23rd Chords

23rd Chords

Guitarist Bruce Arnold BLOG Logo, 23rd Chords

23rd Chords

“23rd Chords” is a 12 tone concept that the great teacher and musician Charlie Banacos invented.  Although most people equate 12 tone with atonal music Charlie didn’t believe there was such a thing as atonal music.  With maybe the exception of some “noise” compositions by Stockhausen for example, Charlie believed, as do I, that any music can be heard in a key center.  That key center may be changing often but you can hear a key center if you your ear is sufficiently developed. (You can get that skill via Contextual Ear Training.) But what made me excited was the fresh way I started to hear music, and eventually to play and compose it.  Any artist is hell bent on discovering their own particular sound.  I think learning this concept can broaden anyone’s musical palette.  And maybe I gravitated to it because I just really like the way it sounds.

Examples of Hearing 12 Tone Music in a Key Center

When I studied with Charlie he had me sing through “Five Piano Pieces” by Arnold Schoenberg.  Charlie knew I was interested in 12 tone composition techniques and that those pieces contain Schoenberg’s first 12 tone forays.  From singing through the whole piece and grabbing single linear lines of my choosing, I definitely heard these lines in a key center (though I did modulate quite often).  I later formed an ensemble with the great saxophonist John Gunther, called Spooky Actions.  I affectionately called this group my cover band because we did covers of contemporary composers such as Webern, Messiaen and Schoenberg, among others.  We played the music as written and then improvised on each movement.  Here are some links to some of these recordings:

The Music of Webern

Funf Piano Pieces by Arnold Schoenberg

Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen

What I Learned from this Music

What I learned about hearing this music and learning how to play it seriously affected me as a composer and improvisor. First, I realized from working on the Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern that his music is tonal; it just took me about a year to hear it that way. I also learned from analyzing the internal structure of Webern’s music, that if I improvised with the same pitch class sets as he used to compose the music, I was able to improvise “in the style of” Webern. I then applied the same approach as Spooky Actions tackled Schoenberg’s and Messiaen’s music.

23rd Chord Construction

When I was improvising on the music of Webern, Schoenberg and Messiaen I was using a technique that is closely related to 23rd Chords. The idea behind a 23rd Chord is to take three 4 note arpeggios to represent a specific chord type. For example if you have a G7 chord, you would use:

G7 arpeggio G, B, D, F.

A Major7 arpeggio A, C#, E, G# .

C-7b5 arpeggio C, Eb, Gb, Bb.

You many notice that I’ve worked my way up from a “G” all the way to the 23rd degree; in other words:

G = 1
B = 3
D = 5
F = b7
A = 9
C# = #11
E = 13
G# = #15
B# = #17
D# = #19
F# = b21
A# = #23

The Use of 23rd Chords

So that is the reason they are called 23rd chords. So far I’ve found very few serious compositions that utilize this method, though I do hear musicians in New York City occasionally use the concept in their improvisation. I took on the challenge of composing and improvising with 23rd chords on my first CD back in the 1990’s. The CD was called “Blue Eleven” and the the title cut “Blue Eleven” is a 23rd chord composition using an 11 bar blues form in the key of G. I also improvise over the form using 23rd chords. I’ve included the first page of the chart below as well as two audio examples; one from the head and another excerpt from the guitar solo. You can find the complete chart and audio in any of the following books or CDs:

My Music: Application of 12 Tone Techniques to Jazz Composition and Improvisation

Tools for Modern Improvisation This book contains a listing of all 23rd chords for all chord types plus a 62 page étude for each chord type in every key for a total of 744 pages. There is also a PDF showing other possible ways to combine three 4 note chords into 12 tone aggregates.

Bruce Arnold Composition Compilation 2nd Edition

You will notice how each of the three seventh chords are used over the I IV and V chord of this Blues. Just for clarity I thought of the last three bars of Blue Eleven as a V chord, only returning to the I chord at the top of the form–in other words the harmony is as follows:

I, I, I, I,
I, I
V, V, V

1st page of 6 pages “Blue Eleven” Chart:


Here is the Melody from Blue Eleven with Ratzo B. Harris on Bass and Tony Moreno on Drums

Here are the two choruses from the guitar solo from Blue Eleven

23rd Chords Were a Great Influence

The 23rd chord concept, as well as the hexatonic scales that McCoy Tyner used in his soloing and composing techniques i.e. “Passion Dance” greatly influenced all the compositions on my nine solo recordings, which are listed below:

Blue Eleven
A Few Dozen
Give ’em Some
Blue Lotus
Art of the Blues
Heavy Mental
Vanishing Point

These ideas also lead me to publish many books about Pitch Class Set Improvisation. Those books are listed below. Please check Muse-eek Publishing Company for the latest on this ever growing list:

Sonic Resource Guide
Ultimate Arpeggio
Ultimate 3 Note Chord Lexicon
Trichord Sweep Pairs
013 Hexatonic Études
Symmetrical Trichord Pairs
Tertial Octatonics
Tertial Intervallics
Time Transformation
Set Theory for Improvisation Ensemble Method 027 016
Set Theory for Improvisation Ensemble Method 027 027
Many “ChopBusters” books

Check out other Bruce Arnold blog entries on brucearnold.com here

Please check out Bruce Arnold other blogs at Muse Eek Publishing Company

Bruce Arnold Music Education Genealogy Chart

You might enjoy checking out the “Music Education Genealogy Chart” located on my artist’s site. You will clearly see the historic progression of pedagogy that is the basis for Muse Eek Publishing Products. Great musicians throughout history have been studying the ideas presented by Muse-eek.com which derives its content from a a lineage that stretches back to Scarlatti!

Bruce-Arnold-Guitar-Flutterby-9 23rd Chords

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