What is Harmony in Music?

Music theory is a valuable thing to understand if you want a career in music.

If you can understand the terms that relate to a piece of music, you can start to understand how that music is made.

When you can distinguish what harmony means, you can then incorporate (or avoid) that technique in your own music.

So, let’s take a look at harmony and what it means in music.


What Is Harmony?

In the most basic of terms, “harmony” in music is achieved when more than one note is being played and/or sung at the same time instead of one note at a time.

This can be achieved using a “dyad” or “interval” which is a pair of notes, or using “chords” which contain three or more notes.

It is worth noting that harmony doesn’t have to produce a sound that you might consider to be “harmonious”.

When something sounds nice, it’s because of a consonant chord. Consonance is the term for nice sounds.

This is achieved by both players playing the same note and the same octaves at the same time. This can include notes played over compound intervals too.

Orchestra Harmony

You will find this kind of harmony at the beginning and end of nearly every song in Western music except in jazz or film music because it’s considered to be “relaxed” and gets you into the mood.

But harmony can also produce dissonance from a dissonant chord and thus, sound unpleasant too.

Dissonant intervals are the intervals and chords which do not create consonance. They are very popular in jazz and film music because they are meant to create a sense of tension and movement in the listener.

It is very unusual for a piece to contain too much dissonant chord progression as the chords are inherently “unstable” and will resolve to the consonant chord progression, instead.

By the way, If you would like to learn more about harmony in context with music, try these awesome online theory courses.


How Is Harmony Shown In A Piece Of Music? (C Major, etc.)

Thus, you might think of harmony as dealing with the “vertical” aspect of musical notation (and melody and rhythm carry the horizontal side of things).

Therefore when you see notes stacked above each other in notation, you can see harmony in effect.


How Is Harmony Used In Music?

Must music that we enjoy is “tonal music” that is the chords are based around a single tone, “the tonic note”.

So, for example, let’s say you’re playing in the key of C Major (though it’s true for C Minor too), the tonic note is C, and any chord built on c with major or minor is considered to be the “tonic chord”.

This is a stable chord that makes it easy to hold.

Dominant chords, on the other hand, are the opposite of tonic chords, and both major and minor forms will make you want to move away from them. (Think G Major in the key of C Major, for example).

You also have predominant chords which are meant to bridge the gap between a tonic and dominate chord.


An Example Of Harmony In Music Theory

So, let’s take a quick look at how harmony works in a real-world example.

Down on the Corner

The song “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) is built like this:

  • It was written in the key of C Major
  • It uses a simple chord progression between a C Major Triad and a G Major triad with some highlights where it switches to F Major Triads
  • Thus, all the other work on the song is meant to fit that chord progression. You can find Cook’s bass line of single notes, Fogerty’s rhythm section delivering C chords, and Fogerty plucking out a C Major scale. So, the song is all in harmony and the overall key is C Major.

What’s Implied Harmony?

In jazz, for example, sometimes the musicians don’t fill in all the notes in a particular progression, instead, they let your ear fill in the missing pieces of the harmony. (Jazz is best listened to on specialist jazz headphones if you want to be able to separate out what’s going on in the music).

This is known as “implied harmony.”


The Different Uses Of Harmony In Music

There are three key uses of harmony in most music:

  • Diatonic harmonies. All the notes and chords relate to a single master scale. This is very common in nearly all forms of modern music.
  • Non-diatonic harmonies. Where the notes and chords aren’t all part of that single master scale. This is as popular in rock and pop as it is in classical.
  • Atonal harmonies. A complex harmonic arrangement that has no tonal center and is not built on an identifiable scale. This is very common in classical and jazz music.

Final Notes

Harmony is just one concept in music but it’s an important one. (We have a guide to learning music theory here).

All the tunes that we listen to in every genre use some form of harmony and when you can recognize these techniques, you can harness them in your own compositions too.

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