Details or Dots

The biggest difference I hear at the moment between the mainstream music my ears gravitate toward and the “contemporary” music in so many U.S. churches could be described as a tonal one.  Here’s what I mean in geeky theory terms.  (I have a degree in theory/composition so I guess this is where I get to use those four years.)

A chord is at least three notes separated by thirds.  An “A major” chord, for example, would be spelled A-C#-E.  In church you’d likely hear all three notes.  To the audience, the chord is heard as obviously an “A” chord and obviously “major” even if the listener doesn’t know to call it that.

By contrast, when Snow Patrol, for instance, plays an “A” chord in their song Chasing Cars, it’s at best A-ish.  They leave out the

third (the second note of chord), which is the C#.  One musician is bouncing between the notes “A” and “E” and another between “E” and the “A” an octave (eight notes) higher and the bass is pulsing out a steady stream of eighth notes on “A.” Listen to this stripped down version of the song:

So?  Well, the third, the C#, is what makes the chord sound major and not minor.  Major feels very different to a listener than minor.  It invokes a different mood and even a different meaning to the lyric.  That third is very important.  Leaving it out seems dangerous. But the sung melody uses the C# – sparingly, but it does occur – just often enough to signal to tell the listener’s brian what it wonders: Is this major or minor?  And the right emotion is triggered.

You don’t have to tell us everything.  You can paint dots and not details.

It’s realism versus pointilism.  Rembrandt gave us all the information about a human face, every wrinkle on every cheek, every hair it’s own precise color.  Beautiful. Especially in a day ruled by logic and to an audience infatuated with precision.  Seurat, by contrast, gave us millions of dots.  Each dot a single color.  A canvas full of dots lacked the detail of a Rembrandt canvas but told us enough to get the point across.  The brain filled in the gaps.  Beautiful.  Especially in a day ruled by romanticism and to an audience infatuated with ambiguity and relativity and new to the science of light.

Would your audience like dots or details?  I know what I prefer.

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