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On the Use of Polychords in Music Composition
In the '80s the UC Davis University Chorus sang "Welcome Yule" by Edwin Fissinger (see examples below). In a certain passage the treble voices had 3 part harmony in triads moving over the men's part holding different triads. The
effect was thrilling, and led me to investigate polychords further. They have since become a fixture in my own musical idiom.
There are many devices in music—rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, dynamics, and amongst them, polychords.
However, these sound new, as they have rarely been used in the past. There are exceptions, of course—Charles Ives being the
first to come to mind with his brash setting of Psalm 67 (see example below). Also in pop music the IV/V is used as a dominant.
There are many examples in jazz. See also
S.M. Butterfield on extended tertian harmonies.
In this brief treatise I will give examples of polychords where they
seem effective. By extension, I will also include examples where
dissonances are the point of the passage. The reader or listener will
of course need to judge what works best, appeals most, and is most
Thank you for your interest!
- Fanfare for Orchestra — Dwight Stone has numerous polychords throughout: in m. 5, F over A minor, with D in the bass.
- Fanfare for Orchestra — audio
- Bandstand Boogie — C. Albertin, m.14: dominant substitute: Cm7/F
- Ain't No Mountain High Enough (Ashford & Simpson), m.11-12: the dominant Bm7/E, functionally the same as D/E, is a polychord, and the dominant of the dominant (A).
- "Sunshowers" on the album Seasons by Kurt Bestor has continuous polychords in its opening theme.
- Praise Ye the Lord (J. Jefferson Cleveland), arr. Stone: G/C in m.1, as a dominant substitute
- Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (Carol Cymbala) "High & Lifted Up" or "Total Praise"
- Welcome Yule - Edwin Fissinger This piece is fraught with polychordal sonorities. In mm. 2-3 the Absus,add2 is thematic. Measure 8 lands on Eb/Ab as a tonic. Measure 18 has a chord by fourths! Measures 35-36 have Eb/Ab and Db/Gb. In m. 47 the treble voices glide through three chords over the F minor chord held in the bass-tenor voices, and in mm. 49-53 the trebles evoke numerous chords over the pedal F minor: drifting through d-dim, Bb, Ab, C minor, G minor, and eventually Ab, completing the Fm7 sonority. In measure 64 the trebles arrive on Bb minor over the sustained Ab-Eb 5th. Measure 70 outlines an Ab chord over Bb minor, as a substitute for Eb9 in a perfect cadence.
- Christmas Time is Here — Vince Guaraldi: measures 30 and 32 are an example of polychords in jazz; the C major over Bb major, notated here as Bb9 (#11), can be seen both as a polychord and as an extended tertian sonority.
- Mark Hayes: Change My Heart, O God" arrangement of hymn tume for piano solo G-sus, and typical F/G dominant
- Mark Hayes: Change My Heart, O God" arrangement of hymn tume for piano solo G/C and F/C, typical progression
- Mark Hayes: Change My Heart, O God" arrangement of hymn tume for piano solo G/F
- Psalm 67 - Ives: C major in the treble voices, G minor in the bass.
- Chansons des Roses — Morten Lauridsen—
Inversions of chords frequently allude to polychords, as in
Lauridsen's Chansons des Roses, #5 "Dirait-on", in which the tonic D major
chord in first inversion, sans 5th, is sung under the dominant chord in the treble voices,
yielding a tonic Dmaj9 chord; the 3rd (F#) in the bass yields a mild and
attractive dissonant rub against the 9th above it, and the 9th (E) rubs
simultaneously against its neighboring tonic (D) note.
- Lux aeterna — Morten Lauridsen
- Fanfare p. 60 (Oxford Wedding Music) — William Mathias
- Gloria — William Mathias evokes polychords in numerous instances.
- Holy — William Mathias
- Children of the Light (m.30, 71, 93) — Kirby Shaw m. 30. polychord C/F. The bassline descends creating a plagal cadence, C to F (subdominant resolving to tonic.
in m.71 the bass ascentds by step under chords that fit, but aren't directly harmonically realted—very unusual!
In m.93-94 he puts the 7th in bass of a dominat chord, resolving downward,)
- There is another Kirby Shawexample where the bass note rises by step, and goes outside the chord in the treble, creating a M7 dissonance, shocking to hear in isolation, but convincing in context because of the direction of the bassline. I'll see if I can track this down.
- Approaching Avalon — Dwight Stone ; final cadences mm. 92-94
- April on Tilicho Lake — Dwight Stone
- Aspen in Autumn — Dwight Stone
- Bunji — Dwight Stone ; mm.14-18
- Daffodils and Dragonflies, p.2 — Dwight Stone: The theme is built around Cb/Db. Measure 35 is a flurry of Ab and Gb yielding a dominant sound in the key of Db
- Daffodils and Dragonflies, p.3 — Dwight Stone: Measures 39-42 are replete with polychords (and polyrhythms!). Resolution comes in m. 42 with A major over D major, and thereafter the chrods by 5ths following all sound consonant in this context.
- Fantasia on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", p,3 m. 70 G major over A mionr; m.73-76 and m. 85-87 'passing' polychords.
- Fantasia on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", p,4 m.102-107 'passing' polychords; m. 108 has explicit dissonances, not actually polychords per se.
- The Coda of Free Fall is built substantially on polychords. Measure 79 — contrary bass motion under treble chords; m. 82 Bb/F; m. 87 bassline contrary to treble chords.
- Jerusalem, My Happy Home (hymn arrangement): polychord C/F inversion in m. 11; contrary bass motion in m. 15; Bb against B-nat in m. 19.
- The Jounce — Dwight Stone evokes numerous instances of extended tertian extensions and polychords, as well as contrary bass notes: m. 16 C/C#, and m. 28, F/F#.
- One Summer's Day — Dwight Stone
- Peppermint Party, m. 11 has an ascending bassline that crosses the chords in the treble staff.
- Precious Lord arrangement, m. 40 Ab chord over Db
- Psalm 121 "I will Lift Up Mine Eyes" ‚ Stone (Soprano & piano ; mm.118-131
- Star-Spangled Banner, arr. Dwight Stone (Fr. horn & piano): mm.30-34: Eb/Ab (essentially tertian extension), the ear picks up the separate triad; m. 34 has multiple polychords.
- Star-Spangled Banner, arr. Dwight Stone (Fr. horn & piano); m.2, F major chord embellishes G minor
- Toyota commercial demo 1990s: contrary bass notes, and a microtonal (sung) bass note‹still fun!
- Variations on "In dulci jubilo" — Dwight Stone Variation 3 is full of polychrods, trbeble versus bass.
- Variations on "In dulci jubilo" — Dwight Stone Likewise, variation 8 is full of polychrods.
- Variations on "O Tannenbaum" the "Ives Variation" - Stone
- Variations on "O Tannenbaum" - Variation 9 - Stone
- Whither Thou Goest — Dwight Stone
- Joyful, Joyful (Mervyn Warren, arr. Roger Emerson)
The evolution of polychords encompasses whole-tone and pandiatonic
idioms, washes of sound with multiple neighboring
tones clashing, not organized into distinct chords. Composers from
Claude Debussy to Eric Whitaker to Donald Fagen (Nightfly) have evoked
this kind of dissonance.
The use of polychords is not a black & white affair, since there is a
large amount of overlap amongst styles: pop, jazz, gospel, and
neo-classical pushing the envelope. Kirby Shaw uses the 7th in the
bass part frequently, which evokes both the traditional 4-2 inversion
of the 7th chord, as well as a common jazz flavor. William Mathias
uses polychords somewhat randomly. I tend to use
polychords related by 4th, 5th & 2nd.
Feel free to contribute your own examples. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org