Negative Harmony is an excellent source of inspiration and can produce fantastic musical results. However, the Diatonic approach is not easily compatible with Negative Harmony as we'll have to change scales, bass sequences, and chord progressions. For that reason, let me present a more practical approach based on Interval Theory.
Note: Please note that there are many musical demonstrations in the audio version of this episode, which are not accessible in the transcript.
The Problem with Negative Harmony
Negative Harmony really has become a trendy topic over the last few years. You can find many famous and well-known songs put into negative harmony on YouTube, such as "Stairway to Heaven" or "Smells like teen spirit", and many more.
This is fun stuff, but only if you know the original version of the songs. Those covers are often spicy in their chord progressions or even unusual in their melodic flow. That's because not everything translates equally well onto the negative side.
Let's learn to use Negative Harmony as a tool for creativity and an extension of your ideas.
Let's start from the bottom up. The first thing to know is that the tonic doesn't change in Negative Harmony.
The tonic becomes your anchor point.
So, if you start your piece on a C root tone, it remains a C root tone, but the other bass tones change.
In chromatic steps, you want to count the distance from the bass note to the tonic. Now, the only important thing is to switch the direction, and you'll get to the negative pendant.
Assume your original movement was from an 'A' to a 'C' tonic (that's three chromatic steps up), then your negative move would have gone three chromatic steps down to the C tonic. Hence, you would have started from an Eb.
The distance from the bass note to the tonic always remains the same, only the direction of the movement flips!
Since most Western music follows cadences, let's apply this concept to the Circle of Fifths. Let's create an authentic cadence from 'G' to the 'C' tonic. The closest distance between those two notes is five chromatic steps up. The G goes 5 up into C. If we reverse the movement, we start on the F and go 5 down into C. Now, that equals the plagal cadence, right?
We start realizing that plagal and authentic cadences are connected via Negative Harmony. It's essentially the same distance but in opposite directions.
Triads and Chord Progressions
We can describe any vertical structure via the chromatic distances between the notes. That's what we call an IC, an interval combination. If we count the chromatic steps from bottom to top of a major triad, we get to "4+3". A minor triad will give us "3+4", provided you keep it to the position where you start from the root tone up, like scale tones 1, 3, and 5. Or 1, -3, and 5. That's what we call the position of the fifth because scale tone 5 is on top.
Let me point out that using that position of the 5th is the easiest way to translate a triad into Negative Harmony. Theoretically, it works equally well with all the other positions but brings in more complexity. For now, I advise you to use this position only and apply voice-leading rules later, making everything way more comfortable and even faster!
Let me get to an example.
The essential thing to know is that a major triad translates to a minor one and vice versa.
As you know the root tones already, we can quickly write out the triads on top and flip the major/minor relationship on the negative side. First, let's listen to the original progression, and then we'll listen to the negative pendant.
[please listen to the episode at 6:11 min.]
This actually sounds very usable already. And we can even streamline it more by sticking to cadences. So, here's what an authentic cadence sounds like and then the plagal one, which is the negative version.
[please listen to the episode at 6:51 min.]
This whole idea is a fantastic starting point for compositions. So, I used negative harmony as my gathering, wrote a quick sketch, and developed it further for piano. Here's the result so far, and although it works as a piano piece, this could be turned into a substantial orchestral trailer track as well, but that's another episode. Here's the developed sketch of the track "Rising".
[please listen to the episode at 7:45 min.]
Academy members have access to the Negative Harmony Application course and might have recognized that piece already. It's part of Lesson 7 from that Negative Harmony Application course, and in there, I cover all the details and decision-making behind that composition.
Putting 4-part Chords into Negative Harmony
Funnily enough, we can treat them the same way as triads, as you'll see. You want to determine the negative root and put the above structure into negative harmony over that new root tone - done.
Technically, you can apply this concept to any 4p-structure in close harmony but consider that not all chords translate equally well. Some of them sound good, and others don't. That's why I'm not a big fan of putting whole songs through concepts of Negative Harmony. Let your ears decide what's best!
Negative Harmony Applied to the Orchestra
Now that we've covered some basics on this subject let's put it all into action and see how it applies in an orchestral context. I want to play you the piano sketch of the tune "Get the Cheese" first, so here we go.
[please listen to the episode at 10:28 min.]
Believe it or not, the whole sketch is based on one original idea and its negative pendant - that's all. This concept works with melodies, chords, or any other musical element, but keep it musical. It's easy to get lost in a technique and forget about the musicality. And in my opinion, that's surely not the point of negative harmony.
What inspires you to write exciting music based on your taste is lovely. It's almost like adding a bit of spice to your musical choices.
There are many ways to use Negative Harmony, and whatever works for you is excellent! Even though this term has become very trendy nowadays, it's not more than a tool that is supposed to help you express your emotions and tell your story—no need to mystify this subject.
With all of the negative stuff around you, always try to stay positive and embrace the musical opportunities that open up. It's about you and the musical creation you bring to this world. Make it more colorful and enjoyable.
Btw, all the music you've heard in this episode is part of the Negative Harmony materials inside the Academy.
This was Frank, until the next time.
If you are new to Negative Harmony, start with basic progressions using triads only and see how they sound on the negative side. Don't pay too much attention to the scales; just let your ears decide whether or not you like the sound of it. It's no problem to delete your idea and start over from scratch. Experimentation is part of the process in composition and orchestration!
And if you are an advanced composer already, try to implement Negative Harmony in selected parts of your compositions only. Use it to answer a call or start a new section based on existing materials. This is going to help you write bigger and longer pieces.
Author: Frank Herrlinger