Harmony in Music: The Complete Guide

Mastering Harmony in Music: The Complete Guide
Mastering Harmony in Music: The Complete Guide
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The Definition of Harmony in Music

Harmony in music is often misinterpreted by many beginner musicians and producers. 

When we hear the word harmony, we automatically think of music. It is one of the three core components of music, alongside rhythm and melody

So what is harmony in music? And how do musicians use it?

Harmony is simply the result of two or more individual notes (or pitches) that are played or sung at the same time.

Example of Harmony on Musical Notation

Example of Harmony (Right)


It can come in the form of two or more notes from the same instrument (or voice), or two notes or more notes playing from different instruments (or voices). The key is that these notes are played simultaneously.

Similarly to rhythm, musicians, composers, and producers use harmony in music to build narrative and emotion in a particular piece of music.


Importance of Harmony in Music

Harmony in music plays a crucial role, as it can completely dictate the emotion and feeling of a particular section or piece of music. 

Without harmony in music, you would have a single audible pitch with no contrasting or complimentary sounds to build upon. Harmony in its most basic understanding is two varying pitches playing at the same time, which is the foundation of pretty much all music.

Harmony provides a sense of structure and narrative through the use of consonance and dissonance. It adds a layer and depth to a song’s arrangement.

Effective use of harmony in music is the deciding factor between an average song and an incredible song. 


Basic Components of Harmony


Notes and Intervals

Notes are the individual pitches that make up all music elements. There are 12 unique notes, which repeat in higher or lower octaves. 

These notes have many different relations with one another, but the most common relationship to understand is between major scales and minor scales.

Intervals, on the other hand, are the distances between two notes. They play an equally important role in harmony. 

Notes and Intervals - Harmony

Different intervals have unique sounds and can evoke different emotions from the listener. 

Similar to how a tempo (part of rhythm) can change the overall feeling of a song, the intervals between notes (part of harmony) can also change this feeling.

For example, a major third interval sounds happy and energetic, whilst a minor third has a sadder, darker quality. Despite the root note remaining the same for each, it is the different intervals that contribute to the final sound. 


Chords

A chord is a selection of notes played at the same time, and they form the basis of harmony in music. 

Chords can have various structures, with different combinations of notes creating different sounds and emotions. For instance, major chords generally sound happy and bright, while minor chords have a darker, somber tone. 

The most basic are triad chords, a perfect starting point for beginner musicians.

C Major Triad Chord - Harmony Example

C Major Triad ChordMusical Notation


C Major Triad Chord - Harmony on Piano

C Major Triad ChordPiano Roll


More complex chord structures such as seventh chords enhance harmony by introducing an additional voice (or pitch) to the overall sound.

These complex chord structures feature more interesting note and interval combinations, as well as generally additional chord voicings.

C Major7th Chord - Harmony

Cmaj7 Chord – Piano Roll


Cadences

Cadences are the specific chords found at the end of a phrase of music. They are made up of at least two consecutive chords, which must include the last chord played. 

Cadences can be thought of as a way to bring closure to a particular phrase or section of music. They can come in many ways, as they can offer a sense of resolution, they can act as a harmonic bridge to the next piece, or they can leave the song unresolved.

The main cadences are perfect (dominant to tonic) which gives a sense of progression and conclusion, imperfect (inverted dominant to tonic) which weakens the sense of progression, and deceptive (dominant to anything other than tonic) which gives no conclusion and instead surprises the listener. 


Types of Harmony in Music

There are various types of harmony that musicians and composers use in the vast world of music. 

Each type has a unique utility to create particular sounds (and emotions). Certain types of harmony are used for certain purposes. We will dive into the 5 most common types used today:

Diatonic Harmony

Diatonic harmony is based on the seven notes of a diatonic scale, such as the major scale and natural minor scales. 

It is the most common type of harmony in music you’ll hear, and it tends to have a more consonant, predictable sound. Diatonic chord progressions, like the classic I-IV-V progression, are staples in many genres of music.

Diatonic Harmony - I-IV-V Progression

Diatonic Chord Progression (I-IV-V)


Chromatic Harmony

Next up we have chromatic harmony, which incorporates all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. 

This results in a more complex and colorful sound and often creates tension and dissonance. This type of harmony can usually be resolved by moving to a consonant, diatonic chord.

Chromatic harmony is a more advanced form of harmony and can be commonly found in jazz music, classical compositions, and some progressive rock.


Modal Harmony

Less commonly found, modal harmony is based on the different musical modes. These are scales derived from the diatonic scale but with a different starting note.

Each mode has a unique character and mood, providing a distinct harmonic backdrop for a piece. The notes and intervals stay the same in theory, but the progression and root notes change. Modal harmony is also prevalent in jazz and some classical music.


Triadic Harmony

Similar to diatonic harmony, triadic harmony in music is a simple but effective way to create harmonic depth. 

It consists of chords built from three-note combinations called triad chords. These include major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads, each with its distinct sound. 

C Aug Triad Chord - Diatonic Harmony Example

C Augmented Triad Chord – Triadic Harmony


Polychords

And finally, we have polychords, which involve the simultaneous use of two or more chords. 

This type of harmony excels at creating unique and complex harmonic textures. They often add layers of tension and dissonance. 

Polychords are one of the more complex harmonies to master, so we would recommend gaining a solid grasp of the others before moving on to this.

Polychords - Harmony in music

Example of Polychords – Harmony in Music


Consonance and Dissonance

The terms ‘harmony in music’ and ‘harmonious’ do not mean the same thing, and this can be demonstrated with the concepts of consonance and dissonance.

Harmony is the sound of multiple pitches playing at the same time, regardless of what that sounds like. 

Harmony can sound nice and full, which is called consonance.

But it can also sound annoying and sharp, which is called dissonance.


Consonance

Consonance refers to pleasing sounds created by certain combinations of notes and intervals.

Consonant intervals and chords create a sense of stability and resolution in music, providing a feeling of reliability in the music.

Perfect 4ths and 5ths, major and minor 3rd, and major and minor 6ths are all consonant harmonies. All major and minor triad chords are consonant due to their intervals (i-iii-v).

Regardless of major or minor key, many songs start and finish on consonant intervals and chords as they feel calm and resolved, so the listener won’t be expecting closure with another harmony.

There are exceptions to this, with certain types of music such as jazz, blues, and film scores basing their structure and harmonies around dissonant chords for effect.


Dissonance

Dissonance is the opposite of consonance, resulting in harsh, clashing sounds produced by certain dissonant notes and chord combinations. 

They’re perfect at creating a sense of suspense and movement in music.

Dissonant chords and intervals are generally shorter in length and resolve back to consonant ones.

Major and minor 2nds and 7ths (i-ii / i-vii), and augmented and diminished 4ths and 5ths are considered dissonant.

Dissonance adds drama, suspense, and contrast to the overall song composition. 


Open vs Close Harmony in Music

Open or closed harmony are two terms that refer to the way in which you play a chord.

They refer to the spacing of the notes, whether they are close to one another, or further apart.

Open harmony features wider gaps between the notes in the chord. This results in a more spacious and airy sound, often associated with a sense of freedom and expansiveness. 

Open Harmony vs Close Harmony - Musical Notation

Open Harmony vs Close Harmony – Musical Notation


This can be commonly found in choral and orchestral music, due to the expansive pitch ranges that are required.

Close harmony, on the other hand, has notes that are closer together, resulting in a more compact sound. 

This type of harmony is often used in vocal quartets and some pop music, as it’s perfect at creating a strong sense of unity and cohesion among the voices and/or instruments.


Summary – Mastering Harmony in Music

Harmony in music is a fundamental concept that adds depth, emotion, and complexity to any piece. 

Once you understand the different types of harmony and their role in different musical genres, you’ll be able to apply these to your own music. 

Test different harmonic techniques, play with consonance and dissonance, and use different cadences to change the outcome of your music.

All of the exercises will help you become a better musician and songwriter and will elevate you (and your music) to the next level.


Complete the full series with our Rhythm in Music: The Complete Guide and Mastering Melody in Music: The Complete Guide next.


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Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith
As Visionary and Chief Editor of 122BPM, Thomas is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of music pioneers. With a degree in Music and 10 years industry experience, Thomas is now shaping 122BPM as the central hub for music and audio education.
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