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"Descending Chromatic Harmonies, as used by Zeppelin, Rodgers&Hart, Kermit, and Chopin"

Hey everybody welcome to the spotter spots vlog. Today we’re going to take a look at some Descending Chromatic lines, or walk-downs, and their harmonies—also, Lament Bass, Line Clichés, Planing, the Omnibus Progression, and Contrapuntal Elaboration of Static Harmony.” And I’ll get into all those terms over the next few minutes, but for now, the easiest way to look at it is we’re going to look at a string of notes in the harmony, which descend: chromatically. By the way that’s one note at a time with no whole step skips—all half-steps, all semitones. And yeah, because you’ve got 5 or 6 chromatic notes in a row—and, there’s absolutely no diatonic scale out there that does anything like that—the possibilities for harmonization are pretty vast.


Okay, so our first example of this vastness comes from the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. The chromatic descending line here sounds like this: [DEMO] Anyways, you know how it sounds, let me introduce the scale degree names: we got scale degree number 1—or the 8th scale degree, if you wanted to be sure to indicate its proximity to the 7^ right here, then the b7^, the 6^, the b6^, and finally the 5^.


Alright, in case you’d like to know, someone somewhere, in order to describe this, came up with the phrase “lament bass”, so let’s talk about “lament bass”. Basically, it’s a minor sounding line that starts on the root, and goes down to the 5th. And look here, the reason I colored the minor scale degrees in Lament Bass’s brown color, is to indicate that it doesn’t have to be purely chromatic to be considered Lament Bass.


So like in Stairway, you do have all the half-step semitones in between the root, down to the 5^. But, just as commonly if not more so, you can also just play the natural minor notes, AKA the “phrygian tetrachord”, which is geekspeak for the first four notes down the natural minor scale. Examples of this are like in the song “The Cat Came Back”, or “Pink Elephants on Parade”, and a hundred others, so it’s like [DEMO].


And yeah, if I may throw some BS your way real quick, I’d like to point out that in the songs that throw in the chromatic fillers, it’s a trend, that the chords with the primary, lament bass, phrygian tetrachord, natural minor notes, feel, and are played, with a little more heaviness, so the music has more of that back and forth, push and relax, in and out, breathy musicality. Here’s what I mean: [DEMO]


Now, you may have noticed by now that all these examples up here start from the root and go down to the 5^, but, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can start a descending chromatic harmonization from anywhere, it’s just a trend that starting from the root or tonic is how it’s done most of the time. And besides, any examples like that wouldn’t really fit on my nice tidy table here, now would they? So screw them, just kidding. But yeah, they exist.


Okay, let’s get into the harmonizations: we got the minor i starting out, going to the major V with a b6, which could also be spelled as a VII+#9—the reason to chose the former though, would be both the fact that V chords are just more common, and also because the so called b6 note doesn’t come in until the last note of the chord’s range. But, whatever you call it, quite a spectacular chord. Then on to the bIII; then a nice major IV, first inversion, on the natural 6^ for that Melodic Minor, or perhaps Dorian flavor; a bVI type with a major 7 for color; and then there’s this quick little “out of sequence” thing right here [DEMO] before we get back to the minor i, which contains our 5^. What it is, is a G chord, or bVII in A minor—but without the G at first listen. We still call it a G chord though, because that’s how our ear hears it because it’s a G chord pretty much everywhere else, and the G’s in the melody, when we get to the melody.


I mean, upon first listen, you might hear it as a Bm or even Em7 –If you’d never heard Stairway before, but like, what are we going to do: post flyers around the local college campus saying “Wanted: people who’ve never heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for study involving aural premonition of diatonic implications.”


Anyways, I like to think of this line as having kind of a J shape’s little hook at the end, because—as the bVII chord is built on the note below the minor i, it kind of like, flips the direction, just for a tiny bit, just an eighth note long, so it’s like this: [DEMO]


Okay next up is My Funny Valentine by Rodgers & Hart. And here we see that they just kind of stubbornly stayed on the same chord while letting the chromatic descending line do its thing. And this technique has a couple of fun terms for it too; it’s called either “Line cliché” or “Contrapuntal Elaboration of Static Harmony” abbreviated as C.E.S.H. by people that abbreviate things, and yeah, I’ll leave it up to you what you like better.


Okay, let’s hear it [DEMO]. Now, when we get down to the 6^, this “Contrapuntal Elaboration of Static Harmony” bit starts to break down, because we run into some alternate spellings. So like, this minor one chord with a 6^ can also be called a vio, and next, a minor one chord with a b6^ can also be called a bVIM7 chord, same as we had in Stairway. And you can see I flip flopped the order here, because that’s how it’s written in all the books, and because it’s a more preferable way to spell it.


Moving on, these red x’s in the bottom row here represent two chords played before we finally get to the 5^, and, unlike the slight delay in Stairway, these chords get their whole own measures, so it’s a two measure delay this time, instead of just a one eighth-note delay. And I’m not going to tell you what they are just now, because I really want to move on to the next song:


Okay, the official name for “It’s not easy being Green”, is just “Bein’ Green,” by Kermit the frog, and yes Kermit wrote the song; he’s a real frog that writes songs. I mean, some people say Joe Raposo wrote it… but they’re lying liars. Okay though, first thing that makes this example stand out from the pack is that it’s in a major key. So yeah, you can find descending chromatic harmonies in Major keys too, though in Major keys, this whole “back and forth, push and relax, in and out, breathy musicality” switches its bias to the major diatonic scale notes, instead of the minors like before, so now it’s like [DEMO ]. And remember, this is just a trend, you don’t have to tie these subtle heavy-light, strong-weak feels to diatonics—to the key of the song—If you don’t want to.


Alright, real quick disclaimer: In my sheet music for this song from 1985, the chord harmonizing the b6^ is a minor iv, but in the jazz real book version, as well as many other versions of the song, the chord is a ii [V/ii]. But yeah, as to which chord Joe Raposo—I mean Kermit actually wrote, we’ll just have to leave that to another google search.


Moving on, another appropriate side tangent here, is to talk about “planing.” So like “Planes of existance” right, not “Airplanes.” But yeah, “Planing” is probably the most caveman-obvious way to harmonize a descending chromatic line, because all the notes move chromatically at the same intervals. So whatever chord or harmonization you’re playing, you just move that chord up and down. And there’re no examples up here of that, but I did underline major chords up here that plane, so you could see what it looks like on paper, and here’s what it sounds like, [DEMO]. And that’s just major, you can do it with any chord really. Like, check it out, I also under-wavy-lined the minors so they wouldn’t be left out, so here’s what minor “planing” sound like: [DEMO]


Okay, our last example is the Em Prelude by Chopin. Now, first of all, let’s face it: composers of the classical eras are pretty much way smarter and way more creative than anyone will ever be, ever again, probably, but: they’re dead and they couldn’t surf the internet or eat hamburgers on Segways, so, it’s a fair trade off, isn’t it. But yeah what I mean about this example being more awesome than the rest is that it takes the harmonization one step further by assigning not just one, but multiple chords to each descending note in the line. Alright, So, let’s do this.


[Here are the guitar chords for those that would like]


1^- xx545x  i  / xx425x  Isus24  or  iio7 without its “b5”  


7^- xx424x  viio  /  xx324x bII7


b7^- xx323x  bvii  /  xx313x  bviio  /  xx213x  I7  /  xx203x  i7


6^- xx202x  vio  or  io7 without its b5


b6- xx201x  bVI  /  x745xx  iio7  /  x645xx  bvio  /  x545xx  bVII7  /  x535xx  bvii7


5- x534xx  vo  /  x324xx  bVI7  /  (x322xx)  


And I mean—that’s just the half of it, the progression’s still got a ways to go at this point. I just stopped here because that’s where the chromatic descending minor harmony stops, and moves on to other things and other chords. But speaking of other chords, holy crap: that’s 16 chords and counting where he didn’t repeat any chords! 16+ unique chords in a row, I mean, you’re just not gonna see anyone pull that off anymore these days, at least not in a pop tune, I mean, there’s just not enough, sorrow, and illness, and long isolating winters with no central heating.


And look, in case you got an eagle eye and you were about get me, the iio7 alternate spelling up here isn’t the same chord as the iio7 down here because, again, one’s missing its b3rd and one, its b5th, so they’re not the same three notes, and so not the same chord. But yeah: Wow.


Oh, I got another disclaimer quick, about these chord types up here, and it’s that they’re all based in E minor. Which isn’t a wrong thing to do, but many of these chords could also be described more acutely as brief modulations to other keys, secondary ii-V-I’s, secondary diminished chords and that sort of thing. Um, but yeah, I didn’t go that far for this vlog, because… basically because I’m lazy, and I didn’t want mess up my whiteboard too much or get too off topic.


Okay next, you’ve been waiting patiently, so now I’m going to tell you why I colored some of the chords red. It’s pretty simple actually, if you haven’t guessed already. You see, there’s a trend in these Lament Bass line harmonizations to want to delay getting to the 5^’s harmonization. So like in “Stairway” we delayed with just one little out-of-sequence chord, and in Valentine we delayed with two longer out-of-sequence chords, and in the Chopin, there are no out of sequence chords, but he takes 5 different harmonizations on the b6^ to get to the 5^, which is the longest he takes to move on from any of his chromatic step-downs. So yeah, that’s the trend and I’m sticking to it!


Okay last, let’s talk about a few more chords you could use for your descending chromatic harmonies. First, the chords colored in blue are an example of what’s called an “Omnibus Progression”, which has the added benefit of attempting to have another line ascending chromatically at the same time as the descending line! I say attempting because you usually have to cheat once or twice by staying on a note or skipping to another note in order to make it work. And here’s kinda what that’s supposed to sound like: [DEMO] But yeah, go to the Wiki page for “Omnibus Progression” if you want to see the whole example, as well as some others.


Moving on, the major IV and the minor vi are the other obvious major diatonic possibilities for the 1^. You could also play the minor diatonic equivalents, minor iv and major bVI, but I’m not going to write those up here right now because, I forgot to, and, now there’s no space. Back to planing, you could play a major VII or minor vii on 7^, and for the b7 you could play the bVII—and really, I  don’t know how we managed to miss that chord, I mean it’s the 4th most popular chord type in pop music after all! And, BTW, shameless plug, if you haven’t seen my video blog series about most popular chord types pop musicians use, you should watch it. It’s really good.


Moving down to the next row, a couple more diatonics, a planer, and more less commonly used diatonic possibilities! But this time they’re the minor diatonics, so now you don’t have to accuse me of chord-racism!


Okay that’s the end of our examples. A couple of honorable mentions, songs that we could have used for this blog but didn’t, include: “Blue Skies”, “Babe I’m gonna leave you”, “Phantom of the Opera”, “The James Bond Theme” and pretty much everything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. And yeah! That’s it for now. Until next time, make sure to like us, subscribe, and follow us on all the websites, and if you got some time, you should stick around and watch another music theory and songwriting video from the vlogs! Alright, Thanks, and have a good one!