The Architecture of Music


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The Relationship Between Negative Chords and Inverse Modes

Every chord that can be played with a mode is a negative chord with respect to that mode’s inverse. For example, if we look at Suspended Pentatonic and go to its 5th mode (which is also called Major Pentatonic), we see that its interval formula 2 2 3 2 3 is the inverse of the 2nd mode (also called negative Major Pentatonic or Major Pentatonic inverse), whose formula is 3 2 3 2 2. You can see that the two modes’ LCOFs are also inverses of each other. Therefore, for any chord that can be played with one mode, the negative chord will be found in the inverse mode. For instance, maj2 in Major Pentatonic (5th Mode) becomes sus4/2 in negative Major Pentatonic (2nd Mode). This occurs in a very exacting manner, and even add variations are negative chords with respect to inverse modes. Dashed lines have been added, connecting the negative chords of inverse modes to indicate this relationship. With symmetrical modes, the negative chords are found within the mode itself, as can be seen in the 1st mode of the Suspended Pentatonic.

Symmetrical scales give us a way to explore negative harmony in music. Since most scales are imperfect and asymmetrical as will be explained on the following pages, symmetrical scales are rare, unique, and allow for negative harmony exploration within a single scale. The Dorian scale is also symmetrical. Traditional music theory considers the Dorian to be a minor mode, since a root position minor chord (m3) can be played from its key note while a major chord (M3) cannot. However, since the Dorian is symmetrical just as the Suspended Pentatonic (the first mode below) is, the mode is best understood as neither major nor minor. Symmetrical modes are just that—symmetrical—and neither ascend nor descend around the circle of fifths, and thus are not major or minor. They are the symmetrical balancing modes of all the other modes, and in concept are the tonic or tonal center of all the other modes, since they are centered among the other modes around the circle of fifths.

Negative chords and inverse modes

Negative chords, negative harmony, and negative composition are relatively new concepts to music theory and symmetrical scales allow us to explore these concepts in a song using a single scale. Some basic ideas on negative harmony consider the major chord to be positive as it ascends around the circle of fifths and the minor chord to be negative as it descends around the circle of fifths. While the specifics of positive and negative chords, harmony, and composition have yet to be clearly defined in music theory, as can be seen above, it is obvious some modes ascend and some modes descend around the circle of fifths. In the case of the 5th mode of Suspended Pentatonic, it completely ascends and no 2nd inversions can be played with it as the bass note. And the opposite is true of the 2nd mode, which completely descends such that no root position chords can be played with it as the bass note.

I don’t want to set any rules about negative harmony, negative composition, or which chords are considered positive or negative. However, in general, some modes and their corresponding chords describe ascent around the circle of fifths, while others describe descent. And symmetrical modes balance between the ascending and descending modes. The diagram on page 7 of the circle of fifths portion of this tutorial also shows that in general minor chords descend around the COF and major chords ascend. If people are already composing music based on the chords possible to play with each mode, then just by the nature of the modes as either ascending or descending, they are describing positive and negative composition. We could of course go deeper into negative composition and explore negative chords and inverse modes. How you choose to explore these concepts in composition is up to you.