“It sounds wrong, but it’s right” is something I say to my students quite regularly. And sometimes I say it to myself as well, when a ‘crunchy’ or unexpected harmony catches me out, and I have to go back and check that what I played was in fact correct.
Fairly early on in their lessons with me, my students learn about intervals, “the distance between one note and another” as it says helpfully in the tutor book I use. We play them and listen to them and describe them: a major second, a “pinched” sound, usually elicits a shriek of distaste at its dissonance; a third is pleasant, warm; a fourth, when played in different places on the keyboard, “sounds Chinese” (it sounds “medieval” to me); a fifth is a bare, open sound – it needs the middle note to form a satisfying chord; a sixth is easy on the ear; a seventh “hurts” almost as much as a second, though when converted into a dominant seventh chord, it is enjoyable, especially the sense of relief when the harmony goes “home”.
An unfamiliar, or especially crunchy harmony – and in the simple pieces (pre-grade, and Grades 1 to 2) my students are learning these are often very bare chords, formed of only two notes and are therefore far more noticeable – can bring a student up short, cause them to stop playing, go back and play that section again, thinking they have made a mistake. “It sounds wrong but it’s right” I say patiently, urging them to keep playing. Afterwards, we play “spot the interval”, and it becomes apparent that the problem was not an incorrect note, merely that the ear did not like the sound!
Saskia, who is working on ‘Tarantella’ from the Grade 1 repertoire, a rather charming, plaintive little A minor dance by Pauline Hall (she of the excellent Piano Time series), does not like the chords in the first section, which alternate between a straight A-minor tonic chord and a chord composed of A, D and E. “I can’t play it!” she grumbled at her lesson this afternoon, and then proceeded to play it perfectly, albeit somewhat tentatively. We have been trying to achieve the effect of a strummed guitar in the left hand, with soft chord changes, while the right hand melody dances moodily over the top. Going back to the score, I showed her why she did not like that A-D-E chord, and explained that it was a deliberate device on the part of the composer to create moments of tension, and delayed gratification, before the resolution comes on the next beat. “Music would be very boring if we didn’t have these crunchy harmonies and surprising moments,” I said.
It is this sense of delayed gratification that makes the Chopin Ballade I am working on (and indeed all his other music I play, or listen to), so fascinating, so suspenseful, and so utterly addictive. He forces player and listener to work hard, taking the ear on amazing harmonic journeys, to distant highways and byways, and so when it comes, the resolution, the “reward”, is all the more wonderful and satisfying. Sometimes it may sound ‘wrong’, but in Chopin’s extraordinary hands it is most definitely right.