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Upper Structure Ostinati and 13th Chords


Sharkissimo
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I was thinking about this subject in bed last night. When we usually talk about pedal points we meant something in the bass, or a single tone. But what about a ostinato that when heard over a rising or falling chord progression bass line create a temporary sense of extended harmony?

I'm going to use three film music examples to render my point.

1) Danny Elfman - Hulk

At 0:22 a descending ostinato for 3 flutes based around EMaj7 is introduced, in tight, clustral voicing. After rising horn and trumpet lines build to a crescendo, we reach a climax at 0:41. Here we have a series of rising chords in the brass - E > F# > G# > G#/A# and so on. This is a typical Lydian progression, but what makes the second chord (F#) so compelling is its juxtaposition with the EMaj7 ostinato in the flutes and strings. I believe there's also a sustained EMaj7 here, but could I be wrong. These two structures blend into one for the listener, and creates the feeling (and illusion) of a 13th chord. It's a much more modern, uniquely American sound than we're accustomed to for these kind of films. No false 19th century diminished chords and Sturm und Drang here.

2) Hans Zimmer - Man of Steel

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezRoICYz7XA

Passage from 0:35 onwards. This time round we have no chords, just a bass line, but the same tonality is implied. In the upper structure we have an ostinato based around FMaj7 from sopranos and violins, and low 16th note 'pulse' pattern based around similar intervals, from strings (hard to tell which). The bass centers around A, then F (creating the feeling of a full bodied FMaj7), repeat, then up to G. This is where as in the Hulk example, we have have an implied G13 (or perhaps more accurately, G13sus).

3) John Barry - A View to a Kill

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f98i7N8g9Pw

I might be stretching this one a bit, but in the descending Fm bass line at 0:42 (lifted straight from OHMSS) - the low Eb coupled with the DbMaj7 in the the violins and violas once again creates that brief 13th sound. A beautiful passing moment, effectively modernising the OHMSS motif.

Does this make any sense?

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I think it makes sense. A pedal point's purpose, whether it's in the bass or otherwise, is to suspend a tonality and juxtapose it against another. I learned much of what I know about "contemporary" harmony from Vincent Persichetti's academic work, and his view was that pedal points don't just include single notes, but any structure that facilitates that kind of juxtaposition. He approached it as a form of passing polytonality. These ostinati have the same function, they're just not single, suspended tones. And I agree that it's a very American kind of technique, this repeating idea, over or under which you have shifting elements that change the "context" of said repeating ideas. Adams, Reich, etc. do it a lot, but I'd speculate it may have first come about in the pop music of the 60's/70's. Or maybe Copland though I can't point to anything specific offhand.

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When we usually talk about pedal points we meant something in the bass, or a single tone. But what about a ostinato that when heard over a rising or falling chord progression bass line create a temporary sense of extended harmony?

As you know, my understanding of harmony revolves firmly around two things: context and function. No one would deny that the sonority we hear at the points you mention are that of a 13th chord. But how strongly this perception emerges I would argue stems from context and function. In terms of context, in all of your examples, the unusual bass note causing the 13th sonority is the result of melodic motion that forms a dissonance between two consonances. In Hulk, the ostinato is propped up by E on one side and G# on the other with F# in the middle. The E gives us a clear Emaj7 chord that is a true consonance. In other words, it can be given a Roman numeral (in this case, VI7 in the key of G# minor). The G# similarly gives us a consonant chord that is clearly a i chord. The F# chord, however, is the result of the passing figure E-F#-G#. Thus, in terms of function, this F# chord serves to link the VI and i chords contrapuntally rather than to provide a "real" chord. In other words, if we did a Roman numeral analysis of the passage, we'd have trouble coming up with anything sensible for that particular chord.

The same goes for the other two passages you cite. In Man of Steel, the G creating the 13th sonority acts contrapuntally as part of a neighbour figure between the two statements of F. And in A View to a Kill, the Eb is part of a passing figure between F and Db.

To me, interpreting harmony is all about where we expect chords to go. In the case of these false 13th chords, the real drive in the harmony comes from the melodic motion in the bass - we want it to resolve to a consonant note and of course it does. To hear it as a 13th chord, even in a deceptive or illusory sort of way would be to say that we somehow expect it to resolve the way 13th chords normally do, which I personally don't hear in these cues. I would say it's more like "convergent evolution", in which two things look (or in this case, sound) identical but were arrived at in very different ways.

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In other words, if we did a Roman numeral analysis of the passage, we'd have trouble coming up with anything sensible for that particular chord.

VII? Now I think about, the MOS and HULK examples are similar in that they rely on the VI-VII-I pop progression that originated in the 60s ('All Along the Watchtower' etc.).

THIS is what you think about in bed?

May I suggest some other "extended harmonies"?

I do both, at the same time. Breathtaking.

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In other words, if we did a Roman numeral analysis of the passage, we'd have trouble coming up with anything sensible for that particular chord.

VII? Now I think about, the MOS and HULK examples are similar in that they rely on the VI-VII-I pop progression that originated in the 60s ('All Along the Watchtower' etc.).

Yes I considered VII, and perhaps the composers felt a connection to VI-VII-I through the bass line, but I would say we need the thirds and fifths in each chord to hear that progression. In all of these examples, the harmony is static above while the bass line moves. To me that's something different - a contrapuntal construct rather than a harmonic one.

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In all of these examples, the harmony is static above while the bass line moves.

Not in the HULK example. I can actually hear triads there - EM - F#M - G#m etc. Point taken on MOS, though.

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I think the fact that this is a technique that may have been largely cultivated in pop music is why it defies some analysis. It wasn't conceived with any stringent theory in mind, just by sound. If there's one quote about music I'll always hold to be a universal truth, it's what Debussy said about pleasure being the only law.

I've always thought of this kind of sound-world, which appears in a lot of the "younger" composers' scores, as a kind of pandiatonicism, in that there's not much functional harmonic movement but rather modal progressions, with very free use of the predominating scale in more active voices (that flute ostinato, for example). In the case of the MOS excerpt, it's essentially picking one chord from a scale, and refracting it into different meanings by bass movements or other changing layers rather than using functional progressions. I like it.

I'll admit though, my raw theory is rusty since I try to keep it in the back of my mind as more of a subconscious guide for when I write, so I defer to you two.

Here's another good example I think, starting at 0:45. More of that ostinato over repeating modal progression thing. You've got Johnny Marr's guitar and the synths doing an ostinato outlining a Gmadd2 chord, while the strings crawl upwards. The harmonies are moving from Gm, Asus4-A, Bb, and then Asus4-A again with a nice crunch because of the C natural in the bass. You've also got a synth pulsing a 16th note G throughout. This passage also sounds a little Newmanish to me; I'm thinking of the chordal bit of the Stoic Theme from Shawshank that shows up again when Andy makes his escape. It's that very modern, pop-influenced harmony.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

1383217_10152291883803098_1642716686_n.j

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In all of these examples, the harmony is static above while the bass line moves.

Not in the HULK example. I can actually hear triads there - EM - F#M - G#m etc. Point taken on MOS, though.

The bass is doubled in 3rds by the high violins, well above the ostinato, to give the sound (perhaps "illusion") of a triad. It depends on what we hear as consonant. I hear the ostinato as the governing harmonic notes when the F# is in the bass, so still hear it as a passing figure, though doubled in 3rds octaves higher. I think if the ostinato wasn't there, I would agree that there is a VI-VII-I progression, but I find it difficult with the static quality of the harmony through the ostinato.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

Interesting. I think part of the reason why this passage works well is that the notes of the ostinato can be interpreted differently in terms of consonance and dissonance with each new chord underneath. Clearly at the start, the A is a dissonance resolving up to Bb. But in your bar 3, it becomes a consonance. The reverse happens with the Bb. It also helps that the G in the ostinato blends well with all of the chords in the passage you show. It may not have been this "carefully" worked out, but I think it's pretty clear just using one's ears and finding what brings the most pleasure as you remind us that Debussy once said.

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The bass is doubled in 3rds by the high violins, well above the ostinato, to give the sound (perhaps "illusion") of a triad.

There's that, but I also think there's trumpets and horns around middle C playing triads. I can definitely hear fifths there.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

Great job, though I hear the third chord (bar 6) as Gm/Bb rather than Bb.

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The bass is doubled in 3rds by the high violins, well above the ostinato, to give the sound (perhaps "illusion") of a triad.

There's that, but I also think there's trumpets and horns around middle C playing triads. I can definitely hear fifths there.

They're pretty buried if that's the case. Perhaps we can say that the F# sonority in this one lies somewhere between a contrapuntal construction and a true chord or polychord, with neither one taking precedence over the other. I think that might better explain the "fuzziness" of the passage through its highly dissonant texture.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

Great job, though I hear the third chord (bar 6) as Gm/Bb rather than Bb.

There is an F in there, but I suppose you mean you hear it as Gm7/Bb. Hard to know in this case which interpretation works better.

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Yeah there is definitely an F in there. You could read it as a Gm7/Bb if you take into account the pulsing G pedal, but I usually block off harmonic regions based on color/instrumentation. Again I suppose it's that Persichetti influence.


Incidentally, I've been mulling over starting a discussion about a little musical thread that's interested me for some time now, which runs from Mahler to Goldsmith to Zimmer. If I have the time to write something up I will; in the meantime, unless it's more superficial than I think, can anyone guess what it is I'm talking about?

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  • 5 months later...

Chords 1-3 and 6 are all correct, but I have my doubts about 4 and 5. I think 4 could be A#4-B4-D#5-E5 or G#4-B-D#5-E5 and likewise 5: E4-G#4-B4-D#5 or G#4-A#4-B4-D#5.

I can see the logic in what you're doing with lowest and highest voices, outlining an EMaj7 chord. I just not convinced it's what Elfman's thinking. He tends to break a lot of rules.

I think we need someone with perfect pitch (or access to the score).

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I'm convinced the octaves in the outer voices are there. It's just the inner parts of chords 4 and 5. I used Sonic Visualiser to slow it down to a snail's pace and that's what I'm hearing. I think that's why the melody stands out so much (apart from just being the top line). I think the last chord is a G# minor triad. Listen to a slowed-down version and tell me what you think.

And now that I listen to the cue again, chord 5 seems to alternate between the add2 and the pure G# minor triad (replacing A# with B) in adjacent statements. First time it's the add2, second time the minor triad. At least that's the way I'm hearing it in the main titles. Oddly enough, the end credits seem to use the add2 version consistently. Probably part of his freer, less systematic style of writing.

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I might have installed uninstalled Sonic Visualiser, because my hard drive's reaching critical mass. Will check out the slowed-down version.

Incidentally, I've been mulling over starting a discussion about a little musical thread that's interested me for some time now, which runs from Mahler to Goldsmith to Zimmer. If I have the time to write something up I will; in the meantime, unless it's more superficial than I think, can anyone guess what it is I'm talking about?

Hmmm.... I wonder what this was.

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I believe it was the use of major 7th laden melodic gestures in relation to God/divinity.

That was way too obvious, Who. Geez, next time how 'bout not leaving us with so many clues? :blink:

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Haha, duly noted.

Can anyone discern what exactly those Stravinskyan harmonies are in the upper brass from 4:44 to 4:49? The high strings carry on with their twirling ostinato, and the low brass punch out a pedal F but I can't quite make out the inner trumpets/horns. It's all parallel I think, but in what formation?

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Sounds like they're diatonically planing in quartal triads, both perfect and imperfect. Reminds me of that awesome angular bit in Glorification of the Chosen One. You know what I mean.

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Here's another good example I think, starting at 0:45. More of that ostinato over repeating modal progression thing. You've got Johnny Marr's guitar and the synths doing an ostinato outlining a Gmadd2 chord, while the strings crawl upwards. The harmonies are moving from Gm, Asus4-A, Bb, and then Asus4-A again with a nice crunch because of the C natural in the bass. You've also got a synth pulsing a 16th note G throughout. This passage also sounds a little Newmanish to me; I'm thinking of the chordal bit of the Stoic Theme from Shawshank that shows up again when Andy makes his escape. It's that very modern, pop-influenced harmony.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

1383217_10152291883803098_1642716686_n.j

Just did a bit of research, and it turns out Lorne Balfe wrote that music (apparently it's called the 'Kick It' theme) along with a lot of music in INCEPTION we initially thought was Hans...

Here's the post from Hans-Zimmer.com

Lorne Balfe did all the cues, Hans Zimmer did the F Riff suite (Dream Is Collapsing), Mal Dark suite (Old Souls), Time suite (Time), and Mombasa suite (Mombasa), and Lorne Balfe did the Kick It suite (One Simple Idea, albeit extended).

Some cues are just Lorne's music, most cues are Hans and Lorne, and a couple (like Mombasa Chase and Welcome Home, Mr Cobb) are essentially just Hans.

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Ehhhh, you know what you're signing up for when you're a Zimmer fan. I wouldn't mind having that kind of crediting for all of his scores though. I don't care that he works with other people, but I do like to know what's what.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Is there any theory book or thesis that covers this trend - static ostinati/riffs/sustained harmonies over moving bass lines or chord progressions? It's kind of like an inverted pedal.

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There's a chapter in the French collection of essays on Williams that mentions pedal and ostinato. My French is very bad but I'll have a look...

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Here's another good example I think, starting at 0:45. More of that ostinato over repeating modal progression thing. You've got Johnny Marr's guitar and the synths doing an ostinato outlining a Gmadd2 chord, while the strings crawl upwards. The harmonies are moving from Gm, Asus4-A, Bb, and then Asus4-A again with a nice crunch because of the C natural in the bass. You've also got a synth pulsing a 16th note G throughout. This passage also sounds a little Newmanish to me; I'm thinking of the chordal bit of the Stoic Theme from Shawshank that shows up again when Andy makes his escape. It's that very modern, pop-influenced harmony.

Ok here's a little experiment. Scribbled out my interpretation of this, took a picture... this is fun! Make of that what you will if you care to decipher my penmanship.

1383217_10152291883803098_1642716686_n.j

Just did a bit of research, and it turns out Lorne Balfe wrote that music (apparently it's called the 'Kick It' theme) along with a lot of music in INCEPTION we initially thought was Hans...

Here's the post from Hans-Zimmer.com

Lorne Balfe did all the cues, Hans Zimmer did the F Riff suite (Dream Is Collapsing), Mal Dark suite (Old Souls), Time suite (Time), and Mombasa suite (Mombasa), and Lorne Balfe did the Kick It suite (One Simple Idea, albeit extended).

Some cues are just Lorne's music, most cues are Hans and Lorne, and a couple (like Mombasa Chase and Welcome Home, Mr Cobb) are essentially just Hans.

Is there this sort of breakdown for many of his recent scores on the site? Balfe really seems to be his main partner in crime lately. A glance at the music department credits on IMDB for his scores paints a pretty clear picture of how exactly the Zimmer method works. It is, of course, nowhere near what some people make it out to be.

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