Harmony in Music

Music harmony is defined as being where 2 or more notes are played/sung simultaneously. The resulting relationship between these different notes is described as the harmony. This harmony can be heard between just 2 notes or extended further to 3 notes (a triad) or beyond to form complex extended chords.
Harmony is sometimes referred to as “vertical music” because it is the relationship between notes that are above/below each other in pitch.

Through time the resources and techniques of music harmony have been developed and extended. In techniques such as counterpoint composers have sought to combine different melodic lines into interweaving harmonies. In contrast, contemporary popular music is mostly based around chords with a melody line above. Whichever approach is taken the relationship between melody and harmony is always crucial.

Each generation of composers has experimented with new harmonic relationships which have often sounded “uncomfortable” to audiences at the time, but have then become accepted norms for future generations. For example, the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was considered to be outlandish when it was first played to audiences because of its “clanging” harmonies. However, it has subsequently become regarded as one of the most significant symphonies of all time and is studied by students as a set work on many courses.

Diatonic Harmony

Diatonic harmony describes the use of notes that belong to the major/minor key being used. A piece that is strictly diatonic will have no accidentals at any point. For example, a piece that is written in C major has no sharps/flats in its key signature. If the music is diatonic then it will not have any sharps/flats added at any point.

Diatonic harmony music example

There are many pieces that are written using diatonic harmony.
However, the use of exclusively diatonic harmony greatly restricts the potential for modulation in a piece of music beyond the relative major/minor. In order to change key to a non-relative key, a composer must use some chromatic harmony.

Chromatic Harmony

Chromatic harmony is defined as harmony which uses notes that do not belong to the major/minor key being used at any given time. The use of such chromatic notes is a crucial tool for changing key.
For example, if a composer would like to change key from C major (no sharps/flats) to the dominant G major then it will be necessary to change the F natural to an F sharp to establish the new key because the key signature of G major has an F sharp in it.
The F sharp does not belong to the existing key of C major – it is a chromatic note.

Chromatic harmony example

The use of chromaticism is a technique that has been greatly explored over the last few hundred years, particularly in relation to dissonance.

Dissonant Harmony

Dissonant harmony (also known as discord or dissonance) describes a chord or interval that is “restless” or “disturbing” to the ear – it sounds like it needs to move on to another chord/interval to be resolved to a concord (or consonance).
For example, seventh chords have varying degrees of dissonance that need to be resolved. Suspensions are a result of a dissonance that is created and then resolved. In addition, pedal point is a means by which tension is created through dissonant harmonies.

Dissonant Harmony in Music example

Composers in the twentieth century pushed the boundaries of dissonant harmony and experimented with pieces that did not resolve dissonant sounds.
Techniques such as bitonality (2 parts play in simultaneously different keys), polytonality (like bitonality, but with even more parts and keys!!) and atonality (where no principle key signature is followed) were explored.
Serialism further explored the possibilities of a harmony built on a totally new system of note rows.

Such experimentations were complex and often misunderstood and rejected by audiences as they were considered rather “unpleasant” to listen to! However, these developments have laid some crucial foundations for subsequent more accessible sounds. For example, dissonance plays a crucial role in the creation of tension in film and TV scores that does not always need resolving.

An understanding of harmony is crucial for any musician who is wanting to compose music is any genre. I hope that these lessons on the different aspects of harmony help you in your learning.