There are two considerations when thinking about harmony, and it is a very detailed topic to try and explain. In fact, trying to define what is harmony in music can easily become over-complicated.
One consideration is often given more importance in these explanations than the other. The theoretical structure is discussed, taught, and emphasized. Important, of course, but it is not the only aspect to consider.
Maybe what we should also be considering is the result of the theoretical occurrence. In other words, what harmony creates, as well as why and what effect harmony has on the listener.
What Does Harmony Do?
It creates an emotional response. That is its purpose. And isn’t that the purpose of music in the first place? So if harmony is excluded, what are you left with? The use of harmony allows you to tap into some inner deep resonance that you not only hear but also feel.
Think of a Melody
What would it be without its supporting harmonies? Place it in an orchestral framework. The violin might be playing one note, the flute player playing something else, the cellos something else.
If it is constructed correctly, then what you have is harmony. How different would it sound if all the instruments played the same note at the same time? Harmony is the product of creativity. Musical voices grouping together to give you a cohesive whole.
The Theory and its Application
Studying how harmony works and what it can create is important, of course. Studying the harmonic functions, tonic, dominant, and subdominant, will help you take your music where you want it to go.
Music is created using the Big Three, ‘Melody, Rhythm and Harmony.’ They all have their place in the finished product. All are important, and when one is missing, it falls apart.
So yes, let’s look at and understand the theory of harmony. But never lose sight of what it is for and where it can take you.
The Definition of Harmony
Let’s try and give it some form of definition. Let’s keep it very simple. Harmony is what happens when a note is sung or played at the same time as another note. This can be using two notes, called a dyad. Or three notes, more commonly known as a chord.
If you look at a piece of written music, the melody, and the rhythm travel horizontally across the page. The harmony, on the other hand, is shown as a vertical set of notes. It is easy to recognize where it occurs. Where there is a single note pattern on the music, there is no harmony.
A Common Misconception
When two or more notes are played together, they don’t have to sound pleasing to the ear. When they are, we call it “harmonious.” But there are times when it is deliberately “inharmonious” if you like.
Harmony is just the result of two different pitches played at the same time. If it is harmonious, it just means they sound nice to your ear. In musical terms, this is known as Consonance. But sometimes, the music demands the creation of harmonies that are not so pleasant to hear. This is known as Dissonance. Let’s consider both briefly.
Consonant harmonies are not an accident. They are created for a reason. The purpose is to create an ordered, relaxed feel to the music. They are not expectorant in their sound, and you won’t feel like you are waiting for something dramatic to happen.
Let’s look at an example of Consonance…
Let’s consider a D major triad, which is D to F# to A. The interval from D to F# is a Consonant major 3rd. The F# to A is a Consonant Minor 3rd. The start and finish of the triad, the D to A, is a Perfect 5th.
This gives a harmonious result that is not discordant in any way. Nor does it raise any expectations of what comes next. Most music today will usually start and end with Consonance.
The exceptions being Jazz, of course, and some music composed for certain genres of films. Those are usually based on Dissonance to create that feeling of “what is coming next.”
As with Consonance, Dissonance harmonies do not appear by accident and are there to perform a function within the music. They create a feeling of tension and expectancy.
But it isn’t that simple…
This is where it can get complicated and confusing. The structure can become very strange because of what is known as notes being “enharmonically equivalent.” That sounds like a complicated description, but it is quite easy.
Simply put, it is an alternate label for the same thing. You could have A#, but it could also be called Bb. The notes are the same even though they have different names. They are therefore called enharmonically equivalent.
Some dissonant intervals are major and minor 2nds, and also major and minor 7ths. As well as augmented and diminished 4ths and 5ths.
Dissonance or Consonance?
This is where it can get a little strange. Let’s look at it in the key of C. The Augmented 5th, which is C to G#, and the Diminished 4th, which is C to Fb, have an interesting feature. They are enharmonically equivalent to the Consonant Minor 6th, which is C to Ab, and the major 3rd C to E.
But when you write them as augmented or diminished, they are Dissonance. When they are written with the alternative letters, they are Consonance.
Where do you find Dissonant chord patterns?
They are not usually played for very long and are often found in between Consonant patterns. Passing chords, you might call them, bearing in mind that Passing chords can also be Consonance. A Dissonant chord will quite often move into a Consonant chord quite quickly.
Closed vs Open Harmony
To play in closed harmony is as the name implies. The notes are, therefore, close together. As an example, starting with the root of the chord, the second note would be the third, the third the 5th, and then the 7th.
In open harmony, you will give the notes more space. Instead of 3rds and 5ths, you would use 10ths and 12ths. The notes would be the same, but the sound will be very different. Spanning multiple octaves adds another context to the sound of the harmony.
The Principles of Tonal music
Most music can be categorized as being Tonal music. To answer the question, “What is harmony in music?” you will need to understand these principles.
There is a single note, the Tonic note, which is at its center. In the Key of C, major or minor, the note of C is the tonic note. The chord that you build from that Tonic note we call the Tonic chord.
These chords fall into three different tonal music categories. Which category will depend on their function in the music. These are described as Tonic, Dominant, and Predominant.
This is the first scale degree of a diatonic scale. It’s the note from which all the other notes are referenced. Scales are named after the tonic note. The C major scale tonic is the note of C. Other chords can also function as the tonic. In C, this might be an A minor or an E minor.
It is often described as being stable. A chord that doesn’t require movement. This is one thing that sets it apart from a Dominant chord.
A dominant chord, however, is a chord you want to progress or move away from. It is usually placed just before a tonic chord as a progression. An example in the key of C major would be G major.
The predominant chord will often sit between a tonic and the dominant. It acts as a bridge to join them progressively. Often known as a “passing chord.” In the key of C Major, this might be a D Minor.
Predominant chords are not so pressing in the need to move away from them. This might be because they feel like they are taking you between chords already, and the movement sounds natural to the ear.
Want to Learn More About Music?
Then our musical experts can help, so check out our handy guides on the Best Music Theory Apps, What is Considered a String Instrument, Diatonic Scales, 9 Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, and some Little Known Facts about the Nutcracker Suite and Tchaikovsky for more useful information.
Need to upgrade an instrument? We can help with that too; take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Hollow And Semi-Hollow Guitars, and Best Blues Guitars you can buy in 2021.
What is Harmony in Music – Final Thoughts
The theory of harmony can be quite daunting at first. The study of harmony involves chords, their progressions, and their construction. But it is the principles of how they are connected that govern them.
Let me return once more to the beginning. The theory is important, but harmony is really about the sound. What do you hear? What does it do to the music? Where does it take you?
It needs to create an emotional response from the listener. That response is the reason why harmony exists. For those who want to delve deeper into the theory, my suggestions are Theory of Harmony: 100th Anniversary edition, Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice, and Harmony in Context.
Until next time, let the music play.