Does harmony fuel the emotional energy of a song?

As I sit on the 188 reading the recently penned lyrics for “Notice Me” I immediately heard a melody; perhaps this is due to the quality of the lyric rather than the speed at which my creative process works. Nevertheless I started to think how much the harmonic content of a song increases the power of the words – but at the expense of the melodic line?

I am hearing songs in my head where the most compelling moments, for me, were where the resolution of “dissonance” was suspended. I think it is this pull towards a resolution that begs us to listen. Only within a framework of consonance can such a pull be vivid enough to have an emotional effect, otherwise too much emancipation of dissonance will lead to an emotionally numb experience. Or is this rather a simplistic view? Perhaps timbre plays an equally vital role in capturing emotional intent, and the “grain of a voice” (Barthes) is even more vital than the melodic line or harmonic vocabulary. Perhaps the harmonic intentions and melodic direction come more from timbral concerns rather than pitch concerns?

There is a Judith Weir song (the title of which escapes me) where the voice seems to float from the piano part – it gradually escapes the piano part and both gradually take on independence. The piano writing is not overtly complex but I find the clarity of timbre and line – the piano has single notes at the opening – immediately creates a pull between the voice and piano. This pull – an increasing desire for their independence to come to a resolutary conclusion – is what allures. The narrative impulse of such writing makes it inviting for listeners – to keep listening to the journey the individual parts endure and how the “play of comparison” between the two parts and earlier material of the song fuel continued desire to listen.

I wonder if I dare write fewer notes to exploit the persuasiveness of timbre. What is frightening is not getting the first note. It’s the second…

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