Complex harmony or implication?

Complex harmony is something a musician usually learns with years and years of persistence and hard practice. It’s the bee’s knees, the knowledge that shows a certain, high level skill – at least if you ask most of the other musicians, that is. But is using this knowledge to its fullest extent really all that beneficial? Does it make your playing more musical and pleasant to listen to? Let’s look into these questions from a couple of different angles.

Complex harmony – the enemy of harmonic implication

How many times have you heard some virtuoso playing some jazz tune on a piano or guitar, and found it hard to even make out the original tune? To many of the untrained (i.e. musically uneducated) listeners, such performance with its complex harmony often appears to be not much more than a thick and annoying, dissonant mess of a sound. On the other hand, how many times have you heard something like for example a Bach piece and were instantly captivated by the elegant and powerful way it sounded? Despite using only a few voices, the latter style often comes off as something incredibly complex and beautiful. The former style with its complex harmony, well it can sound way too busy and difficult to comprehend.

complex harmonyOf course we can just write it off as the genius of J.S. Bach, but that would be the usual, mindless fanboy approach. Since that would only make us throw up in our own precious mouths, I decided to check into it just a little bit deeper. And the answer (as usual) lies behind the phrase “less is more”. Again. Darnit. So the problem with complex harmony is, it spoon feeds us with all the notes, all the voices in those fukken chords. The brain doesn’t have much work left to fill in the gaps with imagination. Using complex harmony this way just occupies too much close space in the frequency spectrum as well. Right in the midrange, where human hearing is the most sensitive. Yes, to musical nuances as well. All those clashing harmonics in the treble register doesn’t help either.

Complex harmony – the enemy of harmonic implication

Instead of playing stuff, why not just try to play the outline of it? Give hints, but don’t give the story away. Imply but don’t make direct statements. If you haven’t tried to play chords with just two notes, I suggest you to give it a try. Play just the intervals that describe the particular chord the most (major third, minor third, minor seventh, etc.). You can also try to use fifths and/or fourths only. Sometimes a simple connecting single note line works wonders as well. You can achieve a lot this way. Know complex harmony, but then don’t be afraid to abandon it.

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