the ‘fruit tree analogy’


harmonic hierarchy

The way I like to think of chords is to divide them into two parts - foundation and color. Just like a tree bearing fruit, you have the foundation notes, which are the most important, but also, the most boring. They tell you the chord’s function.

Foundation notes:

1 (root)

3 (3rd)

5 (5th)

7 (7th)

These 3 notes are all that is needed for the listener to determine the function of most chords. Is it minor and happy where it is? Is it major and happy where it is? Is it dominant wanting to resolve?

Note: The 5th is also a foundation note, but in most cases it is not needed to establish the function of the chord, as the human brain actually imagines a natural 5th unless played otherwise. Only if the chord is diminished or augmented is the 5th needed, and in these cases it should be played.

In the majority of piano chord voicings, you will notice that the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th tend to be voiced lowest down, in the left hand, immediately above the root (bass note). This is because the bass notes carry more weight, and it is best to get the function out of the way first in the bass, and then add some color higher up where there is less weight, and responsibility. The foundation notes need to be stronger than the color notes... as with a tree bearing fruit.

Color notes:

9 (9th)

11 (11th)

13 (13th)

These are the colorful notes, known as the chord extensions. These notes are colorful, but only in context of what is already heard lower down in the foundation. When you try playing these extension notes without the foundation notes, they no longer sound colorful. In fact they then become foundation notes themselves.

You can tweak the fruit, flattening or sharpening each extension until the chord has its own quirky character, but the foundation stays the same.

I find this a clear way of understanding harmony, visually, breaking it into two sections:

foundation notes dictating the chords function, and colorful notes adding decoration.

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