Harmony is the next stop in my revision series. So far I have covered Melody & Rhythm. Harmony is something that will come up in listening exams and is a crucial topic for students to revise. It can fall into two categories – Harmony & Harmonic Devices.

What is Harmony?

Harmony is the vertical organisation of pitch. Harmony is not about the instrument that it is played on or about the speed. If you are asked to describe harmony you are specifically focussing on when two or more notes of different pitch are played at the same time. Of course the next layer to that is the use of harmonic devices. So here are my thoughts on harmony and some ideas that you might like to work through with your students.

Harmony Top Ten

  1. Harmony is – The Vertical organisation of notes. Notes, when sounded at the same time, create chords, triads or clusters. These can sound Major, Minor, Suspended, consonant or dissonant. We use harmony to fill out the notes under a melody.
  2. Chords & Cadences – These are the two key features that we consider when looking at harmony. What chords are used and what cadences are present in the music? Make sure you know Perfect, Imperfect, Interrupted & Plagal cadences.
  3. Suspensions – These occurs in music where a note is sounded twice, but the second time it “clashes” with the notes – it is suspended. It then resolves not another note. Tension is created when the consonant note is prolonged whilst the underlying harmony changes underneath. It is prepared (no clash), suspended (clash) and then resolved – resolution and a lovely harmonic effect in the music. There is quite a lot more to it in many ways and I would recommend reading up on suspensions and looking out for videos that help explain them. But they are a key harmonic feature – see Purcell, Music for a While, Bar 3 where there is an example of a 4-3 suspension. There is also a 9–8 suspension in bar 130 of Bach Brandenburg 5, Mvt 3.
  4. Pedal Notes – A great harmonic device where a note is repeated in the bass whilst the chords change over the top. Used in all sorts of music and in lots of different settings. A Pedal Note really does ground the harmony and creates this constant sound at the bottom of the harmonic structure of the piece. It is a device because it changes the fundamental harmony by creating momentary dissonances with chords that don’t feature that pedal note. You often get tonic or dominant pedals in a piece of music. There is a pedal in bar 168 of Defying Gravity and lots of other examples throughout most set works. An inverted pedal is a sustained or repeated note, but this time it is high in pitch above the melody & harmony.
  5. Harmonic Rhythm – How often the chords change, this is the Harmonic Rhythm. Sometimes you have one chord per bar, but sometimes, like in most Christmas Carols, you have a different chord on every beat.
  6. Perfect Cadences – They sound final, finished, resolved. They are used to help with modulations and fully the function of ending sections and defining the start of new sections. It is the movement from Dominant to Tonic – 5 to 1.
  7. Imperfect Cadences – The opposite of Perfect Cadences believe it or not. Tonic to Dominant, sounds unfinished and unresolved. We are expecting something else to happen.
  8. Root Position – Chords in Root Position have the note of the chord, the one that gives the chord its name, in the bass. In Defying Gravity most of the chords are in Root Position.
  9. Extended Chords – This is where we add notes to the standard 3 notes of a chord. Starting with a seventh, the most common extension, we can then add a ninth, eleventh or thirteenth. This is often associated with jazz and gives the chord a much more open sound. More notes means more things that want to resolve in the chord. Afro Celt Sound System use extended chords in the Edexcel GCSE Set Work “Release”. Try playing chords and add the next note in the scale. C9 would be – CEGBD.
  10. Circle of Fifths – This can be found in bars 20-21 of Killer Queen (Edexcel GCSE Set work) and several other pieces. It is a common harmonic device that circles round, moving in fifths. It creates a sense of movement, but also a sense of harmonic grounding in the music. It was used widely in the Classical period. A great device to add into a composition, try playing the following chord/triad pattern:
    C – G, Dm – Am, Em – Bdim, F – C.

Mental Multiple Choice

There are 10 key harmonic features that you can use. Make sure you go into the exam with a Mental Multiple Choice list of key terms that apply to each element. There are more harmonic features & devices that you could look up, but this above cover the main bulk of them. Make sure you know what harmony is and make sure that you can tell your Perfect Cadence from your Imperfect.

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