The Riker Third

2/4/11 - The Riker Third

It is my firm belief that music theory need not be mind-numbingly boring, and I approach the subject in my classroom with a great deal of energy, emphasis, and - I admit - complete geekyness. The following is a bit of fun about a serious (and very obscure) theory topic, and I am trying to stake a claim to naming the chord. Please use the term freely and spread the concept far and wide - lets get this thing in the vernacular! Without futher ado...

The Picardy Third
The Picardy third is a device used in many minor-key tonal compositions, especially from the Baroque era. The concept is simple - a work in a minor key that ends on a major chord. The common belief was that major tonic endings were more final, and thought of as "natural" since the overtone series contains a major triad above the fundamental pitch. It sounds like this:

Bor-ing, right? Lets spice things up a bit...

I will go on record and state that I strongly dislike Picardy thirds - they spoil the cool factor of the minor tonality and sometimes seem very abrupt and jarring. With that said, I did start to think "What about the reverse Picardy third, where a major key ends minor?" This very rarely happens, and the effect is shocking and very dark. Naming such a chord the Reverse Picardy Third is awkward - we need something snappy!

As a child I was raised on Star Trek - specifically The Next Generation in syndication - since my father was a big fan of the series. So it is only natural that I draw the Jean-Luc Picard inspiration from Picardy third, right? Continuing the TNG reference, I now propose that the so-called "reverse Picardy third" be called the Riker Third*, after the first officer on the show. I am surprised at the amount of students who still understand the reference, even though the show ended when most of them were still in diapers.

A Few Examples
As I said before, these are extremely rare in actual practice. Here is a mock-up of what a typical Bach chorale setting might sound like, were it to end with a Riker third:

Here is an example from one of Gabriel Faure's Nocturnes that contains an honest-to-goodness Riker third in number 12. This is a very typical use of the chord, as the composer gives you a Picardy third, then follows it right up with the Riker third to end the movement:

Horn Concerto
The reason I am talking about this topic is that I recently heard the premiere of my Horn Concerto and there is a Riker third in the second movement. It was pre-planned as I was sketching the movement, and when I heard the piece live I believe that it is one of my favorite things that I have ever written. The key scheme looks something like this, and the audio begins at measure 123:

The alternation between the Picardy third and the Riker third in the concerto is similar to the other examples that I have of this phenomenon. It seems that composers emphasize the minor ending by first giving a Picardy third - perhaps the expected or cliche ending - and then sticking in the minor tonic at the end as a sort of deceptive cadence. While I will not claim to follow any strict rules of tonality, this movement contains fairly traditional harmonic progressions and it afforded me the opportunity to put in a technique that is very unusual, and one that I thoroughly enjoy. If you have any other examples of the Riker third in the literature, please do not hesitate to send them my way.

* - My friend Lisa claims this as the Shatner third, since "his career started major and ended minor." I like the Star Trek reference, but Bill Shatner is still working very hard and I like the Riker third since I came up with the name, hah!