What Is Harmony in Music? - Definition & Theory

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Harmony is a pillar of music defined as the simultaneous sounding of multiple notes or chords. Explore the basic theories and qualities of chords and learn about harmonic theory. Updated: 10/12/2021

Definition of Harmony in Music

Harmony is when you have multiple pitches being played at the same time. If you think about a rock band, the guitar is typically providing the harmony. When we talk about harmony, we're generally talking about chords, which occur any time you have three or more notes played at the same time. Yes, that means your forearm striking the piano is a chord, and it is an example of harmony. But we're going to study how to make aesthetically pleasing harmonies.

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  • 0:00 Definition Of Harmony In Music
  • 0:20 Chord Theory And Qualities
  • 2:00 Harmonic Theory
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Chord Theory and Qualities

We need to look at individual chords and harmony as a whole. First, let's look at some basic theory about chords. Commonly, chords are made up of stacked intervals called thirds. This stacking of thirds is called triadic, or a tertian harmony.

Each note in a chord has a name. The bottom note is the root, the next note is called the third, and the next note up is the fifth. These numbers come from the interval between the root and the corresponding note. For example, a C major chord has a C as a root, an E as a third, and a G as a fifth.

Chord qualities
Chord Qualities

Chords can be one of four qualities: major, minor, diminished, or augmented. The first two qualities (major and minor) are the most common and are concerned with the third of the chord. In a major chord, the third is a major third apart, while the minor chord has the third as a minor third apart. To tell the difference, you need to count half steps, which are the smallest distances between two notes (for example C to Db or A to Bb - the small b is notation for flat). A diminished chord has a minor third and a diminished fifth (the fifth is lowered a half step); the augmented chord has a major third and an augmented (raised) fifth.

When working with more advanced chords, such as 7th chords, you are simply stacking thirds up onto the existing chord. For example, a C7 means to have a major chord built on C and then a minor 7th above the root - in this case Bb. The minor 7th is implied, so you need to remember that if you see 7 next to a chord, it's a minor 7 unless notated otherwise.

Harmonic Theory

There was a time when harmony was thought to be created through the interaction between multiple melodic lines. This type of harmony, called counterpoint, largely went out of style in the early 1700s, to be replaced by what we traditionally think of as harmony today - chords providing accompaniment for a melody. Eventually, harmony evolved again to include further and further developments away from tonality, or a fixed pitch center, to freely associated harmony, atonality.

We're going to concern ourselves with tonal harmony. It's what we hear in most classical music from the 1700s on and in nearly all popular music we hear today. Tonal harmony emphasizes the relationship between chords, specifically the relationship between tonic, the home tone of the key, and dominant, the fifth note in the key.

The other relationship in tonal harmony is between consonance (musical rest) and dissonance (musical movement or tension). Chords can be classified as consonant or dissonant relative to the key they are in. The breakdown works like this (where each number represents a chord built on the corresponding note in the key):

  • Consonant chords: 1, 4, 6
  • Dissonant chords: 2, 5, 7
  • The confused chord: 3

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