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If you are in C minor, the tritone between F and B natural would resolve to Eb and C which would be the inverted tonic Cm chord. There is a jump from F to Eb as opposed to in major you would have a step from F to E. Is this smoother resolution the reason why the picardy third was used so much?

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  • Would you by any chance happen to be working with only two voices?
    – user45266
    Jul 12, 2021 at 12:26
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    F to Eb is not considered a jump; it's a step — a whole step, as opposed to a half step from F to E.
    – Aaron
    Jul 12, 2021 at 14:10

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No. The Picardy third arises from a preference for major thirds over minor thirds in the final sonority of a piece. For quite some time, no third of any sort would be used, so open fifths were common. Sometimes, the final chord would include the third, but the voice with that pitch would then rise to the fifth, leaving the open fifth as the final sonority. Eventually, they started leaving that voice on the third, but typically only when it was a major third. If it was a minor third, they would alter it, giving the Picardy third.

We're talking about the 15th and 16th centuries here, so long before there was any significant use of the tritone, which mostly arose from the establishment of the dominant seventh chord, a rather later development.

Accordingly, the Picardy third is most likely attributable to acoustical considerations, namely, that the major third corresponds to the relatively low 5th harmonic.

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...There is a jump from F to Eb...

That is a whole step which is equal to two half steps. Both are considered steps not leaps (jumps.)

I've not seen a historical explanation of why the Picardy third was used. It's usually just describe in textbooks as what it is. A lot of these why aren't answerable, not definitively. Music styles evolved over centuries so you often cannot pinpoint the source of things.

Anway, I think there are two big reasons for the Picardy third. One, the two half step motions of TI DO and FA MI are characteristic of strong, final cadences so the Picardy applies that movement for the final, closing cadence to strengthen that half step motion. Second, there is a concept of the "perfect" chord or "chord of nature" as an kind of ideal stable harmonic consonance. That chord is a root position major triad. If you equate stability with end, then using that most stable chord of nature at the ending makes for an emphatic close.

Some people equate the minor to major aspect of a Picardy third as a kind of emotional uplift of sad to happy. In some cases that may make sense, but in many cases it strikes me as less about emotion and more about color/light. The Picardy third provides a subtle bit of chromatic intensifying. It's more of a stylized gesture than a symbolic one.

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I would suspect (I am not an expert on this subject, this is educated guesswork) that this was done less for voice-leading purposes and more for the reason of prioritizing consonance and finality.

A major triad was considered to be a more consonant sound than a minor triad. With just intonation, a major triad forms the simpler ratio of 3:4:5, whereas the minor triad forms the more complex ratio of 10:12:15. Ending a piece on a major chord would allow the final harmony to be most powerful and give a greater strength to the ending of the piece - even perhaps a surprise.

Not only this, singers and string players would be able to take even more advantage of the way that their overtones would reinforce each other more readily in a major chord. Tradition eventually became such that this was a very common cadence at the end of a minor-key piece in Europe, by which point perhaps the justification may have switched over to the fact that repetition legitimizes and since it had been done so many times already, people liked it more. There may even have been emotional justifications for the cadence, potentially some kind of amelioration of the perceived negativity of minor keys.

As for why I am less compelled by the claim that it was primarily to avoid stepping from the fourth to the minor third, I point to the fact that although minor keys have their thirds farther from their fourths, they also have their thirds closer to their seconds. If avoiding whole steps was a priority, then in any pieces where the V chord lacked a seventh, there would be more motion rather than less! [G B D] to [C C Eb] is a pattern I'm thinking of where raising the third at the end widens the motion rather than narrows it. Of course, there is the chordal seventh's strong tendency to resolve downwards to consider as well.

The title of this question does something interesting: it calls the movement from the fourth to the minor third a "leap". The way I learned it, a step is a movement of one or two semitones along the scale/key (a half or whole step) and a leap is two or more steps at once. Thus to me, F-Eb is a resolution by step, not by leap. Small terminology difference, but it raises the question of exactly how composers thought about resolution strength and interval sizes back in the prime of the Tierce de Picardie. Did they truly favour half-steps enough to justify this ending choice's wild popularity? Or would they have otherwise been content to end with a wider step?


I don't doubt that the transformation of that particular whole-step to a half-step was a factor in the popularity of the Picardy Third, and it is certainly a nice side effect of the move to major. But I think there are other explanations as to why the Picardy Third took off over in Europe.

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Possibly. Doubtless a piece ending on a picardy third contained other tritone resolutions to the (minor) tonic. But they weren't quite as satisfying as the resolution by semitone movement of both notes. It was better to end on the RIGHT resolution. Yes, that could have been the thinking.

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