Music Theory,

What is harmony? And how did we get it?

January 24, 2017

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Today we have a fascinating topic, and it is the phenomenon we call harmony.

No doubt a familiar term to all of us, but what exactly does it mean and how is it used in music?

In this episode we will explore a brief history of how harmony evolved in western music starting with the Greeks and progressing all the way through atonal music.

You will be introduced to the most important concepts related to harmony.



Today we have a fascinating topic, and it is the phenomenon we call harmony.

No doubt a familiar term to all of us, but what exactly does it mean and how is it used in music?

The simplest way to define harmony is basically any time you have multiple notes being played at the same time. Yes, including that time you slipped and landed on the piano, that was harmony too.

Interestingly, the etymology of this word goes all the way back to the ancient Greek word harmonia, which meant “to join” or “be in agreement” and the Greeks used it to speak of the whole field of music. But to the Greeks, when they said harmony, they were actually referring to what today we call melody.

By the 9th century, a practice was developed in many churches performing the plainchant where a harmonizing voice was added to the melodies—possibly to reinforce and make the melody audible in the larger churches, which were built at that time.This harmonizing technique, called the organum, is the first true example of harmony. The first instances were extremely basic, consisting of a voice that simply paralleled the original melody at the interval of a fourth or a fifth.

Soon after, the new technique evolved and the harmonizing line developed melodic independence, often moving in opposite or contrary motion to the given melody. This technique was called free organum, as opposed parallel organum.

It wasn’t until the 15th century, that in England intervals three tones apart (or thirds) started to be utilized as consonant harmonic tones. At this time in the evolution of music, we see a gradual shift from thinking about music horizontally to thinking about it vertically.

What I mean, is that when you only have a melody, there is no vertical analysis. If I was to notate a melody on a staff, you would see the melody contour run horizontally from left to right. This is certainly a generalization, but primitive music was mostly viewed horizontally.

Think of early Gregorian chants for example where you’ll only hear one melody at a time. But gradually, composers began to use several melodies at the same time which led to the creation of what is called counterpoint.

Now, if I notate two simultaneous melodies on a sheet of music, you will still have the horizontal contour, but now you’ll also have vertical intervals.

As a result, in the late middle ages, harmony started to include two pitches sounding in combination and eventually, in the Renaissance the concept expanded further to speak of three or more pitches.

For example, Josquin des Prez, a Flemish leading composer of the Renaissance used up to 6 voices at the same time, which invariably enriched the harmony at any given point.

Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but many theory books teach that counterpoint was supplanted by harmony. However, it isn’t that simple, since Bach’s tonal counterpoint is no less polyphonic than Palestrina’s modal writing. If you don’t know who those composers are or what I just said, don’t worry about it, we’ll get to Medieval music sometime later.

BTW, if you ever have a chance to listen to Medieval music, you have to listen to it horizontally to appreciate it. You need to listen to the harmony of a melody. What I mean, is that a melody has it’s own horizontal harmony which is created through the sequence of different pitches.

The major shift from horizontal to vertical harmony took place at the end of the 16th century when the bass line became the generating force upon which harmonies were being built. The method was called figured bass and it was formalized in one of the most important musical treaties simply called “The Treatise on Harmony” written by the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1722. He argued that all harmony is based on the root or fundamental note of a chord.

Today however, harmony is no longer thought of, by the progression of notes in a horizontal way, but rather by a vertical progression of chords. This is why virtually every modern song follows a series of chords, and why guitars have become so popular. It’s because guitars play music vertically as they progress through a series of chords. Unless, of course, you get your solo, and have your chance to rock out a sweet melodic riff.

In the late 20th century, composers also began experimenting with atonal music, which is music that doesn’t have a fixed pitch center. In other words, today, songs typically start, revolve around, and end on the tonic chord. But in atonal music, there is not tonic chord and the harmony is freely associated with any key.

But even though many composers have written great atonal pieces, tonal music has dominated the musical landscape for over 300 years now.

Tonal music emphasizes the relations between chords, specifically between the tonic and the dominant (which is built on the fifth note in the key). This is why, virtually 90% of the music you’ll hear on the radio today, ends with a dominant-tonic cadence.

The other relationship between chords in atonal music is between consonance and dissonance.

Chords that are consonant in relation to the tonic chord signify musical rest and dissonant chords create tension and movement.

So if I’m in the key of C, F and A would be consonant and D, G, and B would be dissonant.

What makes tonal music interesting, is the harmonic progression, or the movement between tension and resolution of dissonant and consonant chords.

Here’s a pop quiz question for music nerds: What’s the difference between a chord and an interval? You’re probably thinking that an interval is if you have two different notes, while a chord requires at least three. But actually, there are chords that have only two notes. They’re called Dyads and are most commonly used today in Rock music, where they are referred to as power chords.

Finally, you can’t have a discussion about harmony without talking about chords, which is the most common way we think of harmony today.

Basic chords are built by stacking intervals of thirds, so if I wanted to build a chord on the note C, than I would simply add an E, and a G, to create the C major triad. Now, of course, there’s much more to it, these chords can have four different modes: The most common being major and minor, but there are also diminished and augmented chords.

And to make it even more exciting, the triads can be expanded by compiling additional thirds on top of them, turning the chord from a simple triad into a 7, 9, 11, or a 13 chord.

This is what makes music so amazing! It’s like a paint, there is an incredible array of colors and hues to select from.

But, everything I’ve said so far about harmony, refers predominantly to western music. Many sophisticated musical styles, especially in India and China consist of unharmonized melodic lines and their rhythmic organization.

Our western harmony is a comparatively recent invention which arose in western Europe and is embraced by musical cultures that trace their origins to that area.

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