Music Theory

What is Harmony in Music?

By Hannah Kendall
What is harmony in music theory? Find out with Hoffman Academy

What is harmony in music theory? Learn about types of harmony below

Think of all the instruments in an orchestra. There are violins, flutes, trombones, cellos, clarinets, and oboes, to name a few. Each instrument may play different notes within a piece. When they play their notes together, they create harmony.

What is harmony in music? At its most basic definition, harmony occurs any time more than one note is played at the same time. Harmony is a vast topic within music theory, but in this article, we’ll introduce you to the basics of musical harmony and the importance of harmony in music. 

To learn more about piano and music theory, sign up for a Hoffman Academy Premium membership here!

What is harmony in music theory? 

Harmony is created with intervals or chords and occurs when two or more notes are played simultaneously or consecutively. In Western music, harmony is shaped by chord systems and how chords sound together within a certain key. Harmony functions vertically as well as horizontally. The vertical aspect of music refers to stacks of chords or notes that can be played at any given moment. The horizontal aspect of harmony refers to harmonic progressions that join together over time to give music a distinct sound.

In this video a musician gives different definitions of harmony to five different people: a child, a teenager, a college student, a pianist, and jazz musician Herbie Hancock. See which definition makes the most sense to you!

What is the importance of harmony in music?

Harmony creates variety and interesting combinations of sound. If tomorrow we woke up in a world with no harmony, music would feel flat and two-dimensional. Harmony doesn’t just relate to chords and intervals. Harmony also relates to the mood of music. Harmony is how musicians tell stories with sounds. Certain harmonies can make listeners feel tense and dark, while other harmonies make listeners feel optimistic and happy. Understanding harmony can shape how you want to play chords and how you want other people to feel when they listen to you. Harmony gives music personality and memorability. 

What is the relationship between harmony and melody in music?

To understand harmony and melody together, we must first understand each component on its own. The melody is the star of the show. It’s the catchy chorus you just can’t get out of your head. Melody in music is basically a sequence of notes played in a particular order. Melody and harmony can exist independently. For example, you could sing the melody of “Happy Birthday” and not need the harmony. Ambient music often uses slow harmonic progressions with no direction from a melody. Notice in the track Billow by Ulla Straus how there is no distinct melody. Rather, slow chord progressions gently flow together with only a vague sense of tonal direction. 

Though they can exist on their own, when harmony and melody blend together they can create powerful musical progressions. Composers use notes of the melody to create the harmony. The harmony supports the melody and adds greater value and meaning to the melody. 

How are chords related to harmony?

Chords are groups of notes that create harmony. When chords are built of three or more notes and played together, these notes form harmonic ideas. What makes chords so powerful are the intervals, or the distance, between the notes of a chord. Not all chords are built the same! A major chord is associated with a bright, happy sound because their lowest interval is a major third (four half-steps). Minor chords are associated with a sad, introspective sound because their lowest interval is a minor third (three half-steps). These different types of chords can be used to evoke certain emotions within the harmony. When multiple chords are put together in sequence, they create a harmonic progression. 

What is functional harmony in music?

In most Western music, there is a tonic note, or home note, in any given composition. Functional harmony describes a way of moving to and from harmonies built on the tonic. Functional harmony maps out the relationships between the seven harmonic chords in major or minor scales. Understanding these relationships can help us figure out why certain chords sound good together when played in a sequence, or why other chords just sound wrong within a sequence.

According to functional harmony, the tonic or I chord will be the “home base” for the music. It will be where the music begins and ends. The dominant V chord, or the fifth of the scale, creates instability and leads back to the I chord. The diminished vii chord can also act in the same way. The predominant, or IV chord, prepares the progression to lead to the dominant. The ii chord is another common pre-dominant function and can also act in the same way as the IV chord.    

The chart above, originally developed by Dmitri Tymoczko, helps to visualize the relationships between harmonic chords. Here’s how to use the chart:

  • Chords can always move right from one chord to another any amount. 
  • Chords can only move left along arrows. 
  • The short dashed lines show common passing chords on the way back to the tonic.
  • When I moves to vi and then back to I, the chord is typically in a I6 inversion (or first inversion).

What is negative harmony in music?

Negative harmony is a musical concept based on the idea that every chord within a key has an opposing “negative” chord. The idea of negative harmony is based on the work of Swiss composer Ernst Levy who wrote that you can find negative chords by flipping regular chords around an axis made by the tonic note. For example, to create a negative of the perfect 5th C and G, C becomes the axis and you go down 7 half-steps to F. The inverted chord is now F-C, yet it has the same intervallic distance of a perfect fifth. Chord and chord progressions are a bit more difficult because one note is used as the axis and all notes in chords are flipped over the axis. 

To learn more about negative harmony, watch Jacob Collier explain his outlook on negative harmony.

What is consonant and dissonant harmony in music?

Consonant harmony is harmony that feels stable and has a sense of resolution. Consonant chords are typically built on the tonic, fourth, and fifth degrees and use notes within the given key. Let’s return to our orchestra example. Imagine the flutes are playing a G, the trombones are playing a B, and the violins are playing an D. Played together, these notes create an G major chord, a consonant sounding chord. 

Consonant harmonies are pleasing to the ear while dissonant harmonies create a sense of tension. Dissonant harmonies use dissonant intervals such as the major and minor second, tritone, and major and minor seventh. Dissonance harmonies also use tones that are outside the notes of a given key. When dissonant notes are played, there’s a sense that they need to be “resolved,” which can be done by moving to a consonant chord. 

What is harmony in music? Harmony is an important component of music. To better understand harmony in music, experiment with piano chords and see what sounds good to you. Start listening for harmony in your favorite songs and you’ll start to hear all the different ways harmony can sound.

Read Next