There are some songs out there, that seem to not have any chord progressions, the melody and bass line all are in sync and sound great, but there aren't any actual chords. In the song, yet you can tell that's its following some form of structure to make it sound good. Is there a method or name for this?

Example: Michael Jackson's Billie Jean intro, the bass line and a few synth chords, but what if those synth chords were only root notes, and if hypothetically, lets say the whole song was like that entirely- how would the song be classified in key, and tonal center, and how would you even be able to create something like it.

So how can a song be, verse chorus etc. without a chord being played in the background, how are all the instruments that aren't playing chords sound good. In this video I THINK OF YOU BY THE CHANTELLES, you can tell there aren't any chords being played first while in the verse or chorus they somehow follow the other sounds that come before it, but separate instruments playing something that somehow fits that aren't chords.

  • Could you edit your headline to something describing the contents of your question? – guidot Oct 4 '16 at 11:53
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    "... separate instruments playing something that somehow fits that aren't chords" By that definition of "what isn't a chord", no piece of music for (classical) orchestra contains any chord, because there are no "rhythm section" instruments that play "chords" and nothing else. That idea doesn't make any sense at all. In your Chantelles link, the singers are singing three-part chords, quite apart from what anybody else is playing. – user19146 Oct 4 '16 at 22:22

Here is a rather old example ("Agnus Dei" from the Bach B minor mass in case the link dies). This is basically just a singer (after the intro) and a violin, not even "in sync" as their lines are alternating/competing with their material and there is a single continuous bass line supporting it (you need to play this over headphones or a stereo since the bass is played without distortion and becomes near inaudible when played over something anemic like laptop speakers).

Now this is not really without harmony, but for one, the underlying chords/harmony changes at a rather fast pace (almost every bass note) and for another it's not even spelled out by the instruments but at best insinuated. And not even unambigiously so.

This kind of stuff relies on the listeners' habits filling in the rest, like a sketch relies on the viewing habits and cultural background of the observer, more so than a full-blown orchestrated version would.

And sometimes, like an Escher painting, a "full-blown" version of the sketch would not even work because the ambiguities cannot be "resolved" in a consistent manner.

There is a saying attributed either to Mies van der Rohe or Antoine Saint-Exupéry: "Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing that can be added but when there is nothing that can be taken away". Particularly in music, there are some pieces where neither adding nor taking away stuff works.

Much of pop music has a robust harmonic background and framework which makes it reasonably easy to add quite a bit stuff or take it away without affecting the substance, and so does much symphonic stuff. But you'll often find that there are certain elements which are essential for any particular rendition of a piece and where you'd say they are not the same if those elements are either left out or masked by too much other stuff.

And some pieces, like you observed, may be whittled down to a degree where there is no longer a solid fixed harmonic spine everything is obviously hanging from. If it's done smart and intentionally, that may work.

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  • I don't understand what you are trying to say about the Bach example. There is a perfectly clear and fully harmonized set of chords through the whole piece, played on the organ. If you can't hear them when the solo parts begin, either you need a better sound system or better ears! – user19146 Oct 4 '16 at 22:16

It's pretty common in funk. E.g. Check out "flashlight" or "p-funk" by the band "parliament" just as a couple examples. I think you will hear there's always a chord/tonality being described. I think there is still usually a verse - chorus type separation. It's just that there may be only one chord type played through each section. It might change for the different section.

How can it stay interesting? I think that by listening you could answer that. Maybe a more interesting bass line. Etc. It can allow the other instruments to have more freedom in exploring that tonality.

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In your Chantelles example, there actually are chords playing at all times; perhaps I misunderstood what you meant there.

But even if there's just a bassline throughout with no explicit chords, the bassline will still imply a given harmonic structure (as it does in "Billie Jean"). Even if there were no chords moving above it, it's still clearly in Fs minor:

enter image description here

Even if there were no bassline and only an occasional pitch given in some instrument, our culturally-attuned ears would still try to fit it into a harmonic context.

To (sort of) take it one step further, check out the opening to Wagner's Das Rheingold. It's all just based on an Ef chord; there's no real progression to speak of; but it's still clearly an Ef piece. (Note that some call this a "drone" piece because of the "drone" Ef throughout.)

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You can easily determine form given a melody line only.

Take "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as an example. Note-wise, the C major version goes like this:




As shown above, it's clearly in ternary form.

Sing only the melody of the first movement of Beethoven's 5th, and I will tell you that it's still in sonata-allegro form.

Sing only the melody of Celine Dion's "That's the Way It Is", and I will tell you that it's still in verse-chorus form. I will also tell you that it contains a bridge and that she moves the tune up to the subdominant for the last repeat of the chorus.

It's not so easy to determine harmony given a melody only. Take "O Christmas Tree" as another example. This is the start of its melody when it's in F major:


I'd stereotypically harmonize it like this:

C-F-F-F-C-F-F-F--D-Gm-D-Gm-E diminished-C7-F

But Vince Guaraldi's harmonization is significantly different and, with its added chord tones, reveals the jazz style that he uses.

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