Come, Your Hearts and Voices Raising

A Return to Signs

We've been discussing chord progressions and how the Western tonal system employs them. Over the centuries certain progessions have emerged as being more common ("expected"), and thus formulate a body of signifiers.

As we've discussed this, we've been assuming the postmodern position that signifiers (signs) have no direct association with the signified (what the signs represent). We have, however, made the reasonable assumption that broad statements can be made about the nature of signs and how they might be interpreted.

The set of analytic tools available to us at this point in the discussion includes chord symbols, Roman numerals, and a set of these "expected" chord progressions. These progressions are statistical and theoretical observations about the practice of Western Music, and thus form a point of departure when discussing how progressions may signify different cultural (or dare we suggest, "theological") elements in society.

Western Harmonic Language in Action

The harmonic language used in the Music of the Church has traditionally been somewhat conservative, a topic we will address later. The "standard progressions" we've illustrated are employed with great frequency, which suggests the over-arching aesthetic is not necessarily one of surprise or novelty, but one of stability and predictability.

Recall that the progressions we've covered are:

  • I - V - I
  • I - IV - V - I
  • I - vi - IV - V - I

To find an example of this, I opened a hymnal to a random page, and found the hymn, "Come, Your Hearts and Voices Raising" in The Lutheran Hymnal (#90). More information (lyrics and MIDI music) may be found here: http://www.lutheran-hymnal.com/online/aTLH_Hymns2.htm

In the spirit of our day, I copied the melody and provided chord symbols. Next, I provided Roman numerals, showing the position of each chord in relationship to the home key (F major). See below:

You may also listen to the piece here: Example1.

I've used green lines to show where the expected, "standard" progressions are heard. Clearly, this composition relies heavily on the standard progressions we've defined earlier. Note that there is a slight deviation from our expected model, highlighted in red. The motion from ii-vi is heard as being slightly unusual.

Conclusions?

The standard progressions we've outlined aren't necessarily prescriptive but rather descriptive -- they are the result of the analysis of thousands of compositions drawn from the sacred and secular repretoire in Western Music. It should be no surprise, then, to discover these progressions in widespread use.

Progressions then, are musical signifiers--those chord progressions seen in the score as Roman numeral strings provide a way to measure or index where a composition lives in culture. We can make generalizations about the nature of a composition based on how these signifiers relate to other compositions, such as:

  • The intended purpose of the Music
  • The author or composer of the piece
  • The time period in which the work was created
  • The type of listeners for whom the piece is intended

...and so on.

Armed with this tool, we will continue to explore different types of progressions and see how their musical significance works in 21st-century Western society.

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