Negative Harmony Applications
Guidelines to Get Started in using negative harmony in your chord progressions
Introduction Ever wondered about what Negative Harmony is and how it can be used in your music playing/composition? Negative Harmony is a relatively easy concept used in music for the purpose of applying alternative melodic lines or chord progressions and thus providing a different “feeling” of the original composition. Negative Harmony plays a very important role in re-harmonization and it is based on the principle that for a given key, any chord has its negative harmony equivalent to be used as an alternative of the original chord.
In this article I will show you the theory behind Negative Harmony and how it is used to alter a given chord progression to get a new sound and yet be playable with the original melody.
The Concept Behind Negative Harmony
For any given key we are in, and looking at the associated major scale, each scale degree can be defined in two different categories: Stable and Unstable.
Stable means that that particular tone of the scale does not want to move to any other tone in the sense that it has no tension. Unstable means that that particular tone wants to resolve to a different tone of the scale to release tension. As an example looking at the C Major Scale that we have 7 degrees. Below are shown the 7 degrees of the scale and their category they belong to: C (Stable) D (Unstable). Wants to resolve to either C or E E (Stable) F (Unstable). Wants to resolve to E G (Stable) A (Unstable). Wants to resolve to G B (Unstable). Wants to resolve to C
The reason why C, E and G are stable is because they belong to the C Maj triad which outlines the Key center chord. Additionally there are 7 different triads (i.e. three note chord) we can shape starting from each degree of the scale. Based on the stability classification above we can define the “footprint” or characteristic of each scale chord, as follows (follow me a little longer we will soon get into Negative Harmony subject): C Major: C (Stable) – E (Stable) – G (Stable) – C Major Footprint is [Stable-Stable-Stable] D Minor: D (Unstable) – F (Unstable) – A (Unstable) — D Minor Footprint is [Unstable-Unstable-Unstable] E Minor: E (Stable) – G (Stable) – B (Unstable) — E Minor Footprint is [Stable-Stable-Unstable]
F Major: F (Unstable) – A (Unstable) – C (Stable) — F Major Footprint is [Unstable-Unstable-Stable] G Major: G (Stable) – B (Unstable) – D (Unstable) – G Major Footprint is [Stable-Unstable-Unstable] A Minor: A (Unstable) – C (Stable) – E (Stable) – A Minor Footprint is [Unstable-Stable-Stable] B Diminished: B (Unstable) – D (Unstable) – F (Unstable) – B Diminished Footprint is [Unstable- Unstable – Unstable]
The chord footprint is a characteristic which defines how the chord functions in any given chord progression so if we want to replace a chord by a new one, we will need to pick a new chord with exactly the same footprint in the new key. This is what’s called an “Equivalent chord”. So this is the main intent when using Negative Harmony in chord progressions: We will replace the original chord by a new one which is equivalent. But… how do we find equivalent chords? Well, we will use the standard 12 tones wheel to find the Negative Harmony equivalent chord. Note that for a Major Key, the original chord tones are considered as “Bright” harmony and the negative harmony equivalent chord tone are considered as “Dark” harmony. This is from the fact that, as we will see soon, here the original C Major Scale converts to a C Minor Scale. The 12 tones wheel below shows generic degrees numbers which apply to any given key.
The only way to find an equivalent chord using negative harmony is if we split the 12 tones wheel in half as it is shown by the horizontal split line in the graph below. This will ensure that all Stable notes in the original key convert to stable notes in the converted key, and all unstable notes in the original key convert to unstable notes in the converted key. As we will see soon here in this article, the original Major Key converts to a Minor Key with the same root as originally when using Negative Harmony. Then, in order to find the negative harmony conversion chord we just draw vertical lines downwards (or upwards) as shown on the 12 tone wheel in the Negative Harmony Conversion table.
In order to use the 12 tone wheel for the C Major Example here we have:
I in 12 tone key wheel is C II in 12 tone key wheel is D III in 12 tone key wheel is E… and so forth. Note that the 12 tone key wheel also includes the alterations bII, bIII, bV, bVII and bVII.
Let’s work on some examples:
Suppose we would like to convert the following chord progression in the key of C Major to its Negative Harmony equivalent: Dm7 – G7 – CMaj7 Starting from Dm7, the chord tones are: D – F – A – C
Using the 12 tone key wheel for C as key center we get for Dm7 chord tones:
D converts to F
F converts to D
A converts to Bb
C converts to G, so the resulting negative harmony equivalent chord for Dm7 is Gm7.
Similarly for G7 chord we get:
G converts to C
B converts to Ab
D converts to F F converts to D, so the resulting negative harmony equivalent chord for G7 is Dm7b5. (Note I could have also used Fm6 by using the first inversion of the Dm7b5 chord)
And lastly for C Maj7 chord we get:
C converts to G
E converts to Eb
G converts to C
B converts to Ab, so the resulting negative harmony equivalent chord for Cmaj7 is AbMaj7.
So now our original chord progression Dm7 – G7 – CMaj7 (in the key of C Major) has been converted to Gm7 – Dm7b5 – AbMaj7 and now we are in the key of C Minor.
In order to resolve the chord progression to its key center we could also replace the AbMaj7 chord in the converted harmony progression by a C Minor chord by leaving out the conversion of the vii (B) in the original Cmaj7 chord, leading the following converted progression:
Gm7 – Fm6 – Cmin
Now that we have the original and the converted chord progression you can listen to both versions using the same melody line herein below.
ORIGINAL CHORD PROGRESSION: Dm7 – G7 – CMaj7
NEGATIVE HARMONY CONVERTED CHORD PROGRESSION: Gm7 – Fm6 – Cm
By listening: did you notice that the same melody works for both chord progressions, also did you notice that the musical piece sound different and… darker when converted? Remember: after conversion we are in the key of C Minor.
So now you may be asking: why all this? Well, sometimes it is great to have a different flavor of a song or piece of music by re-harmonizing some of the chords structure to produce variation and create a different version of a music section. We need to note the following, though:
Not all the chords in a progression will sound good when converting to Negative Harmony equivalent. You may end up by keeping the original chords in the progression if your ears are telling you the new progression doesn’t sound that good.
Changing chords in a progression will only work if the new chords do not conflict with the melody. If some of the converted chords conflict with the melody, we have two options:
Change the melody note conflicting with the converted chord to any of the converted chord tones. (Modify the Melody)
Leave the original chord so it won’t conflict with the melody.
Have fun experimenting with some of your favorite chord progressions or songs.