After reading this article, you’ll be able to see what’s sonically possible with just a little bit of knowledge and practice. You’ll have a better idea of how to start adding more depth, beauty, and soul into your next song!
Let’s get started!
The topic of Music Theory is vast and complicated. It doesn’t have to be complicated and I’ve created a resource that goes through everything you need to know to be a competent musician, songwriter, and producer. I would highly recommend checking out that article as a primer to the rest of this article and other theory posts I have on this site. It’s titled “The Ultimate Guide on Music Theory for Musicians Who Dislike Theory.“
What is Harmony in Music?
Harmony in music is when more than one note is played together. Harmony gives depth and vibrancy to a song and melody. Great harmony in songwriting should lead a listener on an emotional journey that eventually brings them to a resolved chord or emotional resolution.
While just a single melody line can be thought of as horizontal harmony, chords are considered verticle harmony in Western art music.
While a harmonic chord is an arrangement of notes played simultaneously, the different intervals (space between notes) give harmony its unique colors and texture.
What is Tonal Harmony?
Tonal harmony is the sounds created by a collection of notes within a particular key signature or scale.
Tonal harmony is where classical music theory is based and is used for most songs in western music.
This type of harmony revolves around a tonal center (tonic note). All chords outside the tonic want to resolve back to the tonic in varying degrees.
The tonic is the black hole that all other chords get pulled into.
Simply stated, when you are writing chord progressions in a particular key like the C Major Scale, you are writing with tonal harmony.
What is Modal Harmony?
Modal harmony is a more “free-spirited” form of harmony. There is still a tonic note; however, the chords within the mode stand alone and don’t have a functional harmony. As a result, there is more ambiguity in the sounds and less perfect resolution (cadence).
However, it’s easy to get sucked back into tonal music if you introduce too many dissonant style chords. Dissonant chords, like a diminished chord, beg to get resolved to the nearest half step, which will bring you back to functional harmony.
Modal harmony is popular in free jazz and atonal art music. However, musical modes are often used in popular music and create interesting melodic and harmonic colors.
There isn’t any rule that states you can’t alter between the two types of harmony, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re writing music.
Music Modes are a bigger topic and can be used to significant effect in songwriting. To learn more in-depth about this topic, please refer to my article “How Music Modes Enhance the Feelings in Your Song.“
The Colors of a Chord Progression
Harmony involves chords, and each chord has a particular color and musical motion. For the remainder of this article, we will be referring to the musical harmony of the major scale that is tonal.
The tonic chord is the home base in harmony. Other harmony wants to be resolved back to the tonic in varying degrees.
Tonic Chords = Stability.
Tonic chords feel immobile and entirely at rest.
In the Major Scale, Tonic Chords can be:
- I Chord
- iii Chord (Minor Third)
- vi Chord (Minor Sixth)
The iii and vi chords can be tonic chords because they share similar notes with the Major I chord.
In a chord progression, dominant chords are the least stable. However, a dominant chord is often the chord choice before resolving back to the tonic because it has the strongest pull back to the I chord.
Dominant Chords = Tension.
Dominant Chords are a major player in popular songwriting. It helps create a tidy resolve and cadence that makes up the essential elements of western music.
In the Major Scale, Dominant Chords are:
- V Chord (Perfect Fifth)
- viiº Chord (Diminished)
These chords share the seventh scale degree of the major scale, which is a leading tone into the tonic. This is what creates tension and resolve.
In a chord progression, predominant chords have a more minor gravitational pull back to the tonic. They still carry tension but are better suited to adding color and intrigue to your harmony.
Predominant Chords = Color and Texture.
In the Major Scale, Predominant Chords are:
- ii Chord (Minor Second)
- IV Chord (Perfect Fourth)
Both of these chords share the fourth scale degree.
Consonant Chord vs. Dissonant Chord
Consonant and dissonant sounds are the two main types of harmony in pop music today.
Consonant Chords are pleasant-sounding and don’t add a lot of drama into a piece of music. These chords are created with consonant intervals (space between notes).
The intervals that are considered consonant are:
- Perfect 4ths
- Perfect 5ths
- Major and Minor 3rds
- Major and Minor 6ths
Dissonant Chords are more “ugly” sounding and create tension. They are often used as passing chords within a chord progression and add the drama that consonant chords lack.
The intervals that are considered dissonant are:
- Major and Minor 2nd
- Major and Minor 7th
- Diminished and Augmented 4ths and 5ths
- Tritones (three whole tones in a row)
The main types of Dissonant Chords used in modern western music are diminished, augmented, suspended, and dominant.
What is a Cadence?
A cadence is a musical phrase that ends with a two-chord sequence in composing music.
A Cadence creates a finished feeling to a chord progression that is synonymous with modern western pop music.
There are four main cadences of the major scale:
The perfect cadence is when the V chord (dominant) resolves into the I chord (tonic).
This cadence has the most decisive resolution and puts a neat little bow around your harmonic composition.
An imperfect cadence is the opposite of a perfect cadence. It’s when the I chord (tonic) resolves to the V chord (dominant).
It can also be when a predominant chord (ii or IV) resolves into the dominant.
This cadence has the opposite effect of a perfect cadence and creates a sense of unresolved tension.
It’s often found in the middle of phrases to create beautiful harmonic drama and intrigue.
A plagal cadence is when the IV Chord (predominant) resolves into the I chord (tonic).
This type of cadence has a sense a weaker sense of resolve than the perfect cadence. A Plagal cadence would best be used in the middle of a piece of music, while the perfect is excellent for the end of a piece of music.
Interrupted cadence is when the V chord (dominant) resolves into the IV chord (predominant).
This type of cadence sounds abrupt and can be used effectively to recapture a listener’s attention. Also, it gives a sense of waiting because the two chords feel like they want to go somewhere (the tonic).
What is a Power Chord?
Power chords are the simplest chord type. It’s a two-note chord (diad) that contains the tonic and the perfect fifth.
Power chords are used often in rock music and have a tight-driving sound.
How to Create A Triad
A triad is the second most basic harmony in music. It’s a three-note chord that contains the major scale’s tonic, third and fifth scale degree. The intervals of a triad are consonant.
Triads can be made into either a major triad or a minor triad.
Major Third Interval = Major Triad.
Minor Third Interval = Minor Triad.
How to Create Seventh Chords
A seventh chord is a four-note harmony that contains the tonic, third and fifth scale degree plus the seventh interval above the root. The seventh interval is dissonant (see Consonant Chord vs. Dissonant Chord), creating tension and instability within the triad.
You can consider the seventh chord as a “movement” chord for your progressions.
There are a few different types of seventh chords for musical composition. The most popular are:
- Dominant Seventh (Triad + Minor Seventh)
- Major Seventh (Triad + Major Seventh)
- Minor Seventh (Minor Third, Perfect Fifth, Minor Seventh)
Block Chords vs. Arpeggios
There are different ways to play harmony on musical instruments. The most common will be either playing block chords or arpeggios.
Block chords are when you play two or more notes in harmony at the same time.
Arpeggios are when you pick out each note of the chord like a melodic line. The tone of the chord is still present, but it creates a more complex and fluid sound. If you want to hear arpeggios in action, look no further than a harp (or the Stranger Things soundtrack).
How to Create Functional Vocal Harmonies
Often times as songwriters, we think of harmony in terms of vocals. However, creating thoughtful and compelling vocal harmonies can really elevate a track. Here are some quick insights into different harmonies to try for vocals.
Oblique harmony involves the backing vocalist singing a static and straightforward one-note harmony under a melody. There are two primary ways a vocalist can do this.
If a backing vocalist sings the root note of a chord progression and follows the chord changes, they are singing a Chord Tone Harmony.
If the backing vocalist sings a single drawn-out note under a progression or melody, this is Pedal Harmony.
In harmony, counterpoint is a technique where two or more melodies are played together. Counterpoint often involves the use of different harmony and/or melody to create a richer sound. Both melodies in counterpoint are essentially lead lines.
A great example of counterpoint in a contemporary song is the Taylor Swift and Bon Iver Duet “Exile.” Check out the last chorus.
This type of harmony highlights certain words within the melodic phrase. This gives weight and added depth of emotion to what the lyricist is saying.
You can hear emphasis harmony in my song “Eternity” in the verses. Check it out!
Closed harmony is when the harmony notes stay close to the corresponding chord notes or melodic line. This creates a very focused and tight-sounding harmony and is essentially a triad.
Open harmony is when the harmony notes are in the upper extensions. This alters the coloration of the harmony.
Parallel harmonies move in the same direction and keep the same interval distance as the main melody. This type of motion should be used carefully as it can often lead to uninteresting sounding melodies.
Contrary Melodies move in opposite directions. These are more sonically intriguing melodies than parallel harmonies.
A lot like parallel harmonies, similar melodies move with the central harmony. However, they keep the same melodic rhythm but not the same interval distance. These create more creative and tight harmonies compared to parallel.
Octaves are when the same notes are played together at the same time. This creates a thickening effect to a sound and can be heard often in modern songwriting production.
Vocal Harmony Listening Exercise
The song “Phoenix” by Big Red Machine (Featuring Robin Pecknold & Anais Mitchell) has so many different harmony layers and techniques. Take a listen and see how many in this list you can spot!
What is Modulation in Music Theory?
Modulation in music theory is the process of changing keys within the piece. This can add interest and “lift” to a song. In addition, when modulation is used effectively, it can help pull certain emotions out of a listener.
The Power of Chord Inversions in Harmony
You can create radically different sounding chords that use the same notes if you rearrange the order of the notes. These are called chord inversions.
Chord inversions can add different types of tension and color into your harmony and help you find creative and dynamic ways of leading the listener on a journey.
What to Do Next
There are many ways to use harmony in your music. The simplest way is by listening for the chords and putting them together with melody notes from other instruments or vocals. Once you have harmony mastered, you need to sharpen your melody writing skills.
Please check out my in-depth guide “How to Write a Melody That is Catchy and Awesome” now!