Jazz: Quartal Harmony

How to Think about Quartal Harmony

There is no rule that says chords must be built by stacking major and minor thirds on top of each other. Another approach for building chords, called quartal harmony, is based on stacking perfect fourths. This creates some very interesting and modern sounds indeed.

One way to conceive of quartal harmony is as one huge chord than includes all 12 tones. Starting with the note C, let's build this "mega-chord" one step at a time...

Let's add F, the perfect fourth above C...

Quartal Harmony

Next add Bb, the perfect 4th above F...

Quartal Harmony

Then Eb, the perfect 4th above Bb...

Quartal Harmony

and so on...

Quartal Harmony

As you add each successive note, notice that the sound/feeling becomes more dissonant, unstable, spacey, dreamy, and "out there"... with no clear tonal center.

Also notice that we eventually return back to our starting note C after using all 12 possible notes!

Ideas for Practicing and Applying Quartal Harmony

Practice Idea: Play the mega-chord in all 12 possible three-note groupings.

Since it fits within the span of one octave, a three-note grouping can be played easily in one hand. Pick a random three-note group and play it using either your left or right hand. In just a short time, you will be able to play any of them without thinking!

Quartal Harmony

Improvisation Idea: Think of the mega-chord as a mega-scale.

Improvise melodies based on perfect 4ths. To give you some ideas, here is a short improvisation of mine. My basic idea was to play random power chords in the left hand with a very angular, fourthy melody of three- or four-note quartal groups in the right hand.

Because the sonic patterns are so distinctive, and because each chord is so harmonically charged and unstable and "out there", there are essentially no wrong notes! In this way, quartal harmony defines and contains its own very special kind of music.