Musical Taboos

I believe many young composers are constrained by unnecessary inhibitions that develop during the learning process. I know I was, in my early days. My previous posts have dealt with some of these – parallels etc. – but there are others. Again, it’s important to establish an ‘overview’ which is where one of my favourite expressions once more comes in handy, which claims that our work must have ‘a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose’. It’s a catch-all argument, in a way, as long as the music lives up to the claim. It’s also a very powerful notion, because these Taboos can have a damaging effect on our efforts. A still, small voice, somewhere in the back of the head, suddenly steps up and whispers ‘You can’t do that’ and, without realizing it, we can find ourselves abandoning a course of action before it even begins to develop.

Crossed voicing, etc.

Textbooks on four part harmony teach us, correctly, to be wary of crossed parts. The main reason for this is that the linear flow of a harmonic continuum is disturbed when, say, a tenor part resolves to a note in the succeeding chord that is higher than, say, the alto part. In reality, crossed voices are always a sign something has gone wrong.

This advice is sound enough where the harmonic continuity is strictly homophonic (i.e. the vertical ‘cross-sections’ of all parts involve a sequence of similar durations). But where a continuity features melodic figuration of harmony involving split duration groups (greater mobility), it becomes very important to carry through the ‘logic’ of each part even if, by doing so, we have to cross an adjacent voice. Failure to do this will be disturbing to a performer, too, because the melodiousness of the part is adversely affected (it will feel wrong). The listener might also notice*, particularly where a non-homogenous group of instruments is employed (each part will stand out even more clearly).

*This is a difficult area. Although a listener may not necessarily be able consciously to identify and classify an error it doesn’t mean that his perception of ‘quality’ isn’t disturbed. Life for the critic would be very difficult were this not the case.

A similar ‘rule’ warns against overlapping parts where, for example, the top note of a pair of voices resolves down in such a way that the upper note of the two ends up being lower than the bottom note had previously been:

I do this occasionally in energetic bass parts, either doubled in the octave or in perfect fifths (or both). Bass parts frequently leap about in this way. Extra force and energy can be generated by so doing.

Undesirable overlapping will most often occur in the case of inner voices. The top voice will generally be the melody, which is ‘given’, and the bass has the freedom just outlined, providing it remains at the correct distance from the other parts, in line with acoustic requirements (it stays out of the way).

Block harmony styles that are prevalent in jazz and early dance bands are a different matter. Because the voices are compressed to the max, decisions regarding part progressions are largely predetermined. Added to this, the linear movement of individual lines is disguised, especially since this style of orchestration mainly involves ‘choirs’ of homogenous instruments. This doesn’t mean that voice leading is unimportant; block harmony, although simple in principle, is capable of considerable refinement but traditional resolutions are often lost in the ‘blend’.

Exposed Octaves and Fifths

In the interest of brevity I refer the reader to the many texts on this subject regarding the traditional view. The opinion is commonly held that contemporary writers should not be unduly concerned by them but I’m not so sure, personally. Becoming used to something often involves a process of becoming insensitive, also. (Familiarity breeds contempt.)

The point I wish to make here is that, once more, effective solutions may involve a breach of the ‘rules’. A typical case would be in ‘doo-WAP!’ figures, where the exposed intervals give added weight to the target notes, enhanced by a rapid crescendo.

The bottom line in discussions of this nature is that we need a clear idea of what we’re trying to achieve and we need to possess knowledge of the dynamic forces that shape, not only music, but also actual physical systems in motion. This does not necessarily mean that music does not possess attributes that extend beyond the merely physical. It might but it might not. No one knows. I’ve had a number of fruitful conversations on here with Jonathan L Friedman and others on this subject:

Note Doubling

The most discussed rule of doubling is probably the one regarding doubling the third of a major chord. There are so many exceptions to this rule that it is easier to refer to the only situation where doubling this function is objectionable, which is where the harmony comes to rest. Even here, I bet I could write a piece of music where even this transgression is allowable.

In orchestral arrangements, because instruments of a similar tone colour tend to cohere, mixing the various instrumental sections in the overall ensemble will frequently give rise to irregular doubling.

My very first post on here dealt with a common situation where doubled thirds are essential (in fact ‘permitted’ cases are virtually all unavoidable):

Chordal extensions

Another taboo is the placing of higher chordal extensions below lower ones but, again, this can work. In jazz arranging, I’ve more than once placed the ‘major seventh’ (i.e. b in the chord of C) below the root (c in this example), especially in the final chord of the composition.  In this case, it would be positioned a major 7th interval below the top note c, with the other voices adapted to suit the occasion. The result is rather spicy but it works well in the right circumstances (style). Placing the 13th below the minor seventh (a below b flat in a C7 chord) is usually a no-no unless it occurs in rapidly executed block harmony, probably in one of the open position distributions. Sometimes smooth voice leading will lead us to such choices and the ‘offending’ note might be the melody duplicated in the octave, in which case it’s OK except, in some musical environments, when sustained.

The above examples feature those I could bring to mind at the time of writing. There are others but the ‘bottom line’ of this post is that unnecessary complications can occur as a result of the dogmatic approach that is so often used, when attempting to rationalize guidelines. As described above, situations where breaking a ‘rule’ is permissible often involve musical situations where the result is unavoidable anyway and expressive results can be achieved by wilfully flouting the rules.


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