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Ron Simmonds

Close Harmony

Generally, close harmony writing is used in scoring fast passages for brass and saxophones. There is nothing more thrilling than a fast-moving, soaring wind ensemble. Writing this kind of harmony is one of the first things an arranger learns to do: the notes fit easily into a hand-span on the piano and the resulting clusters are pleasing to the ear.
Example 1 shows a melody line with its relative chord progression. This short piece is a variation on the chords of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On", starting on the ninth bar of the melody.
Example 2 is one way of scoring this for trumpets. The trombones and saxes would follow this exactly an octave lower. The melody line is played by the three section leaders and doubled at the bottom by the baritone saxophone. The inner parts follow the movement of the lead as far as possible.
The thing that gives most trouble to a young arranger in close harmony writing is the harmonising of passing chords. These are the chords which do not fall on a downbeat or upbeat; in the example these are marked with numbers.
Passing chord number 1 is exactly one semitone lower than the chords on either side of it. This is a useful trick to remember. When a chord on a downbeat is preceded by a passing tone which is either one semitone lower or one semitone higher, the passing chord can nearly always be an identical chord to the one being led into, but a semitone higher or lower, as the case may be.
Each inner voice, then, moves smoothly through a half-tone into the new chord. Passing chords 2 and 4 are merely inversions of the main chord.
Passing note number 3 gives problems. It is a passing note falling on a downbeat, which means that it has to be harmonised with the chords being played by the rhythm section on that beat. The simplest way of dealing with this would be not to move the inner parts at all. If the piece is played very fast this is perfectly acceptable. But we want to be different, right? So we write an A diminished chord for the winds here, and give the rhythm a simple Ab triad. It's all over in a flash and already there's a little spice in the passage.
The unison in bar four is a good way of getting out of trouble. We aren't actually in trouble here as the melody goes down the Ab minor scale but a sudden unison in the middle of a tutti is always effective. There are thirteen people playing this unison, remember, and it sounds considerably better than played one-fingered on your grandmother's old upright wooden piano.
How many weary hours have been wasted by arrangers struggling to harmonise impossible sequences, only to have the bandleader turn the resulting hopeless mess into a unison anyway? As I said: it's all over in a flash.
Switching the inner parts around is called voice crossing and is a device used in smoothing out passages containing awkward skips or badly placed repeated notes.
Bar 3 of Example 3 demonstrates voice crossing in a small way in the second and third trombone parts, which would otherwise contain several repeated notes. This example demonstrates another way of scoring close harmony. The melody consists of the upper tones of a series of minor eleventh chords. The lower harmonies faithfully reproduce their chord positions throughout the first two bars (the second trumpet, for instance, plays all ninths; the third plays all tonics; the fourth all sevenths, and so on down the chords). In fact each lower instrument is playing the melody, but in a different key.
This is an amazing bit of parallelism which, as all good things should, doesn't go on too long, and ends in the third bar. Readers will recognise the tune.
Parallel writing is very effective in small bursts, and is a useful alternative to writer's cramp when the going isn't easy and the arranger is faced with an array of passing chords, terrifying harmonies and voice crossings all over the place. In Example 3 the lead alto doubles the first trombone exactly, the second alto doubles the second trombone, and so on. Try this one out on your friends.