There are only a few things that you need to learn about harmony before you can really start composing with direction. I say composing with direction because you could slap on any old harmony, hope that it works, and that is composing. You could compose by ear, and that is great, but you probably won’t understand what you are writing. But composing with direction is both listening to what you are composing and understanding what is happening on a deeper level.
- Knowing what harmony is and how it is created.
- Understanding how certain harmonies lead to certain other harmonies.
So lets take a real quick look at what harmony is. You can look at harmony with two lenses. The first is the vertical lens. This lense is the most obvious to people, especially in this chord dominated world. The next is the horizontal lens. This is just as important, but can be a little confusing.
The Vertical Lens
Harmony is, in its most basic form, the sound created by more than one note or tone being played together. Put three notes together and you start to have something a little more tangible. In fact, triads, or notes built off of thirds are the building blocks for western diatonic harmony. You may have seen these before:
These 4 chords are the basis for most harmonies. Add one more note, and the possibilities start to become exponentially greater. Add more notes, and phew… it gets crazy.
But harmony doesn’t just stop with the vertical lens.
The Horizontal Lense
The next way to look at harmony is horizontally. This can itself be split into more than one category. One way to look at harmony is the “implied harmony” in a melody line. Listen to this example:
- If you look at the first two bars, the notes that fall on the strong beats are C, E, G, and C. This strongly implies the underlying harmony is C major.
- The last note in the 2nd bar is a Bb, which implies the harmony changes to C7.
- C7 tends to lead to F Maj because C7 is the dominant chord of F Maj.
- In the last two bars, there is a common melodic phrase of 3-2-1 or E to D to C.
- This also strongly implies there is a Cadential Six Four chord (I haven’t talked about cadences yet, but you can find more info about them on this site).
- The last two chords are normally a V to a I so in this case a G to a C. Listen to the example below, I think it will be much clearer.
The next way to look at harmony horizontally is harmonic function. This has more to do with the momentum of a piece of music. If you listen to a lot of music, you will start to hear certain patterns repeated. This is because certain harmonies tend to lead to certain other harmonies. The most common of these is the ii-V-I.
This is where we get the idea of chord progressions. The chords, are progressing to some defined point. Understanding this will allow you to listen to music in a whole new way. If the chords didn’t have this tendency to progress, we would probably not be able to make much sense out of the harmony. This is why atonality can be much more difficult to follow.
Harmonic function is a way to group harmonies together so that you can recognize the forces that are driving the music. Once you understand harmonic function, then a new world of potential chord progressions opens up.
There are three main harmonic functions. Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant. Tonic is the home key and is where the music usually starts and finishes. Listen to how the first and last chords in this are the same.
Dominant, is normally the second to last chord and is considered one of the more tense chords. It is what the music leads up to. Here is the previous example again, listen to the second to last chord. You can really feel how the B wants to move to the C, and the F wants to move to the E.
Finally, pre-dominant usually leads to the dominant chord.
Want to Learn More?
If you are interested in learning more about harmony, but you want a structured course, sign up for my FREE beginner’s composing course, How to Compose Music 101. The video course takes you through the process of composing a entire composition and explains melody, harmony, meter, simple musical form, and functional harmony.