Composing Contemporary Music for the Folk Harp
with Other Instruments

Diatonics Can Be Fun (Full Text)

by Teed Rockwell

[Note:This original, unabridged article appeared in the Folk Harp Journal No. 52, March, 1986. Used with permission.]

If you're reading this, and you are not a harp player yourself, you probably have a friend who is a harp player. And if you play some other instrument, you've probably thought that folk harp would be really fun to play. The sound is so familiar, yet so new, the possibilities for beautiful music seem endless. But if you've been trained in Jazz or Rock, you were probably put off immediately by the discovery that the folk harp is diatonic, i.e. that you cannot play accidentals (sharps or flats that vary from the original key) unless you take a few seconds to reach up and flick several levers. At first glance this seems to eliminate almost all contemporary music. After all, even most classical music relies heavily on tonal modulation, unless you go back before Bach to the Renaissance. By the time you get to the twentieth century, even the simplest little tunes are built on non-diatonic formulas which are so familiar to modern ears that they don't sound like key changes at all. If you decide to form a group with a harp player, it looks like you can forget about Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington altogether. And if you really want to discourage yourself, try picking up a copy of The Beatles Songbook, and crossing off all of the songs that have accidentals in them. After doing this, you'll be convinced that the only songs that can be played on the folk harp are "Three Blind Mice" and "Old MacDonald Had A Farm".

When I first started playing with a folk harper in the group Geist, it seemed like every idea I had could not be adapted to the folk harp. My studies of jazz had included improvising on songs like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps", which changes keys every two beats, and my own compositions were filled with the most outrageous key modulations I could possible imagine. Image of Teed Rockwell and Diana Stork
Teed and Diana Stork of Geist

If I had not loved the woman who was playing the harp more than I ever loved the sound of the harp itself, I would never have voluntarily written any pieces that stayed in the same key all the way through. But once I did write a few songs for the harp, I discovered that using jazz melodies and chords that did not modulate sounded more original than following the expected jazz changes. Those modulations which are the basis of modern popular music have become formulas which can hinder creativity if we forget that it is not always necessary to use them. The single scale gives a sense of focus and unity, counteracting the urbanized cynicism which is evoked when jazz chords and scales are used in Swing and Bebop music. This fits in well with the natural healing tones of the harp, suggesting (to me at least) a sense of the virtues of both the Ancient and the Modern, and an awareness that it is possible to have the best of both.

One thing that opens up when you begin composing diatonically is a greater use of modes. All but two of the modes have been pretty much ignored by classical music, and by most jazz until the late 1950's. The two modes which have been used most in western music are Ionian (which with typical western arrogance is usually called THE major scale) and Aeolian (which is similarly called THE minor scale). One of the reasons that western music uses so many accidentals is to enable a composition to stay in Ionian or Aeolian even when the tonal center changes. If a piece starts in C, for example, and it has a middle part in G, the middle part will also probably have an F# added so that it will be in G Ionian. When the tonal center goes back to C, the F# will be naturalized to transpose back to C Ionian. If you do not add these kinds of accidentals when you shift the tonal center (which is the natural thing to do on a folk harp), you end up playing in one of the other five modes, which gives an exciting and exotic quality to your music.

There is only one way to get a real feeling for the special quality that each mode possesses, and that is to compose and/or improvise within that mode. You can hear what the modes sound like by playing a harp with the levers set for the key of C and making up melodies using notes other than C as your "home base." If you are not a harp player, sit down to a keyboard and try making up tunes without any black notes while shifting the tonal center to some note other than C. If your melodies come home to D, you will be playing in Dorian mode. If they start and end on E you will be playing in Phrygian Mode. When F becomes your tonal center you will be playing in Lydian, G will be Mixolydian, A will be Aeolian (our friend THE minor scale) and B will be Locrian. (If you set the levers of the harp for G, then G will be Ionian, A will be Dorian, and so on up the scale. To keep things simple, however, we will assume for the rest of this article that C is Ionian, and let you figure out how to translate these modes to other keys. On the harp, it's simply a matter of resetting the levers.)

At the moment these names are probably just empty words to you, and until you have heard many melodies in each mode any description would be like explaining a color to a blind man. Verbal descriptions can help, however, if they are used as an aid to listening rather than as a substitute for it.

Basically, there are three major modes, three minor modes, and Locrian which is totally unclassifiable and deserves at least a paragraph of its own. The three major modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. The three minor mores are Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian. Because Ionian is the major mode we are most familiar with, the other two modes sound most "modal" at those intervals where they differ most from Ionian. Mixolydian therefore sounds most like itself when you emphasize the seventh degree of the scale (which is flatted in comparison to Ionian), and Lydian is identifiable most readily by the fourth degree of the scale (which is raised in comparison to Ionian). Similarly, because Aeolian is the minor mode we are most familiar with, Phrygian sounds most like itself because of its flatted second (which gives it its passionate flamenco sound), and Dorian is identifiable by its major sixth (which gives it a kind of mournful ambiguity).

Locrian is the abandoned step-child of the modes. Many books on modes state flatly that Locrian cannot be used, but that is obviously a matter of taste. I like it, personally, for the very reason that many people say it is unusable: it has a minor third and a flatted fifth, which makes it sound very diminished and jazzy. It is in fact used quite frequently in Brazilian Bossa Nova, where it resolves to Aeolian or Phrygian. If you do not want to create a sound like an atonal horror movie score, I would recommend staying on Locrian for a measure or so and then resolving down to something else for at least as long. This creates a feeling of "tension and release" which is very emotionally moving and spiritually healing.

If you spend enough time improvising and composing with each of these modes, you will eventually be able to recognize them after hearing only a couple of measures, as easily and spontaneously as you can now recognize the color red when you see it. When that happens, you can start thinking about different kinds of chords you can use these modes with. The most obvious thing to do is to use the same chord as the mode's tonic. When you are still training your ear to hear a mode, this is the best thing to concentrate on. If you are going from E minor to F to E minor, the obvious thing to play is E Phrygian. If you are going from G to F to G, then play G Mixolydian. Some beautiful effects can be achieved, however, by playing a mode against some chord other than its tonic. Locrian, for example, can be played against the tonic for Ionian, to produce a lush major sound (in other words, play B Locrian against a C major chord).

The best way to contrast modes and accompanying chords is for the harp to play one and some other instrument to play the other. If the chords in one instrument are different from the modes in another, what will probably happen spontaneously is that the chordal player will unconsciously add the tonic from the mode to his chords. If the harp is playing a D minor chord, for example, and you are playing an E Phrygian solo on top of it, the natural thing for the harp player to do would be to add an E to his D chord. And when hat happens a whole new world has been opened up for this diatonic instrument: the world of jazz chords.

When most folk harp players play accompanying chords, they play first the tonic, and then skip a string and play the next note after that. These three notes, called the root, the third, and the fifth, are mixed in various combinations from octave to octave to form major and minor triads, which are the basis of accompanying parts for almost all kinds of folk music. Any other notes used in accompanying parts are almost always just "passing tones," which resolve quickly up or down to one of these three notes. In jazz, however, other tones besides these three are used in the basic accompaniment chord. Whenever a new tone is added to the basic chord, it produces a distinctly recognizable tone color. Like the modes, these chords have to be worked with until you become familiar with their personalities and moods. But once you do learn to recognize them, you can use them in your own compositions to give a richness rarely found in diatonic music.

Let us say, for example, that you play every other string for four notes instead of three. Then, you will be adding the seventh to the root, third, and fifth, so the chords you play will be called seventh chords. The seventh chords built off of Ionian and Lydian modes are called major seventh chords. The seventh chord built off of Mixolydian is called the dominant seventh, and is the only seventh chord frequently used in folk music (this is why guitar chord books always show you how to play D, F, and G7 for example. In the key of C, the G7 would be built off of Mixolydian and would be a dominant 7th. The dominant 7th thus sounds more like folk music and less like jazz). The seventh chords built on the three minor modes are called minor sevenths, and the seventh built on Locrian is called a minor seventh flat fifth.

All of these names are straight forward descriptions of how the chords are constructed (Locrian is a minor scale with a flatted fifth). Most of these chords are created by starting with the first note of any given mode (the root) and then counting upward in odd numbers. This is why after we have put the third, the fifth and the seventh on top of the root the next thing we do is put on the ninth. Depending on whether we start in a major or minor mode, we get either a major ninth or a minor ninth. We can continue to count upward by odd numbers to create two more kinds of chords, elevenths and thirteenths. After that, you hit the tonic again and the whole cycle begins all over (and besides, you start to run out of fingers).

Promo photo of Geist
The many instruments of Geist

It cannot be stressed enough that knowing the mathematical formulas for producing these chords is not the same as having a "knowledge by acquaintance" of each of these chords. If a mother of twelve children only had numbers to tell them apart instead of names, and the only thing she knew about number nine was that he was younger than number eight and older than number ten, one could not really say that she knew her children.

It takes a long time to acquire familiarity, because chords and scales, like children, behave differently in different situations. Any one of these chords can be voiced in a variety of ways by putting different parts of it in different octaves. Variations on a chord can also be produced by putting a note other than the root on the bottom, or by leaving out certain notes. (The 7th is frequently left out of the 9th chords, and the 11th and the 13th are frequently dropped an octave, where they become a 4th and a 6th respectively.)

Each of these variations will change the personality of any given chord. Theoretical knowledge will not tell you which one to choose, but it will open up new possibilities for you to try, so that your ear has more choices to work with.

Another way you can keep your chords interesting is to have the harp play a chord, and some other instrument play an unexpected bass note under it (or vice versa). If one instrument is changing chords while the bass note remains the same you get a kind of intensity that is frequently used in rock and roll. Try playing a C bass note while shifting the chords on top of it from C to D minor, or from D to F. You can also play the same melody twice, with a different bass part each time. In the Geist tune "Tumbler's Waltz," my instrument, the Chapman Stick, is playing a C bass part under a melody that is basically in G. Some time later, the same melody is played with a bass part that marks the chords rather than goes against them. This makes a melody which first sounded jazzy and intense become instead folkish and lyrical, even though it is exactly the same tune both times.

Now that you have become aware that staying in the same key is nowhere near as confining as you thought it was, it's probably all right to let you know that you can actually modulate to other keys while playing with the folk harp. If your harp is tuned to F (so that you play B naturals by using sharping levers to raise the B flats), you can modulate from any sharp key to almost any other sharp key. If your levers are set for G major, for example, you can modulate to A, B, C, D, or E major without changing any levers. All you have to do is have the harp player leave out the third degree of the chord, and play only the root and the fifth. This makes it impossible to tell whether the chord is minor or major. The other instrument(s) can then play the third to establish the key exactly, and the harp can follow along without giving any sense of dropping out for the key changes. With this method, you can modulate from any sharp key to any other sharp key, provided you use a little thought about what is the best way to connect them modally. Furthermore, once you have written your chord progression so that it only modulates in ways the harp can follow, you can play any kind of jazz scales you want within that chord progressions, so that it and the harp can provide an effective foundation for those scales, even if it cannot play them. When the harp plays a G major chord, or a G root-five-root, you can play a G diminished, or a G whole tone, or a G chromatic scale. (If you don't know what these scales are, don't worry about it; they're beyond the scope of this article. However, if you can already play them, it's nice to know you can still play them when accompanied by the harp.)

Another way you can modulate with the folk harp is to preset the levers in a scale that has modulation within it. The Geist song "Downtown New Delhi" was written in an Indian Raga which had both a major and a minor third in it, which no western mode has. So Diana set the D string to D#, and kept the E naturalized, which made it possible to play what in effect became an E and an E flat. It was no longer possible to play a D natural, but that wasn't in the Raga anyway. Indian music proves many examples of unusual scales that can be used this way, and once one of these scales is set, the music will stay there, sometimes for over an hour. It's a good lesson for any composer who thinks it's impossible to write exciting and complex music without changing keys.

Last, and to some degree least, it is possible to have the harp drop out for a few seconds while the harper changes lever positions. You won't be able to play John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" this way, but by this time, hopefully, you realize that it is possible to make exciting music even without using every possible key in every single song. Indeed, in this day of information overload, when it is possible to study so many different kinds of music, the harp provides a kind of center for modern music to build around. When you concentrate on the keys available to the folk harp, your music becomes narrow and deep, instead of shallow and broad. It will no longer be possible to sound like everybody, but it will become easier to sound like yourself. And this, I feel, is at least part of what music needs to be great music.

Listen to Teed Rockwell, Diana Stork and Mika Scott play Indian Winter from the album More Light.
( You will need Realplayer to listen to this clip. )

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