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What is Harmony in Music? How to Use Harmony in Your Songwriting

What is Harmony in Music? How to Use Harmony in Your Songwriting

Harmony is one of the most important parts of a song. But it can be extremely hard to get right.

You don’t need to know each and every thing about music to be creative. But there’s a few parts of a song that are required knowledge for unlocking your songwriting talent—harmony is one of them.

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Whether you’re a seasoned music-maker or completely new to it, learning music theory has massive creative benefits.

So today, I’ll jump into what harmony in music really is. You’ll learn what harmonies are, how to identify them and how to write great harmony in your own music.

What is harmony in music?

Harmony occurs any time two or more differently pitched notes are played at the same time. Harmony can refer to the arrangement of the individual pitches in a chord as well as the overall chord structure of a piece of music. But the concept of harmony in music theory generally refers to building chords, chord qualities and chord progressions.

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Harmony occurs any time two or more differently pitched notes are played at the same time.

Harmony strictly applies to pitched instruments, so clapping and stomping at the same time won’t create a harmony.

You might associate harmonies with vocals, but they can be produced on all multi-pitched instruments–guitars, synths, pianos–or a combination of single-pitched instruments playing different notes at the same time, like two people singing together.

From chart-topping R&B songs to folky acoustic tracks to orchestral works, harmony is a central element of just about everything.

Building music through solid and engaging harmonies is a vital skill for anyone who wants to create music.

How harmony works: roman numerals

Harmony is a deep subject. But you can start getting familiar with it by learning a bit of music theory. Harmony in music is represented by roman numerals.

All you have to do is replace a chord’s name with the roman numeral that corresponds to the scale degree of its root.

It sounds simple but roman numerals are incredibly useful. They tell you what harmonic category a chord belongs to. And chord categories tell you the function of a chord in a piece of music.

In tonal music, there are three functional categories:

  • Tonic
  • Dominant
  • Predominant

In tonal music, there are three functional categories: tonic, predominant and dominant.

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Tonic chords

The tonic chords are resting places where the harmonic action of a song feels the most stable.

Dominant chords

Dominant chords are the next most important. You can think of them kind of like the opposite of tonic chords.

Dominant chords come from the triad built on the 5th degree of the scale.

A dominant 7th chord includes scale degrees 4 and 7, which are the two semitone intervals present in the major scale.

If you listen closely to the dominant 7th chord, you can hear how the 4th and 7th scale degrees within it naturally want to move down (4th-3rd) and up (7th-tonic) to resolve to the tonic chord.

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This pleasing tension between the tonic and the dominant is the basis for harmonic progressions in music.

So if I and V are like the harmonic North and South poles, than what about the rest?

Predominant chords

The other chords in your harmonic vocabulary are predominant chords that are used to bridge the gap between I and V.

Harmonic Analysis

To see these relationships in action, write the roman numerals underneath the chords of your favourite songs.

Writing the roman numerals instead of the chord names is called harmonic analysis. It shows you the underlying structure of a song so you can understand how it works.

Writing the roman numerals instead of the chord names is called harmonic analysis.

In this example, I’ve written out the chord progression to a Beatles song first with the chord names, then with roman numerals and then with the chord categories.

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This way you can easily see the smooth progression from tonic to predominant to dominant and back again—that’s functional harmony!

Try using harmonic analysis to understand your favourite songs. Once you can see the harmonic outline of a whole song, you’ll find out how you can put your own spin on it.

Once you can see the harmonic outline of a whole song, you’ll find out how you can put your own spin on it.

How to harmonize a melody

Starting with chords and Roman numerals is a great for writing songs fast—especially if you’re composing on a chordal instrument like keyboard or guitar.

But if you’re just looking to add harmonizing notes to a melody you might already have your chords figured out.

So how do you get started harmonizing a melody?

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When you add a harmony note above or below your main melody it needs to “agree” with the chord underneath it. That means it can’t be a dissonant tone far outside the scale.

Identify the underlying chord’s role with roman numerals then find its key signature to see which notes you can use to harmonize with your melody.

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The chord tones (scale degrees 1, 3, 5 and 7) of the underlying chord will often be your best choice. These are the most powerful and stable places to land.

Counterpoint

As your harmony develops you’ll be creating another melody line on top of the original. This is the heart of a musical discipline called counterpoint.

The vast majority of pop songs won’t contain sophisticated counterpoint.

But the core idea that each line of harmony should make sense on its own rings true for everyone who writes music.

Lines in a harmonized melody can flow in four different kinds of motion:

  • Parallel motion is when two voices move while keeping the same interval relationship
  • Similar motion is when two voices move according to the same melodic contour.
  • Oblique motion is where one voice moves while the other stays in place
  • Contrary motion is when two voices move in opposite directions.
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Try to avoid creating blocky voicings that only move in parallel.

Try to avoid creating blocky voicings that only move in parallel.

Instead, see if your harmony line can use a combination of the different types of motion to go from chord to chord.

Perfect harmony

Harmony is an absolutely crucial part of a musical composition. But it doesn’t have to be scary.

Get started with harmony by writing roman numerals, analyzing songs you like, and weaving multiple melodies together in your songs—you’ll be composing like a pro in no time.