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Synth Sense

Article from Making Music, April 1987

keyboard clues

And he did it with a huge butcher's knife. Keyboard supremo Andy Honeybone cuts his left hand into fragments and then modals fourth about it.

WHEN THE likes of Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Tina Turner and Steve Winwood have trouble clambering the top 50 with their latest albums, those of us yet to make it must take stock of our own positions. Should we peg our musical intellect and learn how to animate clay models and collections of fruit instead? Should we give up now or re-learn alternative musical currencies like left hand fragments and modal fourths? Who knows? But if you want some help with those fragments and the fourths then keep reading.

You may remember that in past issues we have covered musical things that can be performed with first one and then two left hand digits. This month the count reaches three and rather labour all those boring root, third and fifth shapes I thought it would be more interesting to explore further afield.

I'm going to hang a concept on you. When we looked at single note basses, the chord root note was the favourite choice. For the two note shells, the root was coupled with either the third or seventh. Hold on tight because now that we're up to three notes we're going to abandon the root completely.

Even though I write this some weeks ahead of you reading it, I can feel the shock waves already. This no-root business is something you'll have to come to terms with, especially when practising on your own. Minimalism is a popular buzzword and if it helps, you can say that the logic behind omitting the root in your left hand shapes is that you don't want to duplicate something that the bass player is already doing. Since when did you ever worry about what the bass player was doing? Shame on you.

The real reason is that by omitting you are freeing the bass player from following the original chords and, additionally, the three notes that you do play with your left hand can now suggest harmony in a much more impressive way. To the un-disciplined this is, of course, a recipe for disaster. Careful you and your bass player don't choose the same moment to become "re-born".

Last month I discussed tenth intervals as being for those with larger than average hands. The fragments I shall now describe are almost the complete opposite. Seldom spanning more than a fourth, a fragment is a cluster of notes in which is distilled all the tension of a larger chord. Because tension is synonymous with discord, most fragments contain a minor second (two notes one semi-tone apart, eg A sharp and B). I'll take a brief look at fragment patterns for the three most common categories: major, minor and dominant seventh.

G7/F major fragment - E/F/A

The first trick is to ensure that the minor second occurs at the bottom of the chord. For our dominant seventh voicing, the intervals 6, 7 and 2 are required. The sixth and seventh provide the necessary discord and the second rounds off. The notes can be better thought of as 7th, 9th and thirteenth — a classic dominant 13th, but where's the third? Remember this is fragment territory. The third might be in the right hand or in the bass or, just as important, in the mind. An example? G7 fragment: E, F and A.

Major and minor fragments contain the third as there'd be nowt much to differentiate them otherwise. The minor fragment comprises the second, minor third and fifth. Rather unexciting, really, as the fifth is the first note to leave out in an arrangement after you've ditched the root. The qualifying minor second is there and we can think of the fragment as possessing qualities of the ninth — the surprising seventh being supplied elsewhere. A minor fragment: B, C and E.

I've left the major shape to last because after all this rousing "let's drop the root" stuff, the major fragment seems to contain one to jar with the major seventh — must have a minor second to qualify. The fragment is completed with the major third. C major fragments: B, C and E. Yes, I know it's the same as the A minor example. There's the rub. The G7 fragment could equally well be that of F major. The ambiguity is terrific.

And what about this modal fourth stuff? Let me explain. Imagine a parallel universe, as the Sci-fi films say, not with a life form based on silicon instead of carbon but a musical heritage founded on chords built not from thirds but from fourths. Yeah, pass the bottle.

Try some major fourths. White notes C, F and B can be moved up the keyboard a note at a time to give some idea of the flavour. More popular are the dominant fourths which can be played in the same fashion as the previous exercise but remembering to flatten the seventh (B). The minor fourths require both seventh and third (E) to be flattened.

Dmin7(sus4) parallel fourth chord (over D bass)

A common fourth chord is the minor seventh suspended fourth, eg Dmin7 (sus4), D, G, C, F. Once you've got the hang of the fourth shape in the left hand you can slide it around all over with results that will surprise you as much as those listening to you. The suspended nature of the harmony and ease of parallel movement means that the parallel fourths will fit with almost anything going on in the right. The danger is that the music can become drone-like with no apparent progressions or texture changes to relieve the monotony. Still, don't knock it, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joanne Brackeen and countless others have made the style their trademarks.

The descriptions of the above styles have been necessarily brief but the most important thing is to alert you to their existence. Certainly in my case, the brain needs to have heard a sound with a label attached before it can pick out the same qualities in general listening. Play through the examples given and next time you're working a piece out you'll have some extra shapes to try.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Apr 1987

Feature by Andy Honeybone

Previous article in this issue:

> King For A Year

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