The Big Easy vs. The Big Shots

“Get Funky Jazz Performers” by Renie Britenbucher

“Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

- Leonard Bernstein

In early 20th century Western classical music, there was a growing, conscious effort to move away from ‘the confines’ of diatonic harmony and create a ‘modern’ approach to music. Ever-growing disdain for consonance and tonality was a hallmark of this period, and atonality – the ultimate musical ivory tower – the inevitable result. Touted as the most important musical development of the century, atonality has had almost no real impact on the music people actually listen to – unless we’re talking about ear-grating horror movie scores.

At the same time, New Orleans, Louisiana (including, to a large extent, the Mississippi River Valley all the way up to St. Louis, Missouri) had become perhaps the most potent musical hub in the world. As opposed to the official music capitals Vienna and Paris and the big Western universities, The Big Easy’s influence was undeniable and enormous; yielding the most influential musical styles of the last hundred years, including ragtime, jazz, blues, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and disco.

Even if conservative, diatonic harmony were indeed starting to sound hackneyed to some, these offered solutions. For example, the blues employed blue notes (flatted 3rd, 5th and 7th notes) as well as adding 7ths to the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, while maintaining their original functions in the harmony. Jazz involved unconventional improvisation, with harmony- and melody-bending interpretations of existing music that also moved away from, yet remained in the orbit of tonal music.

African-Americans such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and all sorts of intriguing characters of early rhythm and blues or jazz directly or indirectly shaped the destiny of of 20th century music. What is interesting is that the progenitors of these lively and groundbreaking styles weren’t at all interested in pushing the envelope; they just loved playing music. If the mainstream musical culture of the time had reached a self-wrought dead end, this explosion of unabated, raw creativity provided the escape route.

And it’s not about classical vs. popular music or high brow vs. low brow. Western classical music isn’t snooty or self-indulgent by definition; it had become subverted, beginning with bigheaded Romantic ideas. The same thing eventually happened to jazz. Its creators and proponents realized its sublimity and in the second half of the 1900s it became equally contorted and stale. Art, it seems, must remain a means to an end (that of enhancing the human experience); it must not become the end itself.

And it’s not just pomposity, (Romantic) solipsism or excessive refinement that result. It’s the self-conscious creative process whereby one strives to consciously be original or groundbreaking; observing oneself and attempting to tame and direct forces that are beyond one’s control. Truly fresh and imaginative songs and styles are born when this result is the last thing on one’s mind.

This touches on the general principle: On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas «Causons» (“One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) It’s like the children in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, who couldn’t enter the magical world of Narnia when they consciously wanted to. Art arises from just doing one’s job well and hopefully enjoying it. It comes from adversity and accidents and not conscious planning.

Romantic Amadeus?

Most people who have seen Milos Forman’s classic film “Amadeus” realize the artistic licence taken with its portrayals of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri. When Peter Shaffer wrote the original play, historical accuracy was doubtless the last thing on his mind. The story was more of a retelling of the Cain and Abel story; of the resentment arising from perceived Divine favoritism (or at least undemocratic distribution of talent…).

The film is laden with blatant historical inaccuracies such as Mozart’s buffoonery and alcoholism, his apparently unmerited talent (even though a prodigy, Mozart studied the works of masters endlessly), the cause and circumstances of his death, Salieri’s second-rate compositional ability, not to mention his diabolical scheme to destroy Mozart, right down to meticulous homicidal plans. These attract all the attention because they constitute central themes and a foundation for what is probably one of the greatest cinematic studies of morbid jealousy in the character of Salieri.

What is taken for granted, however, is the anachronistic inclusion of peculiarly Romantic perceptions and concepts, which appeared at the tail end of the 18th century and only started gaining ground in the 19th. Of primary concern is the fictional Salieri’s obsessing about the importance and grandeur of music; deeply resenting the immortality guaranteed Mozart by his music.

But Mozart and his contemporaries didn’t even think of themselves as artists. The concept of writing for posterity was completely alien to them. They considered themselves skilled craftsmen supplying a commodity, nothing more. Any forward-thinking a Mozart or Salieri would have done during composition most likely revolved around their paycheck. Yet this theme of eternal glory is even more central to the plot than all the other historical inaccuracies in the film.

And this isn’t confined to “Amadeus”. The achievements of composers like Mozart are often reframed in an imaginary progressive scenario. For instance, a well-known modulating passage in the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony is often labeled as ahead of its time; a precursor of the Schoenbergian 12-tone system. But suggesting that Mozart would have, consciously or not, been striving towards 20th century atonalism is fantastic and silly. Just as perceiving creativity as some sort of endless forward march is. It seems that it is better when it is for here and now; for the purpose at hand.

But these sorts of misconceptions are hallmarks of contemporary thinking about the past. It seems to come as a surprise to many that history’s great and influential minds weren’t thinking in the same categories as us or aspiring to the same things. It was, perhaps, for the better.


Secondary Dominants – part 2

A great example of an effective application of the secondary dominant – and of masterful songcraft in general – is the perennial Latin classic, “Perfidia” by Alberto Domínguez (1911–1975). It has been performed by some of the most renowned entertainers, like Nat King Cole (above), but versions by Trio Los Panchos as well as Xavier Cugat’s legendary orchestra serve our musical purpose better here. The chord progression for the section discussed is as follows:

Dm, D7, Gm, A7, Dm

D7____, Gm, E7,  A7

After a brief introduction, the song proper commences with a wistful melody over the tonic D minor chord, which then transforms into the corresponding D7 secondary dominant. This pulls the melody nicely into the ‘away’ feel of the subdominant G minor, D7′s tonic. It’s far more poignant than a simple Dm, Gm progression would have been. The phrase ends with a perfect A7, Dm cadence.

The melody then repeats, but now it commences already on the D7, intensifying this part of the phrase even more. And then, also, the cadence is modified by inserting the secondary dominant, E7, which resolves to the primary dominant, A7. This again adds a pleasant tang to the melody and shifts the harmony back a step so that the phrase now ends on the A7 instead of Dm.

A7 then takes the song into the parallel D major chord (and key) for the exquisite ostinato accompaniment of the chorus…

In part 1, I mentioned the possibility of using a series of dominants in a cascade of perfect cadences, often for the main melody of a song. This is the case with Elvis Presley’s “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”, where he sings a captivating duet with Ann-Margret (the melody is actually taken from Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat”).

The progression (originally in C# major) is as follows: C, E, A7, D7, G9, C. All but the first chord are part of a sequence of perfect cadences – E, A7, and D7 being nondiatonic secondary dominants (E could have a 7 but doesn’t need one to function as a dominant).

Another, less prominent application of this same idea is found at the beginning of the B part in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. Here, there is a truncated, descending version of the main motif over F#7, B7, E7, A7, D7, G… all dominants of dominants down to tonic G.

Obviously, the examples aren’t derived from contemporary music and this reflects a general shift away from this harmonic device in favor of different (eg. plagal) sounds and cadences.

Secondary Dominants – part 1


This is my personal favorite harmonic device. It’s something even budding composers are familiar with but it seems to me that it is tragically underused in recent years.

This even though it is a staple of classic popular and traditional music, not to mention showtunes. For those not too familiar with this term, it is any dominant used in a song that is not the primary – or diatonic – dominant (so G7 in C major is primary whereas E7 would be secondary). It is, along with using chords from the parallel major or minor scale, one of the only theoretically acceptable uses of nondiatonic chords.

I don’t know where I would be without this tool for spicing up the harmony in some of the most refreshing and unpredictable ways. The spice results from the secondary dominant suggesting a different tonality, or key. It greatly enriches the harmony and keeps the listener interested. Here are some of the contexts secondary dominants appear in in practice (that I can think of):

  • in anticipation of their tonic (eg. E7 preceding Am)
  • as a successive enhancement of the corresponding minor (eg. A7 following Am)
  • as a substitution for their tonic or chord of resolution (eg. E7 instead of Am)
  • as a substitution for the corresponding minor chord (eg. A7 in for Am)
  • as an unresolving (or nonfunctional) dominant (eg. E7 not resolving to Am)
  • as a strong means of departure
  • as part of a succession of secondary dominants (dominants of dominants)

The first and second applications seem to be the most common and often appear together. Oftentimes you are introduced to a new chord or reintroduced to a familiar one via a secondary dominant. This momentarily reframes the melody (which remains the same) by treating its original accompanying chord as a tonic chord now, adding piquancy and emphasis as a result. It is often employed as a means of harmonic progression to signal a change in the direction of a song

A very strong effect is having a secondary dominant follow its corresponding minor, unexpectedly tugging at – or bending – the harmony and propelling the melody into the upcoming transitory tonality in a greater swell of emotion. Also, cascading dominants resolving to dominants (usually no more than 3-4) often result in very satisfying cadences but can also provide the framework for melodies proper.

And secondary dominants usually appear in a combination of the practical applications discussed. This is obviously decided by the demands of the melody or the unmitigated direction of the song. The best way to illustrate their use will be in looking at a specific piece of music, which I will do in part 2.


When does a song need a bridge and when is it better off without one? A musical question best solved musically – by ear – of course. Still, what is it then about a particular song that makes the songwriter’s ear decide to go with or without one?

The Oscar-winning songwriter Joel Hirschhorn advised to always write a bridge anyway and decide later… Great advice and something that I usually subscribe to. Usually, because some songs just have such a direct and visceral message or melody or such a delicate ambience that inserting a bridge would ruin the effect. And everyone – songwriters and laymen alike – has heard the jarring (even cringing)  result of a bridge shoehorned into a song. Less is more should always be the overarching rule, trumping all other considerations.

As for songs where a bridge fits beautifully into its surroundings, one might wonder how the song would have fared without its pleasantly breaking up the scenery… Where it is seamless, the listener can’t even imagine it ever being absent. That’s the delight of a great bridge – of a refreshing departure from the tonality, rhythm, lyrical theme or style, and sometimes even tempo and meter of a song. It’s like drinking just the right wine with a great meal.

Another interesting thing to consider is whether bridges could be musically interchangeable between songs – especially in the repertoire of the author. This is because, if there are songwriters out there like me, their bridges would have been considered (and almost approved) for use in other works. The world of music composition is a whirlwind of accidents and inspiration, involving endless bouncing and shuffling around of ideas new and old, all while staring into the void… Anything goes really – especially if someone is pointing a gun at the composer.

Since the very raison d’être of a bridge is to depart from the general proceedings, a chance inclusion in a song should be even less surprising. Still, it perhaps subverts the idea of songs being musically integral and singular. Anyway, a subject worthy of many more posts…