Musical Harmony: Taking a Deep Dive

Have you listened to music and thought to yourself, “That sounds really good"? Not because it was a one-note being played or sung (although non-harmonized music can sound good too) but because of the different voices or notes played together. 

Musical harmony not only makes the music sound pleasant, but it also stirs up emotions in the listeners. This article discusses harmony in music, its application, and the different harmony types.

What is Harmony in Music? 

Let's consider a relatable example of an orchestra. An orchestra consists of different instrument families. For example, the string family comprises violin, viola, cello, bass, and harp.

Suppose each of the instruments is playing different notes to produce different sounds simultaneously, which creates harmony. Therefore, in the simplest terms, harmony is created when two or more notes/tones are played at the same time. It makes no difference whether they sound harmonious or not as long as they are played simultaneously it is considered harmony.

The Study of Musical Harmony

Musical harmony is widely studied and analyzed as it makes up a third of the significant components of music. It characterizes the music piece's vertical aspect, while rhythm and melody form the horizontal flow. These three (harmony, rhythm, and melody) work together to create masterpieces.

Before going further with harmony, let’s look at rhythm and melody and their impact in a music piece.

What is rhythm? 

Rhythm describes the time in a given music pattern. For example, you can tell when to play a note, how long the note is, and how much emphasis should be placed. Rhythm creates a pattern of notes and rests when played repeatedly. A music composer will consider different elements of rhythm in his piece. Here are three common aspects of rhythm.

  1. Musical time signature – It's shown at the beginning of a music chart as numbers, e.g., 2/4. It shows the number of beats and their length per the indicated measure. In our example, one beat represents a quarter of a note, so two beats are played in a full bar.
  2. Tempo – It’s simply the music's speed, measured in beats per minute.
  3. Strong and Weak beats – Rhythmic patterns with strong beats combined with weak beats create resonating music. Strong beats are usually the first beat in a measure, followed by weak beats.

Other elements that are considered fundamental for rhythm include syncopation, accents, polyrhythms, and musical meter.

What is melody?

Melody is the progressive succession of musical notes (played or sung one after another) in a rhythm. It's like words in a sentence that are read one after another. Melody adds the aesthetic feel in the musical tones.

You should know that harmony is not random. Not any notes played together, at once, make a harmony. The study of musical harmony analyzes the consistent pattern of chords, their progression, and the principles that govern their connection.

Chords are categorized as:

  • Major Chord - This is a chord consisting of a root, a major third, and a perfect fifth. A commonly used major chord is the C major chord, which is spelled out as C (root), E (major third), & Gb (perfect fifth).
  • Minor Chord - Instead of a major third, the minor chord is characterized by a minor third and a perfect fifth that settle above a root. A commonly used minor chord is the C minor triad, which is spelled out as C (root), Eb (minor third) & G (perfect fifth). 

Note: The lowercase italicized "b" is a symbol for "flat." Therefore you read it as an E flat.

  • Diminished Chord - This is a chord built on a root, with a minor third and diminished fifth. The diminished fifth means that the note is lowered by half a step (making it a flat note). For example, if you consider the common C minor chord, which already has a minor third, we'll need to lower the fifth by half a step to make it a diminished fifth. So you get the diminished Chord spelled as C (root), Eb (minor third), & Gb (diminished fifth).
  • Augmented Chord is characterized by a root, a major third, and an augmented (raised by half a step) fifth. Augmenting the fifth means you sharpen it by adding a # symbol. Here's how this chord is spelled out. C (root), E(major third), & G# (Augmented fifth).

Looking back to our example of the orchestra, if all the instrumentalists play notes that sound pleasant together and are of a structured chord pattern, this is called consonance. On the other hand, if the instrumentalists play notes that do not sound pleasant, this irritating inharmonious sound is called dissonance.

hands on piano

Most popular and folk songs are composed with consonant chords: they start on a consonant chord, for example, the C Major chord, and end with the same consonant chord. Some music types like romantic, jazz, and contemporary classical use chords, augmented with an added chord member, which introduces a dissonant sound to the dominant bass. Music is composed intentionally with consonant and dissonant sounds to create tension and release.

Musical harmony sounds better when a balance is struck between consonant and dissonant sounds. The composer has to carefully assign specific notes to different instruments, especially those that are single-note, to produce a pleasant sound when played together.

Types of Harmony

There are three types of harmony that are commonly used by composers in their music. 

  • Diatonic harmony - Harmony is created when you play within a certain key. For example, when playing C major chords, you are playing in C major's key.
  • Non-diatonic harmony - Refers to the harmony created by playing chords that are not part of the primary key. For example, if you are playing in the C major, the notes within that key are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. A diminished Chord like Ddim7 (which uses the notes D, F, Ab, and B) would be a non-diatonic harmony since Ab does not belong in C major's key. In this way, diminished chords do not belong to any key.
  • Atonal harmony - In the simplest terms, this harmony is created by chords that do not have an identifiable key. It's also referred to as non-functional harmony. Atonal harmony is most common in late 19th and 20th Century contemporary classical composition and some jazz styles, like free jazz and fusion.

Open Harmony vs. Close Harmony

You can play a chord as close harmony or open harmony. Close harmony means playing notes that are close to each other and in the same octave, while with open harmony, you can play similar notes in other octaves further from the root note. For example, when playing the C major chord, you start with the root, then you can either play the next close third or space it out and play the third on the next octave.

Harmony as a Whole

As you can see, harmony is a profound topic, and we have only really covered an elementary instruction here today. It could be argued, though, that harmony - whether it is consonant, dissonant, tonal, or atonal - is what adds so much of the feeling, emotion, and expression to music. As you listen to your favorite classical piece or maybe your favorite new pop song on the radio, listen for the harmonies that we discussed today.

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