Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/harmony


so what
so what  
I've been listening to Bill Evans and he is very interesting (especially since I play the piano myself). He played the piano intro to So what by Miles Davis.
How would you, as a classicly trained theorist, understand the harmony in the first three bars?
Is this kind of harmony used anywhere in classical theory?

Hello Hank, and thanks for being patient.

Music is a language, and like all languages, it evolves.  What you presumably mean by "classical theory" is the key-based tonal system which had fully evolved from, and supplanted, the Medieval and Renaissance modal system by the end of the 17th century, and established its rules during the 18th century.  There was a certain amount of experimentation within the rules, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the rules were first bent, then progressively broken, until by the beginning of the 20th century they could no longer be said to apply.  These three centuries, which encompass the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, are now termed the Common Practice era.

However, with the Modern period music became fragmented and there was no longer a common style.  Composers either made a conscious decision to return to them or attempted to formulate new systems of their own. Since 1945 we've had a variety of squeaky gate music (pointillism, post-Webernism, integral serialism, free dodecaphony, aleatory and indeterminate music, musique concrete, electronic music) plus composers such as Scriabin and Hindemith formulating their own tonal-based system which don't, however, conform to common practice harmony.

Additionally, for the first time in the 19th century composers started writing "popular" music - the stuff that people could play at home for themselves rather than go to concerts to hear virtuoso performers play. This parlour music was technically within most amateurs' reach and tonally pretty simple - for the first time there was a separation between "art" or "classical" music, which looked forward, and "popular" music, which looked backward to a simpler, more clear-cut harmonic vocabulary.    

And then there's the way modern jazz has developed.  I gather "So What" is a well-known example of modal jazz; straight away I have a problem - if it's based on modes it can't be common practice harmony, which by definition is based on scales.  It's not a reversion to the medieval modal system, either - it's a new development with its own rules and conventions.  

So I have no idea how to analyse your first three bars.  In the absence of a key signature I'd have to assume we're in A minor so I suggest a tonic pedal point is implied.  If you amend the transcription enharmonically so the chords become G#=D#-G#-D# G#-C#-E#-C# so we've arrived on #IIIc, which doesn't fit the key.  The second bar would resolve onto VIb so I'd have to describe the preceding chord as a triple suspension, and the last two chords are based on the flattened 7th of the scale in which the preceding appoggiatura resolves upwards.  But there's no logic to the harmony as far as I'm concerned.

The whole exercise is futile.  I've read the Wikipedia article on quartal harmony and I don't see the point of it, but then I'm not interested in modern jazz (trad jazz is another matter).  I'm unable to analyse your piece as it's based on rules which I simply don't know, any more than I can analyse gamelan or gagaku.

I haven't helped much but it's the best I can do.  

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


58 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 43 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 46 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 21 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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