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Lesson 19: Quartal Harmony

What Is Quartal Harmony?

The "normal" chords used in traditional Western music are based on tertial harmony. In tertial harmony the 3rd and its inversion the 6th are the primary intervals. The 4th and its inversion the 5th are the secondary intervals. The following chord can be easily recognized as a C major triad and its inversions:

In quartal harmony the 4th and its inversion the 5th are the primary intervals. The 2nd and its inversion the 7th are the secondary intervals. The 3rd and its inversion the 6th are missing. These facts make tertial and quartal harmony opposites of each other. In quartal harmony the chords are ambiguous and not as easily named as in tertial harmony.

Using Quartal Harmony

Learn to play fourth chords starting on any note in a major scale. Explore the three- and four-part voicings on any possible combination of strings.

Check out my rhythm changes quartal harmony etude. There I take three-part fourth chords through the entire rhythm changes form.

You should also be able to arpeggiate the fourth chords. This is a great way to arrive at cool melodies and particularly useful in a modal setting:

When you have got this down - it may take a while - there is more... Now explore

  • inversions
  • fourth chords over bass notes
  • playing fourth chords through the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales

Beware of overusing fourth chords, though. They are very strong and when you use them past a certain point you will start sounding ridiculous...

Comping with Fourth Voicings

In a harmonically static situation, fourth voicings can be used to spice things up a bit.

The first example can be used over a Dm7 chord:

This second example is from Joshua by Victor Feldman - Joe Henderson's version with John Scofield on guitar - D Dorian:

This third example can be used over a Cmaj7 chord - first C Ionian and then C Lydian:

The inversion of a fourth is a fifth. Check out this example, first in fourths and then inverted - sounds a bit like something Joe Diorio might play, doesn't it?

2004 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.