Radical openness

Chord symbols, musical abstraction and modernism

RP 195 () / Article

‘Would anyone like to suggest a chord?’, said Keith Jarrett, swivelling on the piano stool to face the audience. There were a few shouts from the auditorium such as ‘A minor nine’ and ‘E flat seven sharp eleven’. Jarrett listened distractedly for a few moments, then said, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got my own’, and turned to begin another solo improvisation.

Jarrett does indeed have his ‘own chords’. That is not to say that the note combinations he uses are somehow unclassifiable in conventional terms, defying the kind of categorization exemplified by the suggestions from the audience, but that his chord voicings are distinctive and contribute to his recognizable sound as a pianist and improviser. Like all good music, they have a quality which exceeds their standard theoretical or analytical representation. Jarrett’s teasing of the audience in this way seems to express an opposition to standardized chord categorization, a nod towards what we might describe as a critique of the reification of musical harmony: that simultaneously sounding note combinations in interesting music are not, or should not be, reducible to a standardized chord symbol.

Such a critique, would, of course, be a less radical version of the more thoroughgoing modernist critique of tonality as a whole, typified in practice by the atonalists and serialists of the twentieth century, and in theory by the musical aesthetics of Theodor Adorno. Musical modernists of this type took their hostility to the reification of musical language to its logical conclusion and insisted on the historical redundancy of the tonal system on which the concept of chords depends. And yet, not only do chords persist, but so too does the chord symbol, and not simply as an analytical tool. It has become well established as a practical, functioning musical concept, essential to the creation not only of various formulaic musics, but the kind of music Jarrett himself makes. Many of Jarrett’s own compositions circulate in a written form which uses them, and arguably are unplayable without thinking by means of them. So ubiquitous is the chord symbol these days that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in the form that modern musicians know it, it is of relatively recent origin. Tracing its origins may illuminate the historical peculiarities of contemporary music-making.

The chord symbol is most likely to be found in certain kinds of written music; that is, certain kinds of musical score, chiefly of Western popular music. Where written representation, or instructions for performance, of popular music exists, the chord symbol is a central part of it. It may be the only component of it, as in the chord chart; it may appear combined with a limited amount of conventional notation, as in the lead sheet; or it may appear as a supplementary element to a fully notated score. Its importance as a written form should be enough to dispel the common notion that in contrast to the art-music of the West, popular musics are defined in part by their non-literariness, their lack of a need for notation. But there is more to the issue of the chord symbol than trends in the history of music notation. As others have pointed out, notation’s role in music and music-making is not simply as passive recorder of sounds, or intentions-in-sound. As Adorno argued, notation is not solely an aide-mémoire. The writing down of musical ideas wreaks an effect on those ideas, in the first place, as Adorno noted, by disciplining and spatializing what had hitherto been a purely temporal phenomenon. It is the writing down of music which lays the basis for the development of an autonomous music and the emergence of the musical work as an identifiable entity, as well as allowing for the expansion of compositional techniques which exploit the combination of many simultaneous musical parts.

If the very existence of notation has an effect on the nature of the music it represents, then so too must the form which that notation takes. Adorno argues that notation’s spatializing effect is responsible for the regularization of rhythm, the imposition of the straitjacket of beat and metre on music. Notation enhances creative control over musical material but ‘always also regulates, inhibits and …