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Chromatic Harmony: Using Chromatic Mediants and Chord Transformations

     In this post I will be telling you what chromatic mediants and chord transformations are and how you can use these techniques to create chromatic harmony in your music compositions. I will also be showing you some examples of these techniques in the context of the music I am composing for the Follow No One album.

First of all, what is chromatic harmony?

     Chromatic harmony occurs when the used chords in a given passage or section contain notes that do not belong to the tonality we are working with. The first way you can immediately apply this to your chord progression writing is to simply alter one of the scale tones you are working with and harmonize it. For instance, in the context of the C major tonality, if you choose alter and F to an F# you can harmonize it with a D7. Try making a melody over a C major chord and then when you hit the D7 chord, don’t forget to play F# instead of F.

     Of course, there are lots of other ways you can use to create chromatic harmony like in this example where the “foreign” chords come from the equal division of the octave using the C augmented scale:

     In the particular case of this post, what I will be showing you is how you can do it by using chromatic mediants and chord transformations. For other techniques, please refer to this post instead.

Chromatic Mediants:

     A mediant or submediant relationship refers to the relative distance of a third interval, ascending or descending, to a reference pitch or tonic. In the case of a C major scale, with C being used as reference pitch, its diatonic mediant is an E while its submediant is an A. In terms of chords, you would get and Em and Am.

     As long as you maintain at least one common chord tone, a chromatic mediant is basically a chromatic alteration to any of the chord tones of a diatonic mediant and submediant. For example, E is the mediant of C and while you would have an Em in the context of C major, you can also use it as a chromatic mediant by altering its chord quality to E major by altering the third and having E as common tone with C major; to E diminished by altering the fifth and having E and G as common tones; or to Eb major by altering both the root and the fifth, having G as common tone. Mind you that a chromatic mediant relationship can be made in terms of pitch, chords or tonalities.

     That said, and as an example, C has four chromatic mediants that have the following roots – E, A, Eb and Ab. Chromatic mediants may appear in either major or minor key contexts and can be used to add freshness and unpredictability to the harmonic direction while prolonging the tonic harmony or even, as a way to navigate through different tonalities. These chords may appear before or after the tonic, and sometimes with the dominant or their own secondary dominants as shown in this next example:

     The tension between chromatic mediants and the tonic is not the same as the tension between dominants and the tonic. But at the same time, this tension is not less significant than that of the dominant.

     In the context of the song, you will be able to hear an example of the chromatic mediant usage in the end of the chorus and transition to verses. The chord progression I’m using in the chorus is based around F#m with the chords C#m and Bm. There is nothing special there but knowing that I wanted to land on an Em in the transition to the verses, I basically back-cycled a series of chromatic mediant related chords.

     In other words, I used a target chord and then filled in the chromatic mediant chords as needed. The chord succession I’m referring to is the one with more harmonic movement with the chords F#m – C#m – Dm – Bbm – Gm and Em. The string of chromatic mediants begins in Dm until we reach Em:

     In this particular case, this technique aided the modulation process from F#m to Em. And then, the same approach but this time to modulate from the instrumental bridge section to the chorus while using different chords. Again, using F#m as a target chord, I used the this chromatic mediant chord succession: Em – Cm – Eb – Dm and then landing on F#m. Only the movement from Eb major to Dm is in fact a chromatic approach chord that then is used as a chromatic mediant of F#m:

     The final example I will be using from the music I composed is from the pre-chorus section. Here too we can find a chromatic approach chord. The chord progression of the first half is as follows: – Em – Gm – Bbm – A7. From Em to Bbm we have a chromatic mediants relationship while the Bbm is the chromatic approach chord to A7.

     And in the second half of the pre-chorus I have changed the chord succession. Now I have an Em – Gm – Ebm – Cm and B. The first two chords are the same as the first half, but now I am using a different chromatic mediant after the Gm, which is the Ebm that then progresses to Cm. This last chord then suffers a chord transformation. In this case, it is a slide transformation, where the tonic and the fifth of the chord move in parallel direction – in this case, downwards:

     And this introduces the other technique I chose for producing chromatic harmony.

Chord Transformations:

    The use of this technique occurs when a chord voicing is altered and transforms that chord into a different one. For example, if you have a C major chord and the move the tonic half-step down, you will get the inverted Em chord with the notes B, E and G:

     The motion between approximate harmonies can be described by simple chord voicing transformations, regardless of how the voices are distributed in register. There are four basic operations that we can perform in a give triad in order to produce a different triad. These involve moving the third, root or fifth of the chord; or both root and fifth in parallel direction.

     By combining more than one of these operations, it is possible to get chords other than the parallel, mediant or submediant – i.e. C major can be transformed in Cm, Em or Am. The following is an example of a successive chord transformations of C major that will turn out this chord succession:


The colored notes indicate which chord tones are transformed and “create” the next triad

     To learn more about this technique, please refer to this post.

     The practical application of these techniques doesn’t end here. There is more to be said about each of them and you can explore them further by following the provided links. I hope that these techniques inspire your next compositions and don’t be afraid to experiment and stretch these concepts as much as you like.

Happy Composing!

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