The Clash and Blend of Unity by Rich Chaffins

A few months ago, Rich posted, “Harmony is a gorgeous, needed thing, whether you’re speaking of music, or people, or life.” I thought that was fantastic and asked him if he’d like to expand on that with a few more words here on my blog. I’m thankful for the harmony that Rich adds to my life and I’m so honored to share his words with you here today. Also, be sure to click and listen to the sound files in the piece – they will help illustrate Rich’s points more clearly.

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music

Root.

Perfect fifth.

And….repeat.

When I first got interested in playing guitar, I was 13. I had seen the hair metal bands on TV before, and loved it. But one day, something just clicked, and I knew I had to pick up a guitar. And this was what I played, because it’s what I could play: root/fifth. Commonly called a power chord. It’s one shape, moved anywhere on the neck. And you can play a lot of songs with that one shape, that one sound. Just ask any rock band since the ‘70s.

When I first attended church, I was a child. I had heard about Jesus before and how He loved me, and I could appreciate that in sort of an abstract way. But one day, something just clicked, and I prayed, and I became a believer. And this was what I saw, because it’s what I could see: a small church of all white and mostly elderly people in southern West Virginia getting together every week to sing old songs, to listen to a guy preach, and every last Sunday of the month have a fellowship dinner downstairs after service. You can have a lot of services that way with that one routine. Just ask any rural churchgoer since time out of mind.

When I got to college and studied music, I realized that music is much deeper than I had previously realized. In high school, I had learned that there are 12 notes in music. What I learned in college was how much deeper music goes than 12 notes. Pitch, yes. But rhythm. And tempo. And dynamic range. And timbre. And…harmony.

Oh, friends. Harmony. If you would, say it slowly. Let it roll around on your tongue, let it hang there in the air for a moment. At first, this simple word does not assert itself. It doesn’t, to the uninitiated, boldly proclaim the vast world of possibilities that is held between its seven letters. Years and years of study and application, and I still haven’t reached the end of it. I suspect most haven’t.

From the unisons that most people (mostly) sing in churches every week across the world to the major scale and accompanying triads in a Mozart piece to a G13(b9#5) chord in a jazz tune, this is all harmony. It is made up of varying degrees of consonance, which is chords/intervals/whatever that sound nice or at rest, and dissonance, which is any of those things that sound harsh or unstable.

From identical twins talking to each other to fans at a sporting event to a chance meeting of lumberjacks and tap dancers, this is all human interaction. It is made up of people with varying degrees of likeness and difference.

All harmony in a song depends on the various intervals’ relationships to the root note (ex. If a song is in the key of C, then C is the root note). The most common, basic chords have 3 notes: a root, a third and a fifth.

The key to relationships is love, and the easiest people to love are the people we have the most in common with. A reframe of this with believers and 1 John 4:8 in mind would be, “the key to relationship is God, and the easiest people to God with are the people who worship and view God as we do”.

These simple chords sound great, and are very useful. But when you begin adding other intervals in is when the music becomes more textured, more complex, more nuanced. One of the most dissonant intervals in music is a minor 2nd  (ex. B-C). Another is the diminished 5th (ex. F-B). Played by themselves, they are tense, harsh, even ugly. When I play these intervals for someone, usually their face does a good impersonation of having just bitten into a lemon.

However.

Remember that ugly minor 2nd? If you take that B-C interval and add it to an A minor chord, something beautiful happens: Am(add9). You add intrigue. You add another layer of possibility.

As for the diminished 5th, if you add that to a plain old G chord, used in countless country songs, you get a G7. Or to put it in more universal terms, you get funk. You get swagger. You’re applying judicious amounts of hot sauce to your everyday scrambled eggs.

We tend to form divisions in our brain. Delineating between those that are “us” and those that are “them”. It’s more shades of gray than we might think; sure, there’s black and white, but that’s not the majority. Maybe it skews like this:  Who can we agree with and relate to, day in and day out with the least amount of discomfort? Then what about that lady that sits a few rows ahead in church and unabashedly raises both hands to the sky while singing? Then maybe that family you’ve noticed at church every week, which is great, except they have political bumper stickers on their car that set your teeth on edge. Or that Baptist church down the road. Sure, you guess they’re “on the team”, but you can’t imagine going to a service there, because you tried a different Baptist church once, and ugh. Or Catholics. Or those Quaker people…

So, when you hear something in a song that really captures a certain mood or catches your ear as something different, it’s probably some sophisticated harmony. The next time you’re thinking that your playing or the song you’re writing could use a little something to change it up, try adding some harmonic density. A sus4 here or a flat 5 there can really transform what is usual and maybe tired-sounding into something evocative and intoxicating.

We make church, and God (Love) by extension, small when we see more “them” than “us”. We see specks of difference as beams that must make the building they’re in a different house. We don’t realize that the various colored threads of our faith make one vibrant, living fabric of Life. They tell a Technicolor tale of a triune God who thrills in the roughly-woven, many-textured raiment of His Bride. His love is big enough to love you just as much as He loves Abraham just as much as He loves Barack Obama just as much as He loves my grandma just as much as He loves the man on death row. Given that depth, that width, that height…I suspect that maybe I could find great worth in that guy whose notes clash with mine just as I do with those with whom I blend more easily. 

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Rich ChaffinsRich Chaffins is a guy with too much to do at any given nanosecond. He lives in the 304 with his lovely wife Misty, and their two sons. Besides his family, his life is all about the fine art of guitar: playing them, teaching them, and building them. In addition to all THAT, he’s also Music Director at his church. Get to know him and his lame sense of humor on Twitter.

  • Sheila

    This is so unbelievably rich. And Rich!

    Thank you, Alise, for asking Rich to “expand.”
    I have grown up a harmony groupie since singing was part of the air I breathed in my family of origin.
    When my son was tiny, not yet talking, I noticed he could hold a pitch. So I “played” him by getting him to follow me as I changed pitch. He happily joined the fun. It wasn’t long before I decided to try harmony. I got him to sustain a note. Then I came in a third under his note. I’ll never forget how his eyes lit up in glorious delight! That moment crystallized everything I feel about harmony.
    But I had never thought about how it relates to human relationships! Delicious thoughts – and challenging.
    Thank you Rich!

  • Karen

    Great stuff, my friend! It reminds me of a sign I saw a few months ago, and it’s become something I think of often: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” Kind of the idea that we’re all very different, yet very much the same. And we need more of that harmony!

  • Dan McM

    Good post. Love the way music fits together and flows, really like a mathematical jig saw puzzle of sound. And yes, the harmony that works musically can and should be mimicked in how we love and treat each other. And really, it should come naturally, but our tendency to focus on our monotone self keeps it from happening more often.

    So, I’m guessing that both of you (Alise and Rich) have seen this clip from Bobby McFerrin before, but this is what came to mind as I was reading your post:

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