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What is music harmony?

Harmony is anything that accompanies the melody. Often, the harmony can occur as chords, which are simply a few notes played simultaneously. Harmony can also occur as broken chords, which are the same notes in the chord, only they are played one after another. Often, listeners do not even know they are hearing harmony because the composer hides it so well from them. In almost all cases, though, the harmony that is being played can be converted into a chord.


Audio Clip (MIDI): Major Triad by us. Basic major triad


Audio Clip (MIDI): Minor Triad by us. Basic minor triad


The major triad is one of the most basic harmonies in music. It is formed by taking the first, third, and fifth note of the major scale and playing them simultaneously. This triad has a "happy" sound to it and is often used as the basic chord in a major piece. Another common triad is the minor triad. It is formed by taking the first, third, and fifth note of the minor scale. As you can tell, this triad has a "sadder" sound to it and is often used as the basic chord in a minor piece.

So what's the big deal with triads? By themselves, though, they don't mean too much. This is because music uses a wide variety of chords that have complex relationships to each other. Let's make up an example so that we understand this section better. Let's say we have a piece in the key of C Major. This means that many of the melodic notes are taken from the C Major scale. The basic harmonic chord also starts on the key of C (the notes would then be C, E, and G). Now this doesn't prohibit the composer from using other triads starting on other notes in the scale. For example, the composer can use a triad starting on G (the notes would then be G, B, and D).

By the way, there's a form of musical shorthand for quickly identifying the proper triad. Musicians use roman numerals corresponding to the starting note for identifying triads. For example, if we're in the key of C Major, I would be a triad starting on C. V would then be a triad starting on G.

Harmonic Progressions and Cadences

Audio Clip (MIDI): Plagal Cadence by us. Basic plagal cadence


Audio Clip (MIDI): Authentic Cadence by us. Basic authentic cadence


Still, chords are meaningless unless they add something to the music. where harmonic progressions come in. As composers switch from chord to chord, they Can create the impression that the music is moving somewhere. A lot of harmonic progressions have been established and commonly used, but composers such as Rachmaninoff are still able to invent new and exciting harmonic progressions.

So, let's talk about some actual harmonic progressions. Cadences are one type of harmonic progression that are often used at the end of sections to settle the thought. Two common cadences are plagal (IV to I) and authentic (V to I). These progressions are quite simple and only consist of two triads. Composers have realized, though, that they give the impression of completion to a section of music. As a result, these cadences are also commonly used at the end of an entire piece.


Inversions are quite simple. Let's take a C Major triad for example. The notes in this triad are C, E, and G. The first inversion is simply E, G, and then C. The second inversion is simply G, C, and then E. We simply took the bottom note and put it on the top. Inversions are not important in harmonic progressions because they do not change the triads. Inversions can become important, though, when composers want certain notes to stand out. For example, the top note in a triad played on the piano will always stand out just because the highest note is more audible. Music Composers often place a melody note on the top of the triad so that it can be heard more easily.


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