Exploring Chromatic Thirds | Music Theory | Composition | Berklee Online
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Exploring Chromatic Thirds | Music Theory | Composition | Berklee Online

October 15, 2019


[PIANO MUSIC] Composers have always been
searching for new sounds and colors. Around the time of late
Beethoven– so about 1830s– and then, Brahms after that, composers
started searching for new ways to use harmony that weren’t
within the regular tonal system and weren’t as easily analyzable. And one of the colors
that they came up with is something that we call
thirds-related harmony, or chromatic thirds-related harmony. And I’ll explain why. I like to call it chromatic
third, because it really says what’s happening. So if I’m in C major, our favorite
key, and I go up a third to E minor– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] There’s no chromaticism. It’s all still white keys. I can go up another third from E to
G, and it’s still all white keys. But if I go up a third, and then
add a chromatic– so let’s say, from C to E major– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] –a new sound and color. And in tonal harmony, we’d
expect that probably– let’s say, how are you going to
analyze an E major chord in C? Probably, you would analyze it as a
secondary dominant, expected to go– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] –to a minor. But what if it doesn’t? What if it doesn’t function that way? What if it just is a color by itself? Theorists were trying to think,
well, what do we call it? So they started calling it
just thirds-related harmony, because it didn’t
fulfill the expectations of the regular tonal harmony. So it might be a
progression that just went– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] –just between the two of them. Or if you continued that cycle and
went up another major third to A flat, you might have a sound like– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] Doesn’t fit within the regular
harmonic scheme, especially if it doesn’t go where
we think it’s going to go or where it was expected to
go in more functional harmony. The E doesn’t go to an A. It
doesn’t resolve really deceptively. It just exists as a
sound color and A flat, which we might think of as a borrowed
chord from the parallel minor. It doesn’t really function that way. It’s not substituting for anything. It’s just a color. So composers started
to enjoy doing this. They might even end the
piece on a cadence that was– imagine big brass going all– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] Has a different sound. It’s a new sound and so
composers toyed around with that. And the theorists said,
well, what’s going on here? Because that’s what theorists do. They try to explain what composers
do and what sounds are going on. It was called thirds-related
harmony or chromatic thirds harmony. It became popular around the mid-1800s
and has continued on ever since. If you follow through
the same thinking– OK, if you can do that with major
thirds, what about minor thirds? And clearly, if I’m in the key
of C and I go up a minor third, say, a major chord
there to E flat major, one might say, OK,
that’s a borrowed chord. But if I continue that and go– and then, up another minor
third, F sharp major, we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re way gone. We’re at F sharp major
in the key of C. Really, it’s as far distant as you can get. But we can, kind of, hear that
there’s something going on there. There’s some relationship going on here. [PLAYING PROGRESSION] Our ears hear, somehow,
that those are connected. And so that’s another way of
doing major chromatic thirds. And of course, we can fit in three minor
thirds in a major key or in any key– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] –which are, again, the
roots of a diminished chord. So we could continue that pattern from
C to E flat to F sharp major to A. [PLAYING PROGRESSION] And that, again, was, I think,
some of the 20th Century Fox news reels and others. You might hear them
close that as a cadence. Like the other one I did before,
with the major thirds, you hear the– [PLAYING PROGRESSION] So that’s with major chords. But what if I do it with minor chords? We get an even different sound effect. Perhaps Danny Elfman and some others– it’s almost a cliche now– well, it is a cliche– to use this chromatic thirds minor
harmony, especially in horror films. Because it’s a very unsettling sound,
and I’ll demonstrate what I mean. So instead of those roots,
now, the A, E flat, F sharp– or the C, E flat, F sharp, and A,
being major chords, if they’re minor, you start hearing this sound
I’m sure you’re familiar with. [PLAYING MUSICAL EXAMPLE] You can almost imagine that’s perfect
stuff for TV episodes, movies, when it’s something creepy. So it’s a very useful kind
of harmony to use, especially if you’re trying to set a mood like
a very dark, sinister, creepy mood. So experiment around with those. Again, if there are a lot of
chromatic notes when you go from– [PLAYING CHORD] –even in C minor, if you
go to an E flat minor– [PLAYING CHORD] I have this G flat and on to it. So it’s very chromatic. If I go to the F sharp minor, we have
a C sharp in the key of C minor– [PLAYING CHORD] –and the F sharp. And again– the C sharp
if I have the A, which is the law, if it’s in the key of C minor. So again, distant but related harmony. So experiment around with the chromatic
thirds, both in major, major thirds, major harmony, minor thirds,
both major minor harmony, and I think you’ll come up with some really
interesting new sounds that will be very useful in your compositions.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. This material should not be referred to as "chromatic thirds". Chromatic 3rds are chromatic melodic lines harmonized in 3rds. The term you should be using is "chromatic mediants" which refers to the harmonic relationships you are describing.

  2. I bugs me how you're always using root position chords and not inversions of them. They don't sound as cohesive and sounds really elementary.

  3. so does this have anything to do with constant structure progressions? like at 1:50. constant structures are just consistent qualities and distances being played out, right? in this case Cmaj M3-> Emaj. it happens here too at 2:08 where it's going from Emaj M3-> Abmaj. so is this is a kind of constant structure idea?

  4. Yeah, exploring weird harmony is important, but it sounds like shite… if you’re gonna invest your time in new harmonic structures, at least make it sound relatively nice… and the excuse “it’s just a color” is bull.

  5. "We're not in Kansas anymore". Sounds easy to understand! We should replace music theory terms with US state names. Play some Hawaiian Texas before heading to New York or Maine.

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