How to Use Quartal Harmony in Your Music

     In this post, I will be telling you what quartal harmony is and how you can use it in your music. I will also be looking at the harmonization process using these chords and explore some ideas for it. Let’s get started!

     Quartal or even quintal harmony is a term that refers to chords built by stacking fourths or fifths:

     These chords don’t need to have these intervals exclusively as they can be considered as such as long as fourths or fifths predominate.

     These chords can also be inverted, and this is actually one of the ways in which you can prevent harmonic monotony caused by the fixed interval position of stacked fourths. For instance, if you have this chord progression in fourths, you can either maintain its fixed position:

     Or you can rearrange the notes in a way that favors better voice-leading movement. This means that we are trying that each note ,going from one chord to the next, smoothly moves by the smallest interval possible:

     Quartal chords can be very ambiguous in the sense that we can’t get a proper feel for the root. More often than not, this ambiguity is introduced by the lack of the third in relation to the root of that chord, meaning that you are free to use major and/or minor modes on top of these chords.

     And because there is no clear root, these chords don’t have an impetus to resolve to any particular chord. To show you this, I will be using the following chord in fourths and then only change the bass note:

     What happens is that the existence of a bass note puts the rest of the chord tones in the context of that bass note so each time we change it, it implies a different chord altogether. Apart from the sound of the chords themselves, this ambiguity is another of the reasons why these are so appealing to modern composers. Harmonically, it’s all very vague and the ability of turning vagueness into something is a very useful resource.

     Another thing that you can do is to have your chords built in thirds and then rearrange them in fourth intervals. Let’s say you have a chord progression in thirds like this one:

Now you can rearrange it in fourths:

and you can change it event further by experimenting with different bass notes while maintaining the same chord structure above:

     This is a nice way of re-purposing an existing chord progression in your music. Because the different bass notes suggest different chords. Now, you can even switch it back to chords in thirds:

     As for chord progressions, the approach is the same as chords in thirds. You can consider a bass or root movement and stack fourths on top of that root. When you go about harmonizing a melody, the procedure is also the same. Considering that you want to use quartal harmony, you will try to match the chord tones to melody. But this is not mandatory, or even desirable at times. It’s just a guideline to get you started on the harmonization process. Here are some ways you could approach the harmonization process:

  1. by matching the melody with tones of the chord you choose;

2. after the fact, you can use chord inversions for smoother bass line transitions;

3. or by first adding a bass movement to the melody and then harmonize it;

     The chord’s ambiguity will work in your favor and whilst experimenting you may end up with exciting results that will fuel even more your creative juices. I hope that this approach to using quartal harmony inspires you to make more music.

     Happy Composing!

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