The Quartal Harmony Principle: Small Changes, Big Impact
Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash
Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

In the realm of music, a subtle shift from tertian to quartal harmony has had a profound impact on how we experience sound. This seemingly minor change has revolutionized the world of jazz but also finds antecedents in classical music. But what if we applied this principle of small changes leading to significant impact to our businesses and personal lives? This article explores the Quartal Harmony Principle as a metaphor for strategic shifts that can revitalize your operations, whether you’re an entrepreneur, a team leader, or someone looking to bring a fresh perspective to your personal life.

Quartal Harmony: A Lesson in Flexibility and Innovation

Traditionally, Western music has been dominated by tertian harmony, which involves stacking thirds to form chords. Quartal harmony, on the other hand, stacks fourths. I like to think of it this way: line up all the notes in a scale. According to tertian harmony, you build a basic chord by starting with a note, then adding every other note until you have three or four notes. For example, if you’re working with the C-major scale, your basic I chord would start with the root note C then skip D, add E, skip F, add G, skip A, and add B. The result is a Cmaj7 chord (C-E-G-B). This is how a self-taught guitarist understands stacking thirds. Stacking fourths just means skipping two notes in the scale at a time instead of one.

This seemingly small change has drastic and interesting effects. The result is an intriguingly open sound that lacks a strong tonal center. The chords are more vague or ambiguous yet still melodically pleasant and palatable. This flexibility allows musicians to explore new textures and emotions. Richard Wagner’s “Tristan chord” in Tristan and Isolde and McCoy Tyner’s extensive use of quartal voicings in jazz are prime examples of how a small shift in foundational elements can lead to groundbreaking work.

The Quartal Harmony Principle in Business Strategy

In business, we often operate based on core assumptions that have been in place for years, if not decades. These are our “tertian harmonies”—tried and true, but perhaps limiting in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing landscape. What if, instead of a complete overhaul of your business model, you made a small but strategic shift? This could be as simple as rethinking your customer engagement strategy or as complex as re-engineering a product feature. The Quartal Harmony Principle suggests that these small changes at the foundational level can lead to transformative results, much like how a shift from tertian to quartal harmony led to fresh modes of thinking and a boost in creativity.

Voicing Your Chords Differently

The Quartal Harmony Principle isn’t limited to business; it can also be applied to personal development. Whether it’s reframing the way you approach issues or tweaking your daily routine, a small change can have a ripple effect, leading to a more fulfilling and effective life. You don’t need to upend your entire existence; sometimes, all it takes is voicing your “chords” differently to bring about meaningful change.

The next time you find yourself in a rut, whether professionally or personally, remember: you might not need a complete overhaul to effect meaningful change. Sometimes, all it takes is a different way of stacking your chords.



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