In a typical piece of music, the melody is accompanied by occasional chord changes, typically on the first beat of a bar and on other obvious accents. In a chorale, most, if not all notes of the melody are accentuated by a chord change, so the melody and the accompaniment follow essentially the same rhythm.
Strictly speaking, chorales are religious pieces sung in church, but a chorale texture (a style of accompaniment) is more widely applicable. Pieces with a chorale texture are typically slow, grave pieces, which makes sense because, if you were the keyboard player or the rhythm guitarist, you wouldn’t want to be making chord changes on every melody note of a piece that rattles along. So, you won’t find too many songs with a chorale texture in rock or dance music. But you will find them in stirring themes, anthems, church music of the less happy, clappy kind, and in one of my favourite, ever songs:
As a singer and an acoustic guitarist, no one could make it look easier than Paul Simon. But I can’t even imagine how many hours he will have spent composing that song and arranging his guitar accompaniment. It is an absolute masterpiece that has made an enormous emotional impact on so many people.
So, perhaps a chorale is not such an old-fashioned concept after all.
Let’s take a brief extract from American Tune just to give an example of how the melody and the chords hang together:
You’ll see from this that most of the chords changes are quite simple, rocking between the I, IV and V chords (C, F and G here) but there is also a wonderful moment in which the E chord introduces a temporary modulation to A minor. American Tune has lots of these moments. You’ll find modulations like this in many chorales.
The following theme from the second part Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8, better known as Pathetique, is similarly stirring:
Notice how the Bb7 at the end of bar 3 drives a temporary key shift from Ab major to Eb major in bar 4, then the Eb7 at the end of bar 5 allows the key to return to Ab major for bar 6 and on to the end. It is these modulations that stir the heart.
Here’s an example of a national anthem composed in chorale style:
Again, there are some nice modulations, with the D major resolving on G minor and the C major resolving on F major.
I have tried experimenting for myself with a chorale texture. While I’m nowhere near to exhausting the possibilities, I did come up with the following …
There are 28 chord changes in each 8-bar verse of this lullaby arranged here for acoustic guitar. The tempo is slow at 70 bpm, which is just perfect for a lullaby when the whole idea is to slow things down.
Here are the chords. Once again you’ll find a temporary modulation as the E7 resolves to A minor:
For me, at least, the chorale is anything but dead. This is a form of music that can deliver real emotional impact and surely that’s a big part of what music’s about.