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Classical Notes

More Augmented Chords, Please

Posted at 10:16 AM on October 19, 2012 by Emily Reese

I'd like to say a quick 'thank you' to the soundtrack of the game Portal 2 for reminding me how amazingly creepy augmented chords sound.

I'll explain what all this has to do with Portal 2 in a moment, but a couple things first. Portal 2 came out last year. It and its predecessor, Portal, taught millions of unassuming gamers all about physics and properties of motion. If the player shoots their 'portal gun' and puts two portals on the wall, whatever goes in one will come out the other. You can view some gameplay footage here.

A 'normal' major triad is composed of one major third and one minor third. As you can see in the image, an augmented triad is created from two major thirds. In the image, the augmented chord is made of C - E - G#.

Augmented chords are byproducts of whole-tone scales (something Claude Debussy was fond of); see how you can find the C - E - G# within this scale?

Soooooo, I was listening to the Portal 2 soundtrack this morning before work, the entirety of which is available as a free download here.

The track called Technical Difficulties is built off of these same elements: whole-tone scales and augmented triads. You can clearly hear the augmented triads in the harp. And later, you'll hear a gorgeous bass flute come in, dabbling around the tones of that scale.

It's a beautiful reminder of how unsettling those elements (augmented triads and whole-tone scales) can sound. Traditional elements that we're used to hearing in Western music, whether we're able to define them or not, are absent in this type of composition. We are unable to guess where the notes will go, as we often are able to do in the music of composers from Bach to Brahms to the Beatles.

In any event, here's an example of Debussy's use of the whole-tone scale and augmented triads: