3 Timeless Composition Techniques from Baroque to Contemporary Music

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In May 2018, D-Flat Studios’ assistant manager, Lydia, was invited by CASIO Singapore to deliver a lecture on Composition and Harmony Studies. Lydia trained in jazz composition at Berklee College of Music and is an encyclopaedia of jazz harmonies, modes, scales and instrument arrangements.

This lecture was attended by music teachers in Singapore, and Lydia generously shared her knowledge on the topic of Contemporary Harmony in the context of Classical Music.

Oxymoron, you say? Here is what you missed.



3 Timeless Composition Techniques from Baroque to Contemporary Music


1) Picardy Third and Modal Mixture

In the period of the Baroque, if a composer were to compose a piece in a minor key, a distinguishing characteristic of the time would be to conclude the music with a major tonic triad (Eg. C minor key ending with a C major triad) - a device known as Tierce de Picardie. This brings a sense of surprise as our ears are expecting the minor key song to end on a minor chord. This Picardy Third in classical music is the same as “modal mixture” or “borrowed chords from parallel key” in contemporary music. 'Parallel' here refers to a different scale starting on the same note. (Eg. Parallel scales to C major is the C harmonic minor)

We can also borrow other chords belonging to other parallel scales, (Eg. C major scale borrowing chords derived from the C Aeolian scale or C Mixolydian scale). Lydia's personal favourites are the ♭IIImaj and ♭VImaj (or III and VI for classical music theorists) from the Aeolian mode (ie. Natural Minor Scale).


2) Functional harmony and circle of fifths

Circle of fifths is the movement of chords progressing down a fifth. (Eg. of a progression, D-G-C) This effect creates interest in listeners through the linear and stepwise resolution of chord tones from one chord to the next. It is not uncommon to find them in music of the present and past.

Some circle of fifths progression incorporates a series of dominant chords (Eg. of a progression, D7-G7-Cma7), while others, the use of function harmony (Eg. Dm7-G7-Cma7, with functions Pre-Dominant, Dominant, Tonic respectively). Tonic (I) gives a feeling of being home in the music, reminding us where the music is inclined to end. Dominant (V), creates tension and a sense of unrest with its unstable Augmented 4th interval between the 3rd and 7th. Pre-Dominant (ii or IV) is what leads us to the tension that is to come. More specifically, the progression ii-V-I (Eg. Dm7-G7-C) is the bread and butter of many composers – from Bach to Beatles.


3) Augmented Sixth Chords and Tritone Substitutions

When students get to higher grades in the classical theory syllabus, the Italian sixth, French sixth and German sixth chords are introduced. They are built with the characteristic Augmented 6th interval starting from the ♭6 degree of the scale. (Eg. A♭ and F# in the key of C) Though less common, they can also be built from the ♭2 scale degree (Eg. D♭ and B).

Here are examples of the Augmented Sixth chords built from the ♭2 scale degree.

Italian 6th: D♭ F B
French 6th: D♭ F G B
German 6th: D♭ F A♭ B

In contemporary theory, these are different voicings of the D♭7 chord.

Spelling out chord V of C major, we get G7 (ie. G B D F). The common notes "F" and "B" are what enable substitution between the G7 and D♭7 to happen. In application, instead of ii-V-I, we can add colour by playing the substitution of V and resulting in the progression ii-♭II-I.

Other substitution possibilities are,♭VI-V-I and ♭VI-♭II-I. This technique was executed in the famous Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Duke Ellington Satin Doll.


What Now? 

Are you an aspiring jazz pianist? Or do you have some basic classical piano background and are looking to explore jazz? Get in touch with Lydia and ask her more! Stay tuned for more of her lectures. 


Examples of circle of fifths progression in classical music: