From New World Encyclopedia

Harmony is the use and study of pitch simultaneity and chords, actual or implied, in music. It is sometimes referred to as the "vertical" aspect of music, with melody being the "horizontal" aspect. Very often, harmony is a result of counterpoint or polyphony, which are several melodic lines or motifs being played at once, although harmony may control the counterpoint. When a singer vocalizes a melody and is accompanied by an instrument, the instrumental portion is thought of as the harmony or the combination of tones sounded at once under the melody. As one listens to the placement of the harmonic structure to the melody, one hears the cooperation between the many lines of music. The additional lines which accompany the melody add depth and support to the principle line. This blend of melody and harmony is called "harmonizing," and music is held together by this organized background. Harmony becomes a state of order among the musical elements of a whole to become a pleasing unity.

Origin of term

The word "harmony" comes from the Greek language, ἁρμονία (harmonía), meaning "a fastening or join." The concept of harmony dates as far back as Pythagoras. Thus it is evident how the word harmony is used to refer to a connection between people joining in "peace."

Historical rules of harmony

Harmony is a study in music theory. Some traditions of music performance, musical composition, and music theory have specific rules of harmony. These rules are often held to be based on natural properties such as the Pythagorean tuning's low whole number ratios ("harmoniousness" being inherent in the ratios either perceptually or in themselves) or harmonics and acoustic resonances ("harmoniousness" being inherent in the quality of sound). This is done with the allowable pitches and harmonies gaining their beauty or simplicity from their closeness to those properties. Other traditions, such as the ban on parallel fifths, were simply matters of taste.

Although most harmony comes about as a result of two or more notes being sounded simultaneously, it is possible to strongly imply harmony with only one melodic line. There are many pieces from the Baroque music period for solo string instruments, such as Johann Sebastian Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin, in which chords are very rare, but which nonetheless convey a full sense of harmony.

For much of the common practice period of European classical music, there was a general trend for harmony to become more dissonant. Chords considered daring in one generation became commonplace in the next.

Types of harmony

Carl Dahlhaus (1990) distinguishes between coordinate and subordinate harmony. Subordinate harmony is the hierarchical tonality or tonal harmony well known today, while coordinate harmony is the older Medieval music and Renaissance music tonalité ancienne. "The term is meant to signify that sonorities are linked one after the other without giving rise to the impression of a goal-directed development. A first chord forms a 'progression' with a second chord, and a second with a third. But the earlier chord progression is independent of the later one and vice versa." Coordinate harmony follows direct (adjacent) relationships rather than indirect as in subordinate harmonies. Interval cycles create symmetrical harmonies, such as heard frequently in the music of Alban Berg, George Perle, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5.

Harmony is the result of polyphony (more than one note being played simultaneously).

Rameau's Theories

French composer and organist Jean-Phillipe Rameau (1683-1764) published his Traité de l'harmonie in 1722, and this theoretical discourse remains one of the most important documents on the subject of tonality and its relation to harmonic language. Unlike theoreticians before him, Rameau looked to science, specifically the overtone series, as a way to explain the nature of musical phenomena in relation to the theoretical properties of tonality vis-a-vis harmony. Influenced by the theories of Descartes and Sauveur, Rameau posited that there was a fundamental relationship between the harmonic principles in tonal music and the physics of sound (acoustics.)

He asserted that chords (triads) where the primary elements in music as opposed to melody or themes. His ideas regarding functional harmony, specifically the cadential relationship between the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords within a particular key center, became the underlying principles of what would become known as “the common practice” in musical composition in the Western music for three hundred years. The cadential relationship between tonic and dominant triads (as well as secondary dominants) is elemental to the tonal syntax.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) seminal composition, The Well-Tempered Clavier, which was composed in the same year that Rameau published his Traité de l'harmoni, is the composition in which it could be said that the full establishment of tonal principles were initially manifested. In that composition Bach composed a set of works in all major and minor keys thereby exhibiting the veracity of tonality both theoretically and aesthetically. It should be noted that Equal Temperament did not become a fully accepted method of tuning until after World War I. Bach's tuning/temperament in 1722, was not the tuning that eventually came to be used in Equal Temperament in the early part of the twentieth century.

Although there have been numerous variations and modifications of tonal principles (chromaticism, pan-diatonicism, extended-tonality, for example) tonality remains an extremely viable mode of musical expression. Jazz and Western popular music continue to utilize the basic principles of cadential tonic/dominant harmony that are typified in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, not to mention Jazz, Gospel, and most Pop music.


An interval is the relationship between two separate musical pitches. For example, in the common tune "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," the first two notes (the first "twinkle") and the second two notes (the second "twinkle") are at the interval of one fifth. What this means is that if the first two notes were the pitch "C," the second two notes would be the pitch "G"—four scale notes, or seven chromatic notes (one fifth), above it.

The following is a table of common intervals:

|- ! Root ! Third ! Minor third ! Fifth |- | C | E | Eb | G |- | C# | F | E | Ab |- | D | F# | F | A |- | Eb | G | Gb | Bb |- | E | G# | G | B |- | F | A | Ab | C |- | F# | A# | A | C# |- | G | B | Bb | D |- | Ab | C | B | Eb |- | A | C# | C | E |- | Bb | D | Db | F |- | B | D# | D | F# |}

To put it simply, the combination of notes that make intervals creates harmony. A chord is an example of harmony. In a C chord, there are three notes: C, E, and G. The note "C" is the root tone, with the notes "E" and "G" providing harmony.

In the musical scale, there are twelve pitches. Each pitch is referred to as a "degree" of the scale. In actuality, there are no names for each degree—there is no real "C" or "E-flat" or "A." Nature did not name the pitches. The only inherent quality that these degrees have is their harmonic relationship to each other. The names A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are intransigent. The intervals, however, are not. Here is an example:

|- ! 1° ! 2° ! 3° ! 4° ! 5° ! 6° ! 7° ! 8° |- | C | D | E | F | G | A | B | C |- | D | E | F# | G | A | B | C# | D |}

As seen in the above examples, no note always corresponds to a certain degree of the scale. The "root," or 1st-degree note, can be any of the 12 notes of the scale. All the other notes fall into place. Thus, when C is the root note, the fourth degree is F. But when D is the root note, the fourth degree is G. So while the note names are intransigent, the intervals are not: a "fourth" (four-step interval) is always a fourth, no matter what the root note is. The great power of this fact is that any song can be played or sung in any key; it will be the same song, as long as the intervals are kept the same.


There are certain basic harmonies. A basic chord consists of three notes: The root, the third above the root, and the fifth above the root (which happens to be the minor third above the third above the root). So, in a C chord, the notes are C, E, and G. In an A-flat chord, the notes are Ab, C, and Eb. In many types of music, notably Baroque and jazz, basic chords are often augmented with "tensions." A tension is a degree of the scale which, in a given key, hits a dissonant interval. The most basic common example of a tension is a "seventh" (actually a minor, or flat seventh)—so named because it is the seventh degree of the scale in a given key. While the actual degree is a flat seventh, the nomenclature is simply "seventh." So, in a C7 chord, the notes are C, E, G, and Bb. Other common dissonant tensions include ninths and elevenths. In jazz, chords can become very complex with several tensions.

Typically, a dissonant chord (chord with a tension) will "resolve" to a consonant chord.

Part harmonies

There are four basic "parts" in classical music: Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

Note: there can be more than one example of those parts in a given song, and there are also more parts. These are just the basic ones.

The four parts combine to form a chord. Speaking in the most general, basic, quintessential terms, the parts function in this manner:

Bass—root note of chord (1st degree) Tenor and Alto—provide harmonies corresponding to the 3rd and 5th degrees of the scale; the Alto line usually sounds a third below the soprano Soprano—melody line; usually provides all tensions

Please note that that is the most basic and distilled example of 4-part harmony. There is a nearly infinite number of alternate harmonic permutations.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dahlhaus, Carl and Robert O. Gjerdingen, trans. Studies in the Origin of Harmonic Tonality. Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0-691-09135-8
  • Copley, R. Evan. Harmony, Baroque to Contemporary, Part One. Champaign: Stipes Publishing, 1991. ISBN 0-87563-373-0
  • Copley, R. Evan. Harmony, Baroque to Contemporary, Part Two. Champaign: Stipes Publishing, 1991. ISBN 0-87563-377-3
  • Kholopov, Yuri. Harmony. Practical Course. Moscow: Kompozitor, 2003. ISBN 5-85285-619-3
  • Persichetti, Vincent. Twentieth Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice. ISBN 0-393-09539-8
  • Piston, Walter. Harmony. New York: W.W. Norton, 1969. ISBN 0-393-95480-3
  • van der Merwe, Peter. 1989. Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.


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