Simplifying My Approach to Complex Chord Design
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
The Cory Henry Influence
Cory Henry is an American pianist and keyboard player working predominantly in the Jazz and Funk arenas. He's regarded as one of the leading players in these fields, is a successful solo artist and of late has worked with some of the biggest names in Jazz and Funk as well as featured on stage at events such as the BBC Proms alongside Jacob Collier.
In a guest performance with the band Snarky Puppy, Henry plays a rather impressive solo (at 4:17). The first half of the solo is ever-increasing tension (achieved with chordal) work and the second half of the solo lets rip with some killer shredding that gives payoff for the tension that preceded it.
I find the chordal work in the first part of this solo very intriguing. With both hands close together on the keyboard, Henry underpins his melodic improvisation with a (different) two-handed chord for almost every top-line note in the improvised melody.
This technique isn't new and is often referred to as "Block Chords". Artists such as Fats Domino, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Bill Evans and George Shearing often used chordal or Block Chord improvisation techniques.
Henry's dreamy, tense chordal shapes in this solo especially got under my skin as I was fascinated by how he seems able to improvise such ethereal chordal work in support of an improvised melody. It was a different kind of Block Chord improvisation and frankly, I'd be happy just to have the presence of mind to use such spacious and ethereal chords like this in my own music, let alone be able to spontaneously improvise them at speed. I find the whole thing somewhat mind-boggling.
It Turns Out I'm Not Alone
Like me, other people have been transfixed with this performance, transcribing and analysing this passage of chordal improvisation. One fan created a video detailing what he plays; chord by chord.
Watching this video, I was struck by the relative simplicity of the chords. Take the chord pictured below, for example:
Here we have E A D B E G. Discarding the duplicate "E" note and rearranging them a little, we can easily form a typical E minor7 (add 11).
Alternatively, for added tension, we could bring the 11 down to the 4 position.
My rearrangements are conventional and straightforward chord structures (not to mention easier to remember), and they are shapes I'd typically use in composition and performing. However, they don't achieve the character and tonal colour of Henry's chord shapes.
May The 4th Be With You
I believe one element of Henry's etherial and dreamy chord voicing lies in Quartal Voicing; meaning the notes of the chord are all spread across 4th intervals; E - A - D in the left and B - E in the right, with the only exception (to the Quartal Voicing rule) being the top G, which is needed to give us the overall minor tonality of the chord.
Exploiting Quartal Voicings (as Henry's done here) can evoke a tense, curious, even mysterious sound. It is commonly used in film, TV and video-game soundtracks for exactly this reason.
Whilst Henry uses 4ths with reasonable frequency in this solo, it's by no means the golden ticket to crafting chord progressions and/or Block Chord improvisation. There are other factors at play in his chord selection, many of which are tied to the musical themes and motifs of the song in question. If I'm to better familiarise myself with unusual chords, and understand how best to apply them, I should aim to start with some basics and not get too fixated on the Lingus solo.
Time to Simplify Things...
Things are getting (technically) heavier than I wanted to with this article! Let's set aside Quartal Voicing, overly complicated chord names and music theory jargon for while.
You see, despite having studied music theory for much of my life, I still fundamentally think about music in simplistic ways, often working on gut instinct and preferring to stack simple ideas on top of one another, rather than using the complicated technical terms. With this in mind, let's consider things simplistically, whilst experimenting with these Henry-esque chord shapes.
In terms of Block Chords, I began to think of the chord shapes played by each hand as completely separate entities. I.e. simultaneously playing different chords in each hand, that when joined together sound spacious and marry harmonic complexity with open-ended atmospheres.
For example, a simple chord like a Csus2 in the left hand and an equally simple B♭major in the right. Whilst this would technically be a C7 (sus2, 9, 11), the structure in this particular example plays (and sounds) more like a dreamier, interesting version of a Gm7 (mostly due to the low C and D notes). Of course, I appreciate that whatever note underpins this chord in the bass register would have some sway over the chord's formal naming.
What's important to note, is that rather than trying to memorise this particular phrasing as a C7 (sus2, 9, 11), I find it much easier to think of the left and right hand independently; a "C sus2 in the left and a B♭major in the right".
This was the lightbulb moment in which I realised that I needn't try and memorise complicated chordal names (that I'd likely forget, thus forgetting the chord itself). Instead, what sticks in my memory better, is remembering two simple chords, as opposed to one complicated chord. This is what I meant above when I talked about stacking simple ideas on top of one another.
With this in mind; I set about making myself a writing/composition aid, in the form of a bespoke chord chart. Treating the left and right hand as entirely separate entities, I methodically worked my way (chromatically upward) through different left-hand-chord/right-hand-chord combinations. Combinations included majors, minors, sus2, sus4, 6th 7th, flattened 5ths, augmented 5ths and anything else that crossed my mind. Through trial and error I put together a list of Left-Hand/Right-Hand Chord-Combinations that I felt were usable and interesting, and I disregarded the combinations that were overly dissonant or unpleasant.
Many of these chords would be normal or familiar by definition, but due to the unusual way in which they were formed would sound interesting or have unconventional characteristics (similar in tonal flavour to what Henry was achieving in his solo). Some chord shapes however were complex and would technically have long-winded names, e.g. C Minor 7 (♭9, 11, 13).
In the instance of chords like C Minor 7 (♭9, 11, 13), it's actually formed with simplicity by playing a Cm7 in the left hand a D♭∆7 in the right hand.
I decided that instead of listing the formal names, I'd simply list the left-hand chord and right-hand chord separately in a table (for future reference).
With a long list of interesting chord ideas taking shape, I colour-coded them based on emotional feeling, included an example, a description of the mood and the formal name to better help me memorise them for future use.
All together, I amassed a list of 31 chord combinations that piqued my interest, with descriptions ranging from "Uplifting with slight resolve" to "Dark yet Warm". If you wish to view this list and use it in your own musical work, you can find the PDF here. Please feel free to download it and use it as you see fit in your own music making.
If you use this list and happen to find other interesting left-hand/right-hand chord combinations that aren't on this list, please don't hesitate to let me know. I'm always keen to expand this list with any noteworthy combinations that I may have missed.
Summary (Putting Chord Combinations to use)
I printed out the "Interesting Chord Catalogue" and have it to hand in the studio. It serves as a very useful tool, adding colour and spice to my compositions. I've used ideas from this list in several songs on my upcoming album and the list has proved valuable in helping craft atmosphere and space. It also serves as a springboard when I'm struggling for ideas.
Less is More
My first attempts at utilising these chords were overdone, in that I was using only large, complex chord shapes. This was creating lots of tension without release. Tension in music is only ever as affective as its counterpoint; release. You can't have dark without light!
Developing a healthy blend of complex chords alongside concise chords gave much more prominence to both. For example, on one song on my upcoming album, I used dreamy and complex chords to craft an emotionally ambiguous and hazy introduction that crescendoes into a very harmonically compact Funk groove played on a simple minor 7 chord. The juxtaposition of these two approaches made for a meaningful and significant transition.
Use The 4th, Luke
At this point, an honourable mention must go to how this exercise reawakened me to the effectiveness of the 4th interval (moreover stacking fourth intervals simultaneously). It's been something I've known about since early in my musical education, but perhaps sometimes the earliest lessons learned can be the easiest to forget. This exercise completely switched my ears back on to using stacked 4ths to exploit feelings of curiosity, ambiguity and so on. Something that really came in handy when writing my upcoming album. If you don't overly make use of stacked 4ths in this way, give it a try; you might be pleasantly surprised.
Combining Various Approaches
If we consider my recent switch to a Bottom Up composition method; having this itinerary of complex, often dreamy chords to gently lay over the top of Funk inspired bass lines has been very helpful and creatively rewarding. My upcoming album is littered with this sort of thing.
Whilst I can't yet reel off these chords on-the-fly in the form of improvisation (like Henry does), I believe I've passed a milestone in my playing and overall outlook on chord structure and composition. Moreover, I'm building up improved muscle memory and more finely tuning my ear to new possibilities. I've broken a number of old habits (in terms of conventional chord phrasing) and switched on a part of my creative brain that I didn't know was there.
I hope that my experiences and ideas on this topic along with the Interesting Chord Catalogue can help inspire you in similar ways to how it has helped me; switching on my ear to new harmonic nuances, breaking old habits and all-round simplifying potentially complicated chord construction.
Happy composing :)