question is: how can I decide when it is better to use a minor or a major chord? Thank you.

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The real term is called "Borrowed Chords" which means for example C Major and c minor can borrow each others chords because they are in the same family and it will still sound good.

People back in the day used Picardie thirds in minor, model compositions, for example if you were in c minor and a c minor chord was c, eb, g you could change the last chord to C, E natural, G to make it major, because of the cathedrals' echoed acoustics they performed in. The minor 3rds would clash with the natural harmonics of the Major 3rd causing minor second dissonance so they raised the 3rd avoiding this collision.

How do you decide? It's like ice-cream, what ever you are in the mood for. There's no wrong between vanilla and chocolate.

I agree with what Bob and Rod have said. And Duke Ellington (or was it Count Basie?) put it best: "If it sounds right, it is right." Debussy said the only rule he followed was his own pleasure,or preference (depends on the translation, but same meaning). Trust your ears above all else!

Also: the relative minor for C is A-minor. same accidentals (none). for G, it's E-minor. It's always the third below. So A-minor sounds very much like C, whereas C-minor is actually a very distant key. But as Bob said, you are free to use any chord anywhere. To quote the divine Ann Margaret in the The Cheap Detective: "Any time, any place." (Done with a Romanian accent. Or was it Hungarian)?

Thank you very much for your answers.

So the definitive answer is: it depends on my tastes. This relieves me from one side, because music is not just following the rules, but on the other side it is confusing me.

In fact I am making a lot of harmony exercises by myself: the Piston's book is quite severe on following the rules, at least in the first chapters and guides you through harmonizing with just a pen and a white score, just by following the rules (obviously, listening to the exercise is important).

I was fine with this rigid approach, because everything I am harmonizing actually sounds very good, I may say even perfect.

Then suddenly the book introduces the possibility to borrow chords from other modes, which is a matter of tastes, so now I have the possibility to make "mistakes", to create something that is ok for me but cannot be good for a different listener.

I think that, at this early stage, I should follow Bob's advice and search for more score examples from Baroque music, I need to see more examples before feeling comfortable in using my taste to break the rules. Or see if there is something more to read about the "borrowed chords" theory.

HERE I found some guidelines to use borrowed chords. It says that the chosen borrowed chord should approach the chromatic note smoothly and there should be a good root movement to the borrowed chord. Nothing special, but it helps.

schoenberg talks about it a bit as well in the structural functions of harmony, I suppose he'll be reffering to it to his harmony book (I'm missing the exact title right now), you may want to have a look at it.

On top of all the good advise and clarification you have been given so far, I would urge you to think of the major and minor modes as the two faces of the same coin and purely as melody generating mechanisms standing in no need of any harmony at all. After all that is how they begun. Stop writing for a while harmony exercises and experiment with melodic writing alone. If you compose a melody in major see if and how well it translates in its tonic minor, or vice versa.

In Sibelius (the sore writing programme), there is a plug in available in the transformations facility which can translate any melody in any mode to any other mode and also it allows you to create or add other modes missing. It is worth a try if you have the application or you have a friend who does.

By the way, Piston is not a very strict theorist as far as strict theorists go. He makes perfect sense in all his harmony, counterpoint and orchestration instruction books and he does it with sound example, abundance of good historical reference … and good humor sometimes.

Good luck and enjoy your study.

 

The answer to the question— “how can I decide when it is better to use a minor or a major chord? –may be NEVER.  Pierre Boulez believed that major and minor triads should be completely avoided, and that even the "simpler dissonances" such as the seventh chord should be used as little as possible.  Since Boulez composed much later, and is still alive, does his theory supersede Piston's ?  I don't think the computer-composer IAMUS uses such antiquated harmonic formulas either.   Everyone is free to do as they wish, of course.

 

I wonder if using twelve set tones, even the way dodecaphonic composers do, is a bit archaic. The problem with Boulez is that his tonal universe is simply too small and limited, by today’s standards; and the pitch intervals are too rigidly set.  How about constantly altering the pitch values, many "cents" in one direction or the other (not just quarter tones, or eighth tones, or sixteenth, but in every space possible between the set pitches).  There are many ways to do this with the software we have, not just one or two ways.  And it can be done with every instrument, even those that were (in “real life”) designed to play set intervals.  [Such as the pianoe, and if you consider it an instrument, the potatoe].  {Don’t use broccoli as a musical instrument, especially when it is out of season}.

 

Aren't our ears (and our minds) capable of enjoying and hearing many different sound combinations other than those the music teachers have been foisting on us for centuries? Of course, the answer to the question “how can I decide when it is better to use a minor or a major chord? – may be best framed in a positive manner, rather than in Boulez’ negative manner.  I prefer an answer such as this: You can decide to use any chord, any way, at any time, in any place, for whatever effect you wish to produce—and your freedom is so limitless that you can have innumerable kinds of chords (chords which Piston, and Boulez and even Stockhausen never imagined).  You can have chords in which one or more (hopefully more) of the constituent pitches will vary several or many “cents” off from those that produce what we commonly call major and minor chords.

 

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

 

Another 2 cents from me:

You cite examples involving a change from i to I or vice versa and such, but to me that is not the essence of the "rule". To me, it is simply a phrase highlighting the possibility to use more colour when needed. Some examples: in major it "allows" you to use things like bVI, bIII, ii-halfdim and so on without bending your mind around difficult analysis. So I use it consciously only when analysing a piece.

How about Dmi-G7-Ab-Bb-C? :)

By the way, the ivMD and IVDM are also examples of this.

I was starting to think that the Piston's book alone is not enough to study certain arguments. Another book to check would certainly be useful. Thanks for the advice, I will check this one.

Spiros Makris said:

schoenberg talks about it a bit as well in the structural functions of harmony, I suppose he'll be reffering to it to his harmony book (I'm missing the exact title right now), you may want to have a look at it.

Hi, this may be an interesting advice. But what exactly do you mean? You mean translating the whole chords succession or every melody line?

Socrates Arvanitakis said:

On top of all the good advise and clarification you have been given so far, I would urge you to think of the major and minor modes as the two faces of the same coin and purely as melody generating mechanisms standing in no need of any harmony at all. After all that is how they begun. Stop writing for a while harmony exercises and experiment with melodic writing alone. If you compose a melody in major see if and how well it translates in its tonic minor, or vice versa.

In Sibelius (the sore writing programme), there is a plug in available in the transformations facility which can translate any melody in any mode to any other mode and also it allows you to create or add other modes missing. It is worth a try if you have the application or you have a friend who does.

By the way, Piston is not a very strict theorist as far as strict theorists go. He makes perfect sense in all his harmony, counterpoint and orchestration instruction books and he does it with sound example, abundance of good historical reference … and good humor sometimes.

Good luck and enjoy your study.

Boulez's theories are very interesting, but at this stage I have just to solve exercises.

Anyway, in these last exercises I am trying to change between major/minor quite often.

I think I have understood your message which is: there is no rule in this case.

Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:

 

The answer to the question— “how can I decide when it is better to use a minor or a major chord? –may be NEVER.  Pierre Boulez believed that major and minor triads should be completely avoided, and that even the "simpler dissonances" such as the seventh chord should be used as little as possible.  Since Boulez composed much later, and is still alive, does his theory supersede Piston's ?  I don't think the computer-composer IAMUS uses such antiquated harmonic formulas either.   Everyone is free to do as they wish, of course.

 

I wonder if using twelve set tones, even the way dodecaphonic composers do, is a bit archaic. The problem with Boulez is that his tonal universe is simply too small and limited, by today’s standards; and the pitch intervals are too rigidly set.  How about constantly altering the pitch values, many "cents" in one direction or the other (not just quarter tones, or eighth tones, or sixteenth, but in every space possible between the set pitches).  There are many ways to do this with the software we have, not just one or two ways.  And it can be done with every instrument, even those that were (in “real life”) designed to play set intervals.  [Such as the pianoe, and if you consider it an instrument, the potatoe].  {Don’t use broccoli as a musical instrument, especially when it is out of season}.

 

Aren't our ears (and our minds) capable of enjoying and hearing many different sound combinations other than those the music teachers have been foisting on us for centuries? Of course, the answer to the question “how can I decide when it is better to use a minor or a major chord? – may be best framed in a positive manner, rather than in Boulez’ negative manner.  I prefer an answer such as this: You can decide to use any chord, any way, at any time, in any place, for whatever effect you wish to produce—and your freedom is so limitless that you can have innumerable kinds of chords (chords which Piston, and Boulez and even Stockhausen never imagined).  You can have chords in which one or more (hopefully more) of the constituent pitches will vary several or many “cents” off from those that produce what we commonly call major and minor chords.

 

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

 

Thanks. I think that you are right about the colour argument. I should change mode when I need it. Again, there is no rule.

I discovered a section in the middle of the Piston's book which made me notice how every combination of the minor scale (with 6th and 7th grade altered or not) contains most part of the chords of the relative major scale so, if i start in a minor mode and I want to go major, this change is totally natural, in particular for the II, IV and VI, which have a double version (6th and 7th grade altered or not).

On the other hand, the major mode is more limited, so I think that a mode change, in this case, may catch more attention.



René Torenstra said:

Another 2 cents from me:

You cite examples involving a change from i to I or vice versa and such, but to me that is not the essence of the "rule". To me, it is simply a phrase highlighting the possibility to use more colour when needed. Some examples: in major it "allows" you to use things like bVI, bIII, ii-halfdim and so on without bending your mind around difficult analysis. So I use it consciously only when analysing a piece.

How about Dmi-G7-Ab-Bb-C? :)

By the way, the ivMD and IVDM are also examples of this.

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