music theory for beginners understanding harmony
Music Theory

Music Theory for Beginners: Understanding Harmony

As a part of our Music Theory for Beginners blog series, we wanted to address one of the most important and broadest areas of music theory: Harmony. Whether you are a solo or ensemble player you’ll want to understand these concepts in order to progress in learning.

So, what exactly does harmony mean? As a simple answer, harmony is when two sounds are played in unison. If you play the notes C – E – G melodically you get individual notes from the C major scale. If you play C – E – G harmonically, at the same time you get a C major chord. This is what is meant when we talk about harmony.

That’s the music theory answer to what harmony is, in it’s simplest form. Musically and emotionally, harmony is much more. Harmony is how you tell your story, it’s how you feel when you play and how you want the listener to feel. A melody can have a lot of harmonic options when it comes to the chords that you play underneath it. These harmonic choices are what determines if the music feels happy, sad, bright, tense, light or dark.

We will take a look at the basics of harmony and some very useful techniques to get the most out of it.

Harmonizing a scale

To harmonize a scale means to build a chord on each degree of the scale. The best way to start doing this is with simple triads. A triad is a three note chord which can be major, minor or diminished. A major triad is built by a major third followed by a minor third, a C major triad would be C – E – G. The interval of C – E is a major third and E – G is a minor third. This formula works to form a major triad from any note.

A minor triad is built by a minor third followed by a major third, a C minor triad would be C – Eb – G. The interval of C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. This is how you build any minor triad.

Diminished triads are built by two minor thirds together, a C diminished triad would be C – Eb – Gb. Both intervals from C to Eb and Eb to Gb are minor thirds. The difference between this and a major triad is that the fifth (Gb) is flat, creating a tri-tone between the tonic/root and the fifth.

Here is a look at the C major scale being harmonized.

A simple way to remember basic triads is to think about the degrees of the scale. In C major the first triad is the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale. Played together they create a C major chord. The second triad is the second, fourth and sixth degrees of the scale, creating a D minor chord. Now you can see a pattern, play a note, miss one, play one, miss one, play one. As simple as that sounds, stick to only the notes in the scale and that will give you the basic triad on each degree.

You can use this idea to harmonize chords much further. In C major, if you took this idea right over the next octave you get C – E – G – B – D – F – A.  In this case B is the major 7th, D is the 9th, F is the 11th and A is the 13th. This obviously becomes far more complex than basic triads it’s something you can develop over time. These extended notes are sometimes referred to as color notes because they add so much tone and mood to your chords.

Every major or minor scale will create the same type of chord progression when harmonized. Although they are different notes the pattern of major, minor and diminished chords will always be the same. Here is an example of what I mean using a major scale.

You will see that each triad in the image above is numbered, one to seven. This is the number system for chords and it’s good to get into the habit of using it. Chord 1 is built on the first degree of the scale, chord 2 on the second and so on. Now that you know the chord progression of any major scale you can start to use the number system. You know that chord 1 in a major scale is a major chord built on the first degree. You also know that chord 7 in a major scale will always be a diminished chord built on the seventh degree.

When you hear beautiful chords then evoke emotion it comes back to music theory. The more you know, the more you can express in your playing. There are lots of different ways to approach harmony in your playing. We will take a look at some useful harmonic tools.

Inversions/voicings

Inversions are different ways to play the same chord. For example, a C major triad would work like this:

First inversion C – E – G

Second inversion E – G – C

Third inversion G – C – E

All three contain exactly the same notes but the order of those notes will change the harmonic quality of the chord. Inversions are pretty simple music theory but the more color notes you add to your chords the more choices you have for inversions/voicings.

To expand a little on the nature of chords, chords can be one of four qualities. Major, minor, diminished or augmented, each of which have a world of variations. We touched on how to build the ones that are in a major scale so let’s look at an augmented chord. An augmented chord has two major thirds, for example, C – E – G#. Both intervals from C to E and E to G# are major thirds. The difference between this and a major chord is the fifth (G) is sharp.

Counterpoint harmony

Counterpoint harmony is when two melodic lines intersect and create a type of harmony. This was often featured in classical or baroque music. In the work of Béla Bartók or J.S Bach, especially in Bach’s two-part inventions.

Counterpoint harmony works by two melodies starting at staggered intervals. For example, one begins then the other starts a bar or two later. Usually, the point the two melodies intersect for the first time will create a perfect fifth. As the melodies progress they will create different harmonic intervals while remaining individually interesting.

In some cases, both melodies would be exactly the same, just starting at different times. This type of counterpoint is known as canon. In other cases, the melodies may differ in key with the second melody being in the key of the dominant note. For example, if the first melody in C major the second melody would start in G major. In the key of C major, the fifth degree (dominant) of the scale is G. This type of counterpoint is called fugue and creates some very interesting harmony.

Counterpoint isn’t as commonly talked about in modern music theory as it was mainly adapted in classical music of the 1600s. It is still a great way to make different types of vocal harmony which is often used in musical theatre.

Harmonic substitutions

A substitution is when you replace a chord in a scale with one that isn’t in that scale. For example, in the key of C major, it’s common to replace chord 2, D minor with a D major chord. The difference between D minor and D major is the changing of one note, F to F#. The note F# is not in the key signature of the C major scale, this becomes what is known as an accidental. This substitution gives a much brighter, uplifting feel and comes from the Lydian mode. The Lydian mode is a favorite of many film composers for its uplifting quality.

Tri-tone substitutions

Tri-tone substitutions are a very specific type of substitution and are very common in Jazz music. Music theory will tell you that a tri-tone consists of three whole tones just as the name suggests. The interval from C to F# it a tri-tone, also known as an augmented fourth/diminished fifth.

This interval is mostly found in dominant 7 chords. Let’s take a C dominant 7 chord, C – E – G – Bb, the E – Bb interval is a tri-tone. The two most important notes in that chord are the third (E) and the dominant seventh (Bb). The third tells you whether it’s major or minor while the dominant seventh adds a different color to the chord.

From the tonic/root note C, a tri-tone above is F#. The F# dominant 7 chord is F# -A#(Bb) – C# – E, you will notice both chords have the E and Bb notes in common. This means F# dominant 7 is a tri-tone substitution for C dominant 7.

Tri-tone substitutions aren’t something that you should do at every opportunity. But, when used correctly they are a fantastic way to spice up your playing.

Fun fact: The Simpsons theme tune is one of the most famous TV themes of all time, it also starts with a tri-tone. Thinking in terms of degrees of a scale, the opening line “THE SIMPSONS” is first, augmented fourth and fifth.

Tension and release in harmony

In harmony, the most important thing is tension and release. It’s a very broad spectrum because it can be simple triads to the most complex chord structures. The point is that harmony needs to tell the story and you can’t have a good story without tension. If we think of the tonic/root chord as home, it feels comfortable and stable which is great. But, if you stay at home it’s not going to be very interesting for the listener. You need to create tension so that the listener is waiting for resolution or release.

One of the most simple and most common examples is going from the dominant (fifth) chord to the tonic/root. The dominant chord naturally wants to resolve back to the tonic/root. In C major this would be going from G dominant 7 to the tonic/root C major. Because it’s a dominant chord you can apply a tri-tone substitution here and G dominant 7 becomes Db dominant 7.

The relationship between the tonic/root and the dominant is one of the most important in tonal harmony. Tonal harmony is what we think of as modern harmony rather than counterpoint. It’s focusing on using chords to accompany a melody/vocal. In tonal harmony, there is a tonal center that anchors the music and besides a few exceptions, you always return to that tonal center. Further development of this gave us atonal harmony which is much freer and has no clear tonal center.

Two things you will hear lots when discussing tonal harmony are consonance and dissonance. Consonance is when the music feels some resolution or close to home. Dissonance is tension, moving away from home, creating a need to resolve. This is another wide area but here are some general rules to explore.

Consonant chords are built on the tonic/root, the fourth and the sixth degree.

Dissonant chords are built on the second, fifth and seventh degree.

Chords built on the third degree can often be either depending on the harmonic context.

Being able to utilize this to tell your story and create tension in your music will massively improve your playing and composition skills.

Make sure and check out our Just the Facts music theory workbooks for all ages that will help you develop and advance your musical knowledge through interactive music theory worksheets!

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