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Creating Musical Materials From Just One Chord

     In this post, as strange as it may seem, I will focus on ways of gathering materials from a single chord. And why would we do that, you may ask?

– First, because it’s fun!

– Second, because this is a way of checking in with your musical knowledge and make the most out of the smallest amount of information;

– And third, by suggesting new things to try out and, while experimenting with those, chances are that you won’t be short of ideas to work with.

     In a sense, this is like finding ways to have new toys to play with, so to speak.

     Future posts will be dedicated to actually using the gathered materials in a musical context. This post is meant to give you an idea of how much you can get from our good old C major chord, knowing that there are other ways of getting even more material.

Using Interval Relationships

          As you know, C major has C, E and G in its chord formation. Being a major chord, we have a major third from the root to the third, and a minor third interval from the third to the fifth of the chord. If you replicate this interval relationship as you go up, after G you will have a B, then a D, a F# and an A, like so:

     The reason why we stop at A is because the next chord tone would be a C# and at this point we already have the full C Lydian scale when the pitches are put in order. Of course, you can go creative with this and, for instance, do the same with only major and/or minor thirds. Basically you would get C+ chord with the notes C, E and G#; and a Cº7 chord with the notes C, Eb, Gb and A. Of course, you can also use it as a synthetic scale if you put the pitches in order:

Stacking major or minor thirds will only produce these results since these intervals divide the octave in three or four equal parts, respectively

     But we can also mirror or invert the intervals using C, G and D as axis, when moving upwards, and C, F and Bb when moving downwards:

This will introduce us to the realm of the melodic minor scale modes in which the C locrian nat.2 appears as an inversion of C Lydian b7

      Admittedly, we could go crazy and still find other ways to play around with intervals, mirroring scales and expand the materials even more. But I will stop here and move on to other approaches.

Key Centers

      One other way to look at how we could use the information contained in a C major chord is by using its chord tones as key centers. I have touched this subject in a blog post about multi-tonic systems, a technique famously used by John Coltrane. In this case, we will not be using the equally divided octave but only the chord tones C, E and G.

      We were able to derive the C Lydian scale by stacking consecutive major and minor third intervals, and for our purposes, we will consider E as E Lydian, G as G Lydian. With this on the table, we can use a modal modulation approach to how we can go from one modal center to another.

Chord Progressions and Polychords

     Consider this approach as an extension of the previous one. For a quick overview, once we assume we are using C Lydian, C Lydian b7, C Locrian nat.2, E Lydian or G Lydian, we also have the chord materials associated to their respective tonal centers – see scales harmonization.

Modes and their respective tonal centers:

C LydianG major
C Lydian b7G melodic minor
C Locrian nat.2Eb melodic minor
E LydianB major
G LydianD Major

     Using polychords or clusters derived from any of this material can be overwhelming so we could stick to the possible polychords that can be made with C major, E major, G major, C diminished, Eb minor, B major and D major. These chords come from the root of the respective modal and tonal centers from the table above.

Harmonic Series and Rhythm

     First, if you consider the harmonic series – both the overtone and the undertone series based in C; We have plenty of material to go about in what concerns scales and chord formation.

     For scales we can derive a C Lydian b7 (where only the A is missing), or the C Lydian scale. If you invert or mirror these, you will get the C Locrian nat.2 or the C Locrian, respectively. So, this would be another way of deriving these particular scales instead of the way we did.

      We are also able to derive the following chords, from either the overtone or undertone series so, here is a list:

Csus2 7
C maj7 #11

E7 or E9
Em7 or Em9
G maj7
D7 (b5) or D9 (b5)

Bbsus2 7

D7 (b5) or D9 (b5)
Db maj7
E7 (b5)
Fm or Fm maj7
Gb maj7
C7 #5

     There are other possible chord combinations but I think you get the idea. You can basically play around with these chords and find a chord succession that inspires you.

     And this is only considering the harmonic series based on C. We still have the harmonic series based on E and G. Simply put, it will be the same but transposed a major third and a perfect fifth up, respectively. But this could be used as a nice material for chord successions and for polychord material.

    And finally, for the rhythm part. The C major chord tones match to the 4th, 5th and 6th overtones of the harmonic series based in C that have a frequency ratio of 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4.

     Except for the 4:4 ratio, the other two make the polyrhythms of 5:4 and 6:4 or 3:2. You can hear how these sound by following this link. You can use the composite rhythm, which is how all the parts sound together, and make variations out of it or follow its groove to get your music going.

    I will stop here as this may already be overwhelming. There are many other things that can be implied from all this material, and techniques to combine it. This means that the more you learn about music theory, more doors it can open and never leave you with lack of materials to work with.

     As fun as this has been, I must suggest that now you use some of the materials presented here, try out some things and make music.

Happy composing!

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