What is Harmony in Music?

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The definition for what is harmony in music is in its simplest form,  the succession of chords, or chordal progressions made by two or more parts, or voices, playing and/or singing together. Harmony is an important part of the Elements of Music. The use of harmony in a piece of music, and understanding it, will help your music appreciation journey to becoming a better musician.

Another way to put it would be to say that what is harmony in music is that it comes from any pitched instrument that performs with and supports the melody. In the Western Music tradition, there are many music theory rules and regulations that composers and musicians follow when creating or performing a harmonic musical line in a piece of music. For many music creators, melody, harmony and tonality are all intertwined, and each musical element depends on the other to create the whole.

There are several musical terms that can help you to appreciate and describe the harmony in a piece of music. These come under the broader headings of chords, harmonic rate of change, harmonic role, cadence, key signature, overall sound, and modulation. These terms will all be explained in further detail in this article.

If you would like a copy of the Elements of Music Mind Maps used in this blog post, click here her for your FREE download.


What is Harmony in Music Definitions

To be able to appreciate the music you listen to, and to learn about what is harmony in music, read the information below. Here you will discover what makes up the different aspects of harmony in music.


A chord in its simplest form, is a group of two or more notes performed together. Many chords are based on a triad. A triad is a group of three notes performed together to form a chord. Usually a triad is made up of the first, third and fifth note of any given scale.

A chord can be played by an individual instrument like the guitar, ukulele, piano and banjo, or it can be created by several instrument performing together like a choir, or a brass band, or any other type of ensemble with pitched instruments.

Depending on the instrument, chords can be played in a few different ways. On instruments like the guitar, banjo and ukulele, chords are often strummed. The action of strumming is to move across the strings quickly in an upward or downward direction. Another way that a chord can be played on most instruments that can play more than one note at a time is as a block chord. A block chord is when all the notes of the chord are played simultaneously. The arpeggio is another way of playing a chord. An arpeggio is playing each of the notes of the chord in a repeated melodic pattern. On the piano, this technique is usually performed in the left hand.

Harmonic Rate of Change

The Harmonic Rate of Change is the distance between chord changes. This could be described as quick or slow and is counted in the number of bars or beats. This is linked to the chord progression or the chord pattern in the music. In a lot of popular music the chords change every bar, sometimes every two bars.

There are many common chord progressions that have been used in many different genres and songs. One of the most common chord progressions is the 12 Bar Blues. This chord progression was featured as the basis of many Blues and Jazz songs from the early 1900’s. In the 1950’s, when Rock ‘n’ Roll was in its infancy, many rock songs were also based around the 12 Bar Blues. The chord pattern is below, it is often played with a four-bar phrasing.

I    I    I   I

IV  IV  I  I

V  IV  I   I

In the clips below you will see some examples of music using the 12 Bar Blues




Another popular chord progression is the Ice Cream Chord Change. This chord pattern became popular from the end of the 1950’s and was used in a lot of songs. It is still used today, in many, many songs!

This chord progression, which is often played with the chords changing every bar or 4 beats is – I  VI  IV  V. In the clips below there are some examples of this chord progression. Please note, in the Axis of Awesome Four Chord Song, there are some lyrics that may not be appropriate for younger students!






Harmonic Role

There are two main harmonic roles that support the melody – melodic accompaniment and the bass line. For each of these roles, their performance is based around the chord pattern or progression that is accompanying the melody.

Any pitched instrument can perform the melodic accompaniment or the bass line. Usually, the bass line is performed by instruments in a low bass register. The instruments performing the melodic accompaniment, in any given piece of music, will depend on the ensemble. For example, in a choir, the melody might be sung by the soprano section, and the rest of the choir is singing in harmony as the melodic accompaniment. Whereas, in a rock band, the melody is often sung by the lead vocalist, while two electric guitars are performing the melodic accompaniment and the bass guitar playing the bass line.

There are two other harmonic roles that can be used, although it is not as common as the two previous roles. A pedal point is the playing of a single, repeated pitch to maintain a tonal center. This was a common harmonic technique used in the Baroque Period. Another harmonic role is that of a drone. A drone is a long continuous note that is played to also maintain a tonal center. Instruments such as the bagpipes and didgeridoo naturally do this, but, this harmonic role can be performed by any pitched instrument.


A cadence is two chords performed at the end of a phrase or section of music. Below there is a list of the most common cadences and their definitions. In music, chords are often written as roman numerals, and these are based on the eight notes of the scale. This means that I=one/first, II=two/second, III=three/third, IV=four/fourth, V=five/fifth, VI=six/sixth, VII=-seven/seventh, the eighth note is the first note an octave higher.

Perfect Cadence – a cadence that is made up of chords V-I

Plagal Cadence – a cadence made up of chords IV-I

Imperfect Cadence – a cadence that is made up chords I-V

Interrupted Cadence – a cadence that is made up of chords V-VI

Key Signature

A key signature is the combination of sharps or flats that is written on the staff at the beginning of each line of the score after the clef. The key signature, and the number of sharps or flats, determines the key that the music is composed in. In traditional Western music, there are two main types of key signatures – Major and Minor. Each major key signature has a related and similar minor key. Without going into too much detail, there is a lot of musical theory with rules to work out the given key of any piece of music. In simple terms, a major key will sound brighter and happier in mood, and the minor key sounds more mellow and sad in mood.

Overall Sound

The overall sound of the music will depend on the tonality used. The tonality and sound is connected to the key that the music is played in, as well as the instrumentation used. As well as describing the music in a major or minor key, the music can be described as consonant or dissonant.

The definition of consonant music is “pleasant sounding”, and dissonant is the opposite and “unpleasant sounding”. Of course, this can subject to musical preference and opinion, but, generally people can agree on the overall sound of a piece of music.

Composers will use this “sound” to make the music pleasing, or even creepy/scary, depending on the key signature or tonality used. Using clashing notes to form unusual chords, can make the listener uneasy, and this is perfect for use in horror films!

Other types of sounds can be created when the music is written using different scales like the medieval church modes, pentatonic scales, blues scales and even world music scales from different parts of the globe.


Modulation in music is simply a change away from the home key. In a lot of modern music, composers use modulation to create a “lift”. This is done when the music goes up a semitone into another key, for example from the key of E major to F major. A great example of this is the rock classic “Joy to the World” performed by Three Dog Night, near the end of the song, the chorus is repeated a semitone higher. In this video, the key change is at 1:59.


Not all modulation is the simple upward motion of a semitone, some modulation is to relative keys of the original key signature. Sometimes the modulation is to the relative minor/major key, or more often it is to the dominant (fifth) key. This modulation is a common feature to a lot of classical compositions.


Why is Harmony Important in Music?

In Western music tradition, most people would agree that the melody is the most important part of the music. The melody, and the series of pitches that it consists of, determines the overall sound and harmony in the music. But, what is harmony in music, and how else can it be described?

If you think of the melody as being the main part of the meal, then the harmony will be the parts of the meal that accompany the main. For example, if you order a steak at a restaurant, you normally don’t just get steak. The meal comes with other things like a salad, some mashed potato and even a yummy sauce. Together, on the plate they make a perfect and enjoyable meal. The accompanying food is not in competition with the steak, but rather there to make the meal more enjoyable.

Harmony is what supports and accompanies the melody. The different parts of the harmony make the melody more enjoyable and interesting. To learn more about the Element of Music – Melody, click here for more information.


Music Appreciation and Harmony

When appreciating a piece of music, most people concentrate on the melody. Next time try going beyond the melody and listen for the accompanying instruments and what they are doing. Are they playing chords? How are they playing the chords? What instrument is playing the bass line? What instruments are performing the melodic accompaniment? Does this change between sections of the music? How quickly do the chords change? Is there a chord progression being repeated?

Even better, next time you are performing as part of an ensemble, switch up the harmonic roles! You might like what you hear, and even better yet, you will have improved your skills as a musician.

If you would like a copy of the Elements of Music Mind Maps used in this blog post, click here her for your FREE download.


Watch the Video of this article here

Until next time

Julia from Jooya


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