Do you have a sense of what a tonal center is and what it provides in creating music? In the realm of polytonality, the pitches used to generate a tonal center's stability are altered to reduce it's sense of tonic function, often resulting in a reduction of the tonal gravity within the music. Thus we can potentially create an artistically less restrictive and not so predictable musical environment by using polytonal elements. We often achieve this reduction in "tonicism" by adding to the tonic triad the upper part of it's arpeggio, creating other tonic sounding colors to contrast and destabilize the root triad of the chord. Here are some major tonic function chords softened towards a more polytonal color. Example 1.
|a C major triad becomes||C maj 7||C maj 9||C maj9#11||C maj9#11/13|
Hear the contrast in color as the softened chords are struck then reflected by the sounding of the root major triad on beat 3 of each measure? Ah, the joy of cyberbooks! Hear the different chord qualities? Can the softened polytonal colors function in a tonic capacity as does the triad? Yes they can, although grasping the color and making them work in the music is an important challenge for the creative artist, often taking years of searching.
By the time the chords build to the structure in measure 5, we have created a second major triad in the chord. This triad is D major, spelt D, F# and A. Cool with spelling chords? This pairing of major triads within one chord is part of the core of creating the polytonal sound. Players will often use this second triad to create their lines over these bigger harmonic structures. Example 1a.
|using a D major triad over a tonic C major 9|
Pretty cool huh? Dig the clusters of pitches? Although the polytonal colors are mostly for jazz artists, this superimposing of a major triad a whole step above the root is probably the most commonly used of the choices, thus we can hear it in just about all of the American styles somewhere.
This all might sound well and cool but from a theory standpoint, where did the F# come from? F# is not diatonic to C major. As we move by 3rd's into the upper part of tonic chords, a cyclic pattern of alternating major and minor 3rd's is created. These are the pitches that sound most correct and create the greatest sense of tonal center. Entire texts are written on this topic, where the Ionian / major scale is the replaced by the Lydian group as the center of the tonal universe. Check it out, it can be a very cool place to hang. As time permits, explore using other major triads superimposed on major tonic function chords.
Can we create a similar scenario for minor triads as done with the major triad? Of course, but you knew that. Here we simply swap tonalities, from a major to a minor tonic, and move up into the upper structure of the chord. Here are some minor tonic function chords softened towards a more polytonal color. Example 2.
|a C minor triad becomes||C min 7||C min 9||C min 9/11||C min 9/11/13|
Cool huh? Hear anything familiar or usable for your music? Sense how much lighter the music feels? As we move up in the arpeggio, the initial natural minor color gradually morphs to Dorian, as the major scale became Lydian with the major chords above, the pitch A natural sounds more "correct" than the diatonic Ab of C natural minor in creating these types of bigger chords. In measure 14 above we see a second minor triad in the top chord, again the root of which is a whole step above our tonic pitch C. Extracting this minor triad cell, we permutate a dandy lick. Example 2a.
|using a D minor triad over a tonic C minor 9|
Cool huh? An "epic" sound for sure. These minor colors are potentially so passionate. What about dominant chords? Well, with the encapsulated tritone within, the dominant chords oftentimes go under the widest range of transition from it's vanilla origins. Compare the sounds of the following chords. Example 3.
|a C dominant 7th chord becomes||D triad/C||Ctriad/D||Bb triad/C||Db triad/C|
Interesting eh? These voicings basically obscure the tritone dissonance as normally associated with dominant chords. Here we use the Bb major triad over the dominant pedal C to create a sense of anticipation. Example 3a.
Dig the sound? Sounds almost a bit "pop" like when presented like this. Polytonal dominant colors tend to change the complexion of the music in a hurry. Try the above sounds in one of your delta blues tunes and watch what happens.
These musical examples of polytonality are perhaps among the most common used throughout the various styles of American music. And even then, these softened colors are mostly within the jazz realm. Well crafted pop tunes often use these colors, as the orchestrations can be rather advanced when writing for the "divas" of pop.
So, is playing polytonal music like playing all of the chords all the time in one giant measure? Well yes, but hopefully fitting in with the lines of the other players in the group right? I mean, even the polytonal world can be a democracy. Oh, thinking polytonally, can both the major and minor tonalities be created by a consistent cycling of major and minor 3rds? Is there ever a tonality without a tritone?
So why is polytonality potentially important to the creative musician? Polytonal players of basically soften the sense of one pitch being the center of the music being created. What results is a sound canvas where the sense of tonal gravity is reduced, often allowing a greater freedom of choice in regards to their pairings of the musical elements chosen to tell their stories. Perhaps in comparing polytonal music to the more conventional tonally based approach would be like viewing an abstract painting ( polytonal ) and a portrait ( tonal ). At this book level we are mostly creating portraits, we'll save the creation of purely polytonal music for the next edition. Is polytonality a bridge towards the atonality of the modernists? Could very well be eh?
Let them that would move the world, first move themselves. Socrates