Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Chord Progression of Resignation

I've often found myself wondering whether something as abstract as the emotional impact of a work of art can be broken down to some sort of scientific formula. I don't normally like to discuss the emotional aspects of music (or any art form for that matter), but I found myself speculating: could there be a purely technical unifying factor in all the pieces of music that make me feel a certain way?

In order to try and answer this question, I decided to analyse one of my own compositions - the 4th movement of my Piano Trio. I've always felt that the section which begins at 3:28 minutes is unequivocally representative of resignation. For reasons I will address later, I wanted to find out what made this particular section of music 'tick' .

I discovered that the last 60 seconds of the piece consisted entirely of a repetition of the chords Im, III, IVm, VI - a progression I have since christened the 'Chord Progression of Resignation'. However, perhaps the name is a little misleading, since to me, this sequence of chords signifies something far greater and more profound than a single feeling - it is everything, the universe, infinity.

There are countless pieces of music - or tiny sections of pieces - that have always given me the same distinctive feeling as that final section of the Piano Trio. The impact of these musical fragments is so recognisable that I've sometimes felt a connection between certain works (even those completely dissimilar in style) because of it. What I wanted to know was whether the chord progression I had discovered in the Piano Trio had any relevance to this phenomenon.

Rather than go through all the music I'd ever listened to searching for more occurrences of the Chord Progression of Resignation, I decided to hunt out and analyse pieces solely on the basis that they all gave me the same undefinable but instantly recognisable 'feeling' - in other words, I was using an emotional characteristic to identify a purely technical one.
Rather to my astonishment, all the pieces I chose (I've provided links to some of these below, along with an analysis of the harmonic structure of each) had one thing in common: the Chord Progression of Resignation.

The four chords that make up the Chord Progression of Resignation are only the skeleton around which the harmony is built; there are endless variants and elaborations which can be created from this basic chord structure. For example, it's quite rare to find any of the chords used without an added 7th or 9th, and often the III chord is left out. One of the resulting variants - Im, VI, IVm - is the reason for my obsession with both Ravel and Rachmaninov, and the similarity I feel exists between them. I have found endless variants of this progression in pieces by both composers. There is a beautiful symmetry to the way the roots of the chords in this variant actually form an upside-down tonic triad.

I have grouped the musical examples below according to how they are related harmonically. (I apologise in advance to those who don't appreciate progressive metal/rock, one of the few musical genres in which the Chord Progression of Resignation is used extensively.) Edit: As I discover more examples to add here, I'm putting these at the bottom of the list and they are therefore not grouped by harmonic relationship.

1. Sydonia - Life in a cup This song consists almost entirely of just the four chords Im, III, IVm, VI, and is probably the best example of the Chord Progression of Resignation I can think of, because it's so simple.

2. Elitist - Square and compass This song uses the variant Im, IVm7, VI7 throughout (most notably in the first 30 seconds and from 2:44 onwards). Edit: since publishing this post, I've realised that the album this song comes from, Reshape Reason, uses the chord progession of resignation as an over-arching theme, with it occuring in Unto the Sun, Time Stands Still, Equinox, Trace the Sky and (more subtly) Life Lost, Transmutation and Sacred Geometry. That's almost the entire album!
3. Ravel: Prelude (see 2:23) The progression at 2:23 consists of just the two chords Im and IVm9. Usually I'd say that a progression needs to make use of at least 3 of the 4 chords described earlier in order to be classified as the Chord Progression of Resignation; this example is an exception.

4. Anno Domini - Downfall (see 0:32) From 0:32 onwards this song consists entirely of the variant IVm7, VI7, Im7 (the 4th chord in the progression, VII, can be ignored) 
5. Rachmaninov - Etude op 39 no. 8 (see 0:16) If one takes into consideration the modulation into the dominant key that occurs here, this progression is Im, VI7, IVm7. Note that the order of the chords is a reversal of that in Ex. 5.
6. Ravel - Toccata (see 11:11) This progression is a variant of the one in Ex. 6: Im7, VIm, Im7, IVm7.
7. Anup Sastry - Crystal From 4:47 onwards, this song consists entirely of the chord progression Im, VI, IVm (probably with added 7ths and 9ths, but due to the complexity of the texture I haven't tried to identify them.)
8. Cult of Luna - Dark city, dead man (see 10:00) This song uses the chord progression Im, VI, IVm, III (credit goes to Liam Cooke for finding this one)

9. Rachmaninov - Etude op. 33 no. 7 (see 0:37) This etude is in G minor and uses the progression VI7 up to Im.
10. Rachmaninov - Prelude Op. 32 no. 5 (see 0:48) This etude is in G major and uses the progression I down to VIm7. Compare this piece with the one above and note what happens to the chords: the major and minor are reversed. Im becomes I and VI7 becomes VIm7!

11. John Adams - Nixon in China: Opening (see 4:30) The start of this uses various layers of dissonance over the progression Im, III, VI.
12. Lamb of God - King Me (see 4:55) The use of the Chord Progression of Resignation here is slightly unusual. It starts normally - Im, VI, IVm - but then switches to the variant Im, III, augmented IVm (which is the same as diminished V.)
13. Sikth - As the earth spins round (see 4:27) Here the progression is only just held together by the bass, since it's competing with a ton of dissonance. It's Im, III, IV, with multiple passing notes including a VII chord between Im and III.
14. Rammstein - Du Hast (see 3:03) Im, IVm, VI with V added on the end and some passing notes.
15. Buxtehude - Ad Latus from Membra Jesu Nostri (see 23:55) Im, VIm, III, IVm with a passing V between the first two chords. (There is another piece which uses this exact same progression but unfortunately there is no recording of it on the internet, otherwise I'd link to it.)
16. Stellardrone - Light Years  VI, IVm, Im (if you listen to more of Stellardrone's music you'll find the chord prog of resignation features prominently in much of it.)
17. Widek - Cosmic Ocean VI, IVm, Im
18. Nova Solus - VC4 remix VI, III, Im, IVm + passing V and dim. II - same progression as 8:09 in this but with more emphasis on IV and I, qualifying it for inclusion in this list.
19. Rachmaninov - Moment Musicaux No.1 (see 5:29) Im, III, IVm, VI
20. Eleven Tigers - Stableface (entire song) Im, III, IVm, VI
21. Rachmaninov - Moment Musicaux No. 4 (see 2:26) Im, VI, IVm, [V]
22. Leo Ornstein - Piano Sonata no.4, mvt 2 (see 0:48) IVm, VI, Im
23. Claudio Merulo - Adoramus Te At the start the progression is Im, VI, IVm (and back to Im)
24. Purity Ring - Lofticries Im, [VII], IVm, III, Im and near the end IV, VI, I
25. Cult of Luna - Light Chaser This is one of those examples that only uses 2 chords from the progression. The 2 chords in this instance are IVm down to Im, preceded by a V chord (the presence of the dominant in an otherwise pure chord prog of resignation is extremely common).
26. Porcupine Tree - Trains I've wanted to include this song on the list ever since I first heard it, but it stubbornly evaded analysis. Only recently, while looking for examples of the minor 7th chord, was I finally able to obtain the necessary proof. To start with the chord progression is VII, VI, VII, Im, but at 0:38 it briefly changes to VI, IVm, Im, and then at 0:58 to Im, III, IVm. These are both variants of the chord progression of resignation, and even the initial chord pattern could (at a bit of stretch) be considered a 2-chord variant.
27. My Dying Bride - A Doomed Lover (see 4:36) An example of frequent interspersion of the V chord: Im, VI, [V], IVm, VI, [V], III, Im
28. Olafur Arnalds - Gleypa okkur (see 2:38) III, Im, [Vm], IV

Hopefully the discoveries I've addressed in this blog will help me to become a better composer and further my understanding of harmony. However, I personally think that music is fascinating enough for the analysis to be an end in itself, and I'm publishing this blog post in the hope that some music geek might find it as interesting as I do.

No comments:

Post a comment