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 the Suspended Pentatonic and go to mode V (which is also called Major Pentatonic), we see that its interval formula 2 2 3 2 3 is the inverse of mode II (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 (below). For instance, maj2 in Major Pentatonic (mode V) becomes sus4/2 in negative Major Pentatonic (mode II). This occurs in a very exacting manner, and even every single add variation is a negative chord with respect to inverse modes. Dashed lines have been added, connecting the negative chords of inverse modes to indicate this relationship on the diagram below. With symmetrical modes, the negative chords are found within the mode itself, as can be seen in mode I of the Suspended Pentatonic.

Since the modes of symmetrical scales inverse within it, symmetrical scales give us a way to explore negative harmony in music using negative chords with inverse modes. Since most scales are imperfect and asymmetrical as will be explained on the following pages, symmetrical scales are rare and unique. 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 (page 219). However, since the Dorian is symmetrical just as the Suspended Pentatonic (the first mode on the following page) 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 neutral harmonic 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 COF and the minor chord to be negative as it descends around the COF. 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 LCOF. In the case of the mode V 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 mode II, 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 COF, while others describe descent. And symmetrical modes balance between the ascending and descending modes. The diagram on this page 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.