Chord and Harmonic Environment

I’m currently going over the IFR Jam Tracks Level 2, Pure Harmony and was wondering how other people hear the chords. When you hear the 4 chord (say after the 1 chord in the first progression), do you hear/feel the 4th Harmonic Environment ?

When I’m playing over one of the Seven Worlds tracks for the 4th HE, note 7 always stands out, and characterises this HE. But when I play over the 4 chord I don’t get the same feeling.

Is this something to do with with the tonal centre being different in these two cases?

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The PDF that goes with jam track 1 in that set ‘Chords 1 and 4 (campfire guitars)’ has something to say about the 7th of the chords? I’m not quite sure if it’s the same thing you are describing, but have you seen that?

I’ve had that set of tracks for ages and have only just got around to starting with them myself, so I happen to be on the same ‘page’. :wink:

Yes, I’ve looked though the PDFs that came with the Jam Tracks. I don’t think it has to do with 7ths in chords and triads. It’s more about getting the same sense of the HE that we develop when playing over the Level 1 Jam Tracks (Seven Worlds), getting that same feeling when it’s the 4 chord being played in a chord progression.

At the moment I’m not making the connection between the 4th HE and the 4 chord in a progression.

Hi Marie-Elaine
Have confidence in what you hear. I think what you’re hearing correctly what’s going on in the 1-4 chord progression.

When you play the 4th harmonic environment alone, you’re hearing the tonal center as the 4 (say F in the key of C), and all the other notes move away and come back to the 4 as the tonal center home base. In that, the 7 (B in the key of C) has that distinctive sound as a tritone from the 4 (F in the key of C).

When you play the 1-4 chord progression (say C-F chord in the key of C), then you’re typically hearing the 1 (root C) as the tonal center, not the F (4). Especially if the progression starts on 1 and moves to 4 then back to 1. So the F chord tones (F A C E) are more consonant to the chord of the moment, and other tones are dissonant while the F chord is in the air. But it has a different sound flavor because the tonal center is the 1, not the 4. (B keeps more of the sound of a major 7th interval to C, and not a tritone to F.)

I think the point of learning to improvise in the harmonic environments is to recognize when the tones are consonant (chord tones) and when they are dissonant (non-chord tones), and develop a relationship to those basic consonant sounds. In short, when the F chord is “in the air” the tones F A C & E are more consonant than when the C chord is in the air (when C E G B are consonant). Of course the C & E are consonant over both chords.

But all this is fluid. The relationships among all the sounds are shifting all the time in a piece of music … with different degrees of tension & release. What music does for me in general is play with the sounds so that the flow goes in one direction, then another; patterns in the air with degrees of consonance & dissonance that move around in pretty ways. I’m sure a good musician (not me) could make the 4 chord transition sound like the 4th HE by fiddling with rhythm and what tones fall on stressed and unstressed beats, but to me, it’s not what usually happens to my ears.

David Reed has a nice video that explains some of tonal centers and harmonic environments & modes here:

In short, theory is only a rough guide to what you are hearing. What you hear is the real point.


Thanks Allan @hender99 I think you’ve hit the nail in the head. It’s all about how I’m feeling the Tonal Centre. Note 4 is definitely the TC when I’m listening to the Seven Worlds Jam Tracks, but this is not the case when I’m listening to the Pure Harmony tracks. You’re right, the other chord (eg the 1 chord) sets up the TC, and in that context the 4 chord has a certain sound.

I had a play with track 10, where the 6- chord sets up note 6 as the TC and alternate 6- chord and 4 chord. Again, different feeling created on the 4 chord.

A whole lot of combinations possible here, I guess.

@hender99 You beat me to it. I’d been pondering & was just logging in to offer an explanation along the same lines. It’s very nice to find that your thoughts concur with mine. :slight_smile:

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Wow, all three of you are just beautiful. This kind of conversation is exactly what I had hoped would happen with the IFR student forum, and it’s why I haven’t participated myself until now. This thread is a perfect example of you guys exploring issues and resolving them on your own. Special thanks to @hender99 for a beautiful explanation of exactly what’s going on here.

So this gets to the heart of what the “harmonic environments” mean. It’s not about playing the notes in a particular order on your instrument (e.g. 4, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2, 3, 4). And it’s not about what chord is sounding in the background (because as @mem pointed out, the 4 chord can be sounding in the background but we DON’T hear the 4th harmonic environment). It has to do with the TONAL CENTER.

Specifically, here’s the definition of the 4th harmonic environment:

“The 4th harmonic environment is how the notes of the major scale sound to our ear when we’re feeling note 4 as the tonal center.”

That’s it. And as @hender99 also wonderfully pointed out, this feeling of the tonal center can sometimes be just a passing sensation, as all of these feelings can be very fluid in musical compositions. This is why it’s important to get to know all of these sensations for ourselves, so that we can recognize them instantly whenever we happen to feel them while we’re improvising.

But for right now, I think the big discovery is contained in the little experiment that @mem already invented:

  1. First go to the Seven Worlds jam tracks and practice improvising in the first harmonic environment. Notice how each note sounds.

  2. Then stay with the Seven Worlds jam tracks but go to the fourth harmonic environment and notice what sounds different, which will be the striking sound of note 7 in this harmonic environment.

  3. Then go to IFR Jam Tracks Level 2: Pure Harmony Essentials and practice improvising over a track that alternates between chords 1 and 4. Notice that the overall melodic sound of each note is identical to your experience in the FIRST harmonic environment.

What this experiment shows you is exactly what @hender99 explained, that when you’re improvising over that chord change you’re actually feeling note 1 as your tonal center the whole time.

Beautiful discussion, people. It’s inspiring and humbling to be able to serve musicians like yourselves.


Thanks for this David (and your other responses in the forum), your inputs are very useful and are certainly helping me in my music journey!

For me currently, I think delving into Exercise 3 has been adding a layer of confusion to my understanding, so I’m going deeper in Exercise 2 and really trying to get familiar with the Seven Environments, before I’ll return to Pure Harmony. I’ve been jamming with the Seven Worlds tracks and also pulling out the chord tones, then I’ll revisit combining chords.

Hi @mem, that’s a great insight. Studying the chords separately is endlessly enriching, and it’s exactly what will give you the clarity you need to enjoy improvising over chord progressions. In fact, I don’t even think of it as going back to Exercise 2. For me, whenever you’re aware of the chord notes in a harmonic environment and you’re using them consciously, you’re practicing Exercise 3. It’s just that right now you’re realizing that there is much to be gained from studying the chords individually (e.g. Seven Worlds Expanded) before trying to combine them (e.g. Melody Paths). But all of this is part of Exercise 3.

One nice thing is that we can practice this new consciousness of the chord notes using the same jam tracks we used for our Exercise 2 practice, namely IFR Jam Tracks Level 1: Seven Worlds. The other resource that I encourage you to use every day is our audio course Sing the Numbers 2: Seven Worlds. In this audio course, we study each harmonic environment three different ways (in three separate audio tracks). For each harmonic environment, one of the tracks is purely an exploration of the chord notes. This would be fantastic for you right now because you’ll hear so many catchy melodies sung in tonal numbers with just the chord notes. So this really burns these tonal numbers into your mind, which will give you so much more clarity of vision when you later go to improvise over chord progressions.

So for this deep dive into the chord notes of each harmonic environment individually, I can’t recommend enough both your IFR Jam Tracks practice and your Sing the Numbers practice. These two activities together will have you feeling supremely confident with the chord notes in all seven harmonic environments in a very short time. And then I think you’ll really enjoy improvising over chord progressions, because you’ll be feeling so much control over all of these sounds in your music.

And please keep sharing your discoveries and experiences here. I love how thoughtful you are about your music practice and I think it’s a great example for other people who are navigating these same issues.