Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 281 of Secrets of Organ Playing podcast. Today’s question was sent by Spencer. And he asks for tutorials on playing varied hymn harmonies. What do you imagine, Ausra, this could be?
A: Well, it always surprises me when people might think that there is one easy solution for such a complex issue as playing various hymn harmonizations. What do you think about that, Vidas? Is it easy or not, to do?
V: For me it’s easy--but I’ve been doing it for 20 years. So guys, it’s difficult for the first 20 years, but after that it’s easy! But we shouldn’t discourage people like that. Are there any shortcuts on learning how to harmonize hymns? I don’t think so.
A: Well...some of them might be, but you still need to learn what the keyboard harmony in general is.
V: Mhm. So your first step should probably be to get familiar with the basic chords: tonic, subdominant, and dominant. And their inversions: the 6 chord and the 64 chord. What else? Dominant 7th chord, maybe?
A: Sure. And then all the other chords, too!
V: When you say all the other chords, it’s too much, right? But you could actually harmonize--with tonic, subdominant, and dominant--any type of hymn; because they usually are written in one key. What about if the hymn modulates in the middle? Can you use tonic, subdominant, and dominant then?
A: Well...not exactly. Because you know, when you modulate, you need to show more dissonant chords.
V: But if you treat this modulation as the new key, right--constant key excerpt or episode--and then you find out what are the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords of that key, of the new key, and only use those 3 chords in that passage, and then come back--
A: Well, in very simple modulation, you can do that.
A: But really, it doesn’t always work. Usually after a common chord, you need to show some specific dissonant chord of the new key.
A: And you usually don’t use simple subdominant in that case.
A: You need to add something more sophisticated.
V: So perhaps Spencer could benefit from our courses on harmonization.
V: Like Harmony for Organists Level 1; Hymn Harmonization Workshop; your lessons with Victoria…
A: Yes, and my sequences and cadences and modulations on YouTube. If you would play them all, you can definitely play various hymn harmonies.
V: Mhm, mhm.
A: It will give you some basic ideas about keyboard harmony.
V: So if you were a beginner--it’s obviously very difficult for us to imagine that we are a beginner, but--if we are pretending, for a second, that we don’t know anything, like with a beginner’s mind--if you would want to start learning music theory and chords today, what would be your first step? Obviously those chords, right?
V: What would you do today with them, on the keyboard--on the organ? You wouldn’t jump in and harmonize the hymn with those 3 chords, right away?
A: Probably not, but you know what I would do?
A: If I would have to start from scratch, I would try to analyze what’s written. Let’s say, take a hymnal, and analyze a few hymns. I would see how the composer uses the chords; how they are related in between.
V: What’s the voice leading…
A: That’s right.
A: And maybe understanding and analyzing those written hymns would help me to comprehend…
V: What are the forbidden intervals, what are some of the obvious rules of voice leading--right?
A: Well, it’s actually pretty simple, you know, if you would only follow those rules; but when you start to do it practically, then you will find out that the easier the rule is, the harder it is to apply in practice, actually.
V: I didn’t think about that before. Why?
A: Well, even young Bach used some parallel fifths in his famous works. He never did it later on in life. But actually, those simple rules, like I mentioned a few--
A: You need to avoid all parallel fifths and octaves. YOu need to avoid augmented intervals in any voice; well then, you need avoid 2 big leaps in a row facing the same direction, because if you do a leap, then your voice needs to change direction.
A: That’s how music works. Let’s say you cannot do 2 fifths in a row.
A: Going up or going down.
V: One voice has to jump a perfect 5th, and then go down--let’s say a major 3rd.
A: That’s right.
V: Or perfect 4th.
A: That’s right. And then of course, you need, in hymn harmonization, to avoid voice crossing.
A: It means, you know, that soprano always stays above all other 3 voices; and you know, alto then is below soprano, and tenor below alto; and you know, bass is the lowest voice.
A: And you avoid crossing them.
V: So, alto should be between soprano and tenor, and tenor should be between bass and alto.
A: Yes, and then of course you need to look at the accidentals. Let’s say if you have a dominant chord in a minor key, you need to raise the 7th scale degree. And sometimes people do that, let’s say, in the soprano, which is a given, and then use the seventh scale degree in the bass, for example, and forget to add that seventh scale degree, raised.
A: And it sounds really bad.
V: That’s harmonic minor.
A: That’s right, the same in major if you use harmonic--harmonic major with the 6th scale degree lowered. You need then to do it consistently.
V: But that’s rare in hymns.
A: But yes, in hymns that’s rare; but not a dominant in a minor with the seventh scale degree raised. It’s pretty common.
V: Mhm. And that means that the dominant chord is always major.
A: That’s right. And another major mistake that you can make in conventional harmony: 2 subdominant key chords after a dominant key. I think this is the worst mistake that you can do.
V: Why is that?
A: Because after a dominant chord, it has that seventh scale degree, so it sounds very unstable. And after a dominant chord, you need to use either another dominant chord, or you need to resolve it to a tonic chord. But not to use subdominant, which has not such a big tension as a dominant.
V: Mhm. Leading tone, or raised 7th scale degree, is always the least stable degree in a scale.
A: That’s right. So after, you know...In harmony, usually if you build up tension, then we have to release it. That’s how it works, normally.
V: Mhm. So after subdominant, after less tension, you could get more tension with playing a dominant chord.
A: That’s right.
V: But if you do it the other way around, then the tension gets less...But the chord is not resolved, so it’s strange.
A: Yes, it is.
V: Tonic after the dominant sounds good. But subdominant after the dominant sounds more...jazzlike.
A: That’s right. And you don’t want that in hymn playing, probably.
V: Probably, mhm. So that’s our general ideas for Spencer, and everybody who is interested in varied hymn harmonies, to start their own harmonization journey. And check out our courses on that; that’s a really big help. If that’s what our students tell us are true. And they’re of course telling the truth! Haha. Thank you guys for sending us those questions. Please keep writing more--your challenges and dreams about organ playing, what you want to achieve in 6 months, in 3 months, and what’s stopping you from achieving your dream. Even in the short term--maybe in a month, if you have a challenge coming up. Maybe like a public performance. We could try to help you get unstuck. Right, Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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