What Is Harmony and How Is It Used in Music?

You know how a great song can get stuck in your head for days? Well, that’s usually because of the catchy melody and rhythm. But have you ever wondered what the third element of music, harmony, is all about? 

Harmony is what can take a song from being ordinary and predictable to something unique and complex. 

In this article, we’ll explore what harmony is and how it’s used in music to create those memorable tunes we all love. So, let’s get started!

What is Harmony in Music?

Have you ever wondered what makes music sound so good? Well, part of the answer lies in harmony! Harmony is when two or more notes are played together in music, and it’s a fundamental aspect of most genres, from classical to pop.

Now, don’t worry if you’re not a music theory expert – you can still understand harmony. When musicians use harmony music theory principles, they create chord progressions that sound pleasant to most listeners. Of course, not all harmonies have to sound “agreeable.” Sometimes, musicians use dissonant harmonies to create tension and interest in their compositions.

If you want to manually figure out harmonies for a melody, there are techniques to help you get started. It may take some practice, but with time, creating harmonies will become easier and more intuitive.

So, the next time you’re listening to your favorite song, try to listen out for the harmonies that make it sound so great.

The Main Elements of Harmony

When it comes to creating harmonies in music, there are some key elements that play a significant role in making it sound pleasant to our ears. Let’s take a look at them:

Key Signature

The key signature is an important concept in music theory that determines the number of sharps or flats in a particular key. It is displayed at the beginning of the musical staff and influences the chord progression and triads used in the song. 

A major key signature is typically associated with a happy and upbeat tone, while a minor key signature creates a more melancholic and mysterious feel. Keys also have specific scales that dictate which notes to use when creating melodies and harmonies.

Tonal Distinction

Tonal distinction is another crucial element in creating harmonies that sound great. It refers to the audible separation between different notes in a melody, which helps to create sonically pleasing intervals and interest within a composition. 

Having a clear distinction between notes is essential for creating harmonies that are both enjoyable to listen to and memorable.

Consonant vs. Dissonant

Consonant harmony refers to a set of notes played together that sound stable and pleasant to the ear. These notes usually belong to the same chord progression and are easy to listen to. Consonant harmonies are commonly found in modern music, and they create a sense of resolution and stability.

In contrast, dissonant harmony creates tension and unease in the listener. It involves playing notes together that clash and sound unstable. 

Dissonant harmonies are often used in horror film scores or avant-garde music to evoke a feeling of discomfort in the listener. Understanding dissonant harmony is essential for musicians looking to experiment with different musical styles and moods.

Harmonic Change Rate

Another important aspect of harmony is the rate at which the chords change in a song. In most Western music, the chords change every bar or every other bar. 

This harmonic change rate determines the harmonic possibilities for a song and influences the overall feel and mood of the composition. Musicians can experiment with different harmonic change rates to create unique and interesting sounds in their music.

Instrument Harmonics

When it comes to creating harmonies, different instruments play a vital role in contributing to the overall sound. Each instrument has its own unique tone and note quality that helps shape the harmonic structure of a song. 

For instance, a bass guitar can emphasize the tonic of a major chord progression, which adds a sense of stability to the track and keeps the structure intact.


Modulation is a technique that involves shifting away from the original key of a song. This key change can help create a different mood or feeling in the music and also alter the harmonies of the track. It’s a useful tool for denoting a shift in the music and can add an element of surprise or interest to a song.


The rhythm of a melody line plays a big role in creating harmonic phrasing. When creating harmony, you can choose to match the rhythm of the melody for a more subtle effect, or create a different phrasing for some added contrast. The rhythm sets the tone for the entire piece, so it’s important to pay attention to it. Learn more about rhythm

Chord Progression

The chord progression is the foundation of the song’s harmonies. It has a lot of influence over the consonant harmonies in the piece. Harmony involves chords, and the strongest notes in a major or minor key typically revolve around the dominant chords of the composition. 

If you’re struggling to create harmony in a particular piece, try following the notes of the established chord progression. This will give you a solid starting point for creating harmonies that complement the melody.

How is Harmony used in Music?

Harmony in music is all about how different notes and sounds come together to create a cohesive piece of music. Let’s take a closer look at how harmony works.

Harmony is often analyzed as a series of chords. In an orchestra, for example, a flutist might play a high A, a violinist might play a C#, and a trombonist might sustain an F#. Even though each instrumentalist is only playing a single note, together they create an F# minor triad chord.

When all the instruments in an ensemble are playing notes that fit the same chord, it’s called a consonant chord. However, when players use a melodic line that doesn’t fit with a set chord (like an oboist playing a Bb when the rest of the orchestra is playing the tones of a D major triad), it’s called a dissonant chord.

Sometimes, composers intentionally use dissonant chords for artistic effect. For example, a composer might want to hear a Bb over a D chord, even though it might not be the most pleasing combination to the listener’s ear. This is called a flat 6th scale degree in music theory.

Harmony can be fully scripted by a composer, or it can be outlined by a composer and fully expressed by the players performing the music. In the orchestral scenario described above, the composer has assigned specific notes to each single-note instrument, tightly scripting the harmony. This is common practice in European classical music.

Popular Examples of Harmony in Music

Harmony in music can be found in all kinds of musical genres, from East to West, and even unison singing can be considered as harmony. Let’s take a look at some popular examples of harmony in music:

  • The Beach Boys: Famous for their tight vocal harmonies, The Beach Boys are the perfect example of harmony in music. Just listen to any of their songs, and you’ll hear each voice contribute to the different harmonies.
  • Imogen Heap: Imogen Heap is an amazing singer and producer who used harmonization to create the unique sound in “Hide and Seek.” It’s a perfect example of how harmonies can take a song to a whole new level.
  • Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes, the alternative band, are known for their medieval soundscapes, and their harmonies play a huge part in creating that sound. With their tight instrumental harmonies, they create a magical, otherworldly atmosphere that is hard to resist.

Harmony and Chord Classification

Harmony adds depth, texture, and complexity to a piece of music, making it more interesting and engaging. In western music, there are three main types of chords used in a progression that play a vital role in creating harmony.

Tonic Chords: The Foundation of Harmony

Tonic chords are the primary chords in a progression, and they provide a sense of stability and resolution. These chords usually serve as the starting point and the endpoint of a melody, creating a feeling of completeness. The most common tonic chord is the I chord, which is typically the first chord in a scale. Tonic chords are the backbone of harmony and give a melody its sense of direction.

Dominant Chords: The Building Blocks of Tension

Dominant chords are built on the fifth degree of a particular scale and are the second most important chords in a progression. These chords provide a sense of tension and anticipation, making the listener want to hear what comes next. 

Dominant chords are often used to transition from one key to another or to create a sense of climax in a melody. They are the building blocks of musical tension and play a crucial role in creating harmony.

Predominant Chords: The Connection Between Tonic and Dominant

Predominant chords serve as a bridge between the tonic and dominant chords in a progression. These chords create a harmonic link between the two and prepare the listener for the upcoming dominant chord. Predominant chords are often used to create a sense of motion or fluidity in a melody, making the listener feel like they are being taken on a musical journey.

Open vs. Close Harmony: What’s the Difference?

So, you might have heard the terms “open” and “close” harmony before, and you’re wondering what they mean. Well, in tonal music, open and close harmony refer to the distance between each note within a chord.

Close harmony means that all the notes in a chord are as close as possible to each other. This gives a more compact and “tight” sound to the chord. On the other hand, open position chords are more spread out, and the tonic could be more than an octave away from the other notes in the chord.

If you’re looking to create a sweeter and less dissonant chord structure, open harmony might be your go-to. By creating more space within the sonic space, you can achieve a more pleasant and harmonious sound. So, depending on the mood you want to convey in your music, you can choose between open and close harmony.

What is Implied Harmony?

Have you ever heard a musical piece where you could identify a chord even though not all the notes were being played? That’s called an implied harmony. It’s a technique used in tonal music where key notes within a particular chord structure can be played, allowing the listener to identify a particular chord even if not all the notes are explicitly played.

For instance, let’s consider the C major triad, which normally consists of the notes C, E, G. If you play the notes “C” and “G” in the key of C major, your ears could still identify the major chord structure, even without the minor third “E”. This is a good example of how implied harmonies work.

Implied harmonies are commonly used in jazz music, but they can also be found in a wide variety of music genres. Since different musical instruments can only play one note at a time, implied harmony can make up for missing parts in a chord progression, allowing the music to sound complete and harmonious to the listener.

So, the next time you’re listening to a piece of music and feel that you can identify a chord even if not all the notes are being played, you now know that what you’re experiencing is an example of implied harmony.

3 Different Types of Harmony in Music

Harmony is an essential component of music that provides a sense of balance and coherence. It refers to the combination of notes or chords played simultaneously to support a melody. There are different types of harmony, but we’ll focus on the three most popular and important forms of harmony: diatonic harmony, non-diatonic harmony, and atonal harmony.

Diatonic harmony

Basically, diatonic harmony is when all the notes and chords in a piece of music come from a particular master scale. For example, if you’re playing in Ab major, all the notes and chords you use will be from the seven notes in the Ab major scale.

But, if you’re not quite sure what key you’re in, don’t worry! Just take a look at the “key signature” at the beginning of the musical notation. This handy tool will show you which sharps or flats you need to use to stay in key.

The cool thing about diatonic harmony is that it can be found in all sorts of music genres. From ancient Greek instrumentals to Renaissance chorales to contemporary pop hits, diatonic harmony has been used throughout music history.

Non-diatonic harmony

Non-diatonic harmony refers to the introduction of notes that aren’t part of the same master scale in a piece of music. While this might sound complex, it’s actually a technique that’s used in many different genres, from jazz to classical.

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine you’re playing in the key of Ab major and you introduce a Bb7 chord. This chord contains the note D, which isn’t found in the Ab major scale. This creates a unique and memorable sound that adds an edginess to the music. A great example of this can be found in Queen’s hit song “Somebody to Love”. Listen closely to the line “I’ve just gotta get out of this prison cell” and you’ll hear the word “out” fall on a Bb chord in the key of Ab.

But non-diatonic harmony isn’t a new concept. In fact, the preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, which are over 400 years old, are a fantastic example of how non-diatonic notes can be melded with traditional key signatures to create something truly special. So next time you’re listening to your favorite song, keep an ear out for non-diatonic harmony and see if you can identify where it’s being used!

Atonal Harmony

Atonal harmony is a type of harmony that doesn’t have a tonal center. This means that it’s not based on any particular scale, whether major or minor, and doesn’t have a clear root note.

Interestingly, atonal music was largely pioneered by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. However, Schoenberg himself didn’t like the term “atonal” and instead referred to his technique as “twelve-tone music”. This approach to composition uses all twelve pitches of the Western music system equally in the harmonic language, allowing for greater freedom and creativity in the music.

Atonal harmony also found a place in the free jazz movement, with players like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry incorporating its principles into their music. The result was a style that was more experimental and improvisational, allowing for new sounds and techniques to be explored.

Overall, atonal harmony is a fascinating and unique approach to music composition that has had a significant impact on classical and jazz music.

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