Some Harmonic Perspective

Seeing the Forest for the Trees…

“It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.”

The above is the first verse of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). You can find it at multiple online sources but you probably already know how each blind man perceives the whole of the elephant differently than the others based on his limited experience with a small part of it and how each man “was partly in the right and all were in the wrong” per the last line of the poem.

This post is about the same sort of perceptual bias in a harmonic setting and will delve a bit into some music theory; my apologies to anyone that is put off by this but my underlying point about seeing the whole picture in the following paragraphs should still make itself apparent if you even if don’t have a background in music theory.

Listen to Quicksilver Night’s song “Presque Vu” and note a sort of harmonized guitar fanfare at around 03:29. Those three guitars and the bass look like this “on paper”:

It took me a while to accept this figure in my composition because it sounded right to me but it seemed to me at first as though it shouldn’t work. You might note that there are parallel perfect fifth intervals moving from beat one to beat two and then again from beat three to beat four. This bothered greatly me at first – I’m a bit compulsive – but then I stopped thinking about the figure as a series of four separate arpeggios (serially Emin7, G, Bmin7, and then D) but instead as a repositioning of notes within the same chord so Emin7 across beats one and two and then Bmin7 across beats three and four.

That resolved that particular bit of cognitive dissonance in my own head but then I realized that’s not the entire story either because there’s a sustained Asus2 on the rhythm guitar across the measure. So instead of two beats each of Emin9/A then Bmin9/A … although that is technically correct … the measure-long flourish is merely a repositioning of the notes across in a full measure of an A13 chord.

It’s sort of like looking too closely at first and all you see are pixels but as you “pull back” in view you see the measure is not one beat each of Emin7, G, Bmin7, and then D but more Emin9 and Bmin9, two beats each. Then if you perceptually pull back a little further and the sustained chord and the bass make it clear that it is really one contiguous dominant chord – A13 – across the length of the measure. The aphorism about “not seeing the forest for the trees” easily applies itself to music.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *