Monday, May 16, 2011

A Little Chord Goes A Long Way


Have you ever heard of the "Tristan Chord"? If you aren't a student of music, or a big fan of Richard Wagner (cheat sheet for you, it's pronounced "Vahg-ner"), probably not. But, if you are a fan of creativity, even if you don't know beans about music, you might want to learn a few things about it.

A little music analysis, really fast, feel free to skip this paragraph if you hate all things musical. The Tristan chord, the highlighted one in the image, is composed of the notes F, B, D#, G#. If you spell those en-harmonically (changing the sharps to flats and the B to a Cb) it becomes an F half diminished seventh chord, F, Ab, Cb, Eb. So, in the key of C, that's a borrowed chord from the key of Gb, becoming a IV half dim 7. Its function in this piece is to lead into a Major III chord, E7.

Why do you care about the Tristan chord? (And, welcome back, music haters!)When Wagner composed the opera Tristan Und Isolde in 1865, he was utilizing something he called a leitmotif, which is a musical idea that is associated with a specific character or emotion within the opera or musical piece. For one thing, it was the introduction of the leitmotif that paved the way for most movie soundtracks. John Williams utilized the leitmotif all over the place, remember the Imperial March in Star Wars? You can thank Wagner for that.

Also, the Tristan chord doesn't follow the rules of tonality, which was the prevailing idea of music composition up to that point. Basically, in tonal music, you function within a specific key, and you have a total of seven notes to choose from, and to construct chords with, throughout your piece. There are times when you can break the rules, but there are rules that dictate when you can break the rules, and THOSE rules must never be broken.

The Tristan chord breaks those rules, in a huge way. It opened the doors for a new movement in music called "atonality," where composers began to broaden their paradigms and create music that was vastly different than ever before. It unleashed a whole new wave of creativity, all because Wagner was able to see outside the lines.

And it was just a little chord.

Let me bring this home, you hear all the time that you need to think outside the box, take the unbeaten path, etc. And all those things are very, very true. But I think we can make being creative a bigger challenge than it has to be. Wagner didn't compose an atonal piece, just an atonal chord. The rest of Tristan Und Isolde follows the rules, generally. And that's ok!

It's ok if you follow the rules, really it is. It's ok if your art is realistic, if your music is classically beautiful, if your poetry follows metric guidelines. It's ok if your characters fit into archetypes, your plot follows a three act structure, and the good guys win in the end.

You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Just change out the rims.

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