So I have listened to Gustav Holst's The Planets before, especially the first movement, Mars. And in Mars I hear an outright rhythmic and harmonic war. And at the ending I hear a lot of tense C chords in there, and they sound like C minor with a bunch of non-chord tones. But the thing is, when I look at the score, that C minor is all but missing. What I see in the ending C chords in the score are these notes:

C, Db, Ab, G

2 perfect fifths a half step apart fundamentally speaking, but spelt so that G is more than an octave away from the C and the Ab-Db interval is a fourth, giving us a quartal spelling over a C bass note.

But I find that regardless of whether I am listening to the piano version or the orchestral version, I hear an Eb in there, making it sound like a C minor chord with Db and Ab as non-chord tones. If I only heard the C minor in the piano score, that would mean that the pianists are adding in the Eb. But I hear the Eb in the orchestral score as well and clearly an orchestra wouldn't just add a nonexistent Eb right? So there has to be more to it. Something about the harmony itself that makes me hear a nonexistent Eb.

I have heard nonexistent notes within chords before, especially string and woodwind chords due to resonance of the overtones in just the right way that a note more than an octave away from the bass note becomes audible as another note and not just an aspect of timbre. However, I don't typically hear this overtone resonance within piano chords, nor within full orchestral tutti chords. I will hear a full chord from an orchestral tutti, but no significant resonance. Piano chords, I hear both full and sparse, sometimes even symphonic in sonority, but again, no significant resonance.

So then, why am I hearing this nonexistent Eb in the ending chords of Mars? Why do the ending chords sound like C minor when there is no C minor to be found in the chord spelling?


These are the chords.


-- similarly for five more bars.

I think there may be a few reasons why you hear C minor. The C minor scale includes an Ab of course, and if you were to play just the notes C G Ab G a few times you would feel you were in C minor. Play C G Ab Db C a few times and you still feel as if you're in some kind of minor key: either Fm or Cm with a flattened 2nd. (Play C F# G a few times and you get a major-ish feel, because something has been sharpened rather than flattened.)

The root is clearly C, and it contains a minor sixth and a minor 2nd but no major thirds. So it sounds like a minor chord.

Also, it's possible that you're hearing the third overtone (Eb) from the two Ab's without realizing it. The one from the low Ab, which is played by the violins, violas and trombones, would sound a major 3rd below the top G.

It's a very sonorous and doom-laden chord, with bass tuba and bass trombone, as well as two timps playing in fourths - G and C - on each chord. We associate 'doom' with minor keys.

  • 2
    @Old_Brixtonian excellent answer, I agree with your analysis. The Eb overtone also occurred to me. I would add the fact that there is so much tension filled tonality with G in the bass before these chords, we hear the C, however dissonant, as a resolution. Our minds think of resolutions in 2 basic ways, major or minor and minor is the obvious choice in this situation. I personally don’t hear it as minor chord, I hear a lot of dissonance with C in the bass, the clusters, major 7ths, tritones, minor 9ths, etc. – John Belzaguy Apr 12 '20 at 7:57
  • @John Belzaguy +1 Good point about the resolution. And I hear it as you do: not as C minor. – Old Brixtonian Apr 15 '20 at 10:36

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