Saturday, November 21, 2009

Modern Understanding of "Key Center"

    This is an essay I wrote earlier this year.  It is just some thoughts I had about the current understanding of "key centers."

     In the past, it has been common practice to define a key by its diatonic minor or major tonality.  I find this to be limiting to the thinking process since it requires one to think of chords relative to their diatonic origin.  The music being composed and performed now, in the beginning of the 21st century, doesn’t sit pretty within the theory of diatonicism, but rather exists within an expanded diatonic framework.

            This expanded diatonic framework suggests the inclusion of not only diatonic functions, but anything outside of that framework as well, even the use of non-functional devices derived from a completely atonal origin.  It is my intent then, to suggest that a shift in the understanding of the derivative of tonalities occur to account for the modern usage of an expanded diatonicism.

            In the traditional practice of diatonicism, every function is looked upon in relation to a specific tonality, maybe being dominant, major or minor or otherwise.  This practice suggests the inclusion of specific tones from the framework upon which a key is structured, and the avoidance of certain chromatic tones which would clash with the harmony suggested by its diatonic tonality.  In the current practice of music, these chromatic tones are not seen as “clashing” with the harmony, but are considered to “color” it.  Because of this, much music of the current period includes these chromatic tones which would otherwise clash with a purely diatonic harmony.  The use of these tones can be explained within the principles of diatonicism, though not without creating a number of exceptions to the guidelines (which is the current practice).

            It is not my intent to discredit this approach of “ammending” the guiding principles of diatonicism, seeing as how it has been the common practice of music theorists since the Common Practice Period (circa 1700 – 1900) forward and has obviously gained wide acceptance and has become hugely popular since then.  I do feel that this approach is acceptable, though I do not find it very efficient in relation to music of the current period.  In order to attain a certain amount of efficiency in the mental processes involved in this practice, it is necessary to apply a different understanding of what it actually means to be “in a key.”

     Instead of thinking of a key as being derived from a specific tonality developed around a tonal center, our understanding must be shifted to thinking of the tonal center itself as being the key, as in the individual note that constitutes the tonic.  This needs to be understood without thinking of major, minor, etc.  This way, we can consider the terms major and minor to represent “colors,” or sounds of the same key, and not represent the key itself.  This removes the limitations of thinking primarily about diatonic function, in that there is no longer a need to think in terms of being diatonic or not.  Instead, more focus is aimed at thinking in terms of chord progressions and the different colors, or shadings that can be applied to them.

            This is of immediate concern to the improvisor composing in the moment, as he no longer needs to think of specific tones from a diatonic framework that need to be altered in order to fit over the chords.  His thinking process is greatly simplified because he now has immediate access to any and every tone in the chromatic scale to color the chords or melody without having to first relate the tones to specific diatonic keys and then alter them to fit  (of course, this implies that practice and experimentation has occurred in discerning what kinds of colors work within various chords and progressions, and other situations).

            This approach may appear to be chromatic in nature, however I assure you that it is not.  A chromatic system implies that equal weight be placed on all twelve tones.  The system I am suggesting is actually closer to being diatonic in nature in that there are certain tones which carry more weight than others, however these tones can vary within the same key, even in the same composition.  We shall refer to this practice as Expanded Diatonicism.

            In the practice of expanded diatonicism the key is not relative to a particular scale, as you may have already discerned.  Modes, however, can be quite useful in shading the tonality in different ways.  When using modes in expanded diatonicism, they are not necessarily related to their diatonic function.  The seven modes of the natural major scale, for example, could each be thought of as a different color, and each should be examined from the same root.  This is different than the way they are examined in diatonicism, in which each mode has a different root within the same diatonic scale.

     At this point it is important to take note of the fact that even though every note is present in every key, we must remember that we are trying to be musical.  In that respect, we must be aware of the situation or chord progression within which we are traversing, so that a harmony or tonality can be defined, unless of course that is not the desired effect.  Also, music of an atonal origin has its place in expanded diatonicism, though it is to be considered more of an effect, rather than a harmonic basis.

     Anyway, these are just some thoughts to consider.  This paper is meant to be a point of departure.  The ideas presented here are derived from my personal approach as a result of my own studies in music.  Feel free to add to or take away from it in order to conform with your own thoughts on the subject.  There are no rules in music other than what sounds good or not and that is different for everyone.  The ideas are presented for the purpose of providing a different vantage point on a subject which already has many, because there can never be too many ways of thinking about something.  The more ways one has of conceptualizing something, the better the understanding of the whole can be achieved, and maybe even present an element of clarity that might not have previously been realized.  If you don’t feel that the information given here conforms to your view of what music is or should be, then just ignore everything you just read.  Remember that music is only relative to itself, so find your own way of thinking about it.  After all, art is a personal expression.

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