October is the cruelest month. Or rather, late October/early November: my first-year students know diatonic chords and a few non-chord tones, but it’s awfully difficult to find pieces of music (even hymns!) devoid of accidentals for people still stymied by secondary dominants. One piece that I’ve found wonderful for teaching around Halloween is Barber’s Adagio for Strings – I’m not a fan of Barber or the piece, but they all know it by heart, and the film industry has done very well by it. And a lot of it stays in B-flat minor and teaches the 4-3 suspension ad nauseum:
Also, that last chord in the fourth measure is good for driving home the point that inversions matter. Barber uses it all over the place, and as a major 7th chord with the third in the bass and seventh in the melody, the root gets a little buried, for a bittersweet effect that feels both D-flat major and F minor. No wonder it’s laid over so many muted scenes of handsome young men dying in battle. The chord in that position comes back over and over, including at the climax (third, fifth, and seventh chords here):
Plus, the climactic chord progression here, though it strays outside the key, pretty much runs through half the circle of fifths in the flat direction: Gb, Cb7, Fb = E, A7, D, B (instead of the expected G), C, F – and you’re back at the dominant. So I get to demonstrate how comforting it is to keep moving toward the flat side of the key. That opening 4-3 suspension, with its repetitious iv7-V chord movement, comes back eight times in one form or another (six of them literal) in seven slowly creeping minutes, which is partly why I don’t much respect the piece – Barber stumbled across a nice opening gesture and milked it for more than it was worth. But the kids learn, I think, that knowing how to use common harmonies effectively can become a well-remunerated skill in the film industry. Perhaps other theory profs might benefit from the suggestion.