It’s been requested that I write about how to understand, find and use harmony. First, let’s look at what it is: how do we define harmony? Essentially, it’s the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes that sound pleasing together. Of course, what sounds good to one person can differ from what another finds pleasing. Aside from cultural differences in what is familiar to certain people, there’s also the fact that any interval creates some kind of harmony, though we may have to redefine what we think of as “harmonious”. But for this article we’ll stick with the concept of notes that sound well together.
Harmony is, obviously, used in musical accompaniment to melodies. Combined with tempo and rhythm, it gives a piece of music its mood. You could use different harmonies in different arrangements of the same melody and come up with completely different moods. To demonstrate this, use harmonious but unexpected chords with any familiar tune and see what happens.
When I was about four years old, my siblings and I were riding in the car one day with my parents, singing songs in unison. My mother’s ears were probably hurting (although we had good pitch, unison gets old after a while), so she said to me, “Laurie, why don’t you sing harmony?” I asked, “What’s harmony?” She replied, “Notes that sound good with the melody.” She demonstrated. I tried it. From then on I was the harmony singer in the family. She never said it would be hard to find harmonies, so for me it never was, nor should it be for any musician; there’s nothing esoteric about it. I had no concept of music theory; few four-year-olds do. Much later when I did learn theory it helped me understand why harmonies work as they do, but the technical knowledge didn’t enhance the hearing and using of them. I think that if you have an accurate sense of pitch and can hear melody, you can hear harmony; you just have to trust your innate ability. (“But how do I know if it’s right?” you might ask. Well, if you’re the one arranging the piece, and it sounds right to you, it’s right.)
As I was growing up, whenever there were sing-alongs at festivals and get-togethers, people sang harmonies in pretty much the same way I did. It’s what folk and traditional musicians do. And we all made up the instrumental parts to go with our songs. Soloists composed or arranged their own music. Almost no one played tunes exactly the way they had been played by someone else – what would be the point? You’ve probably noticed that very few well known musicians do “cover tunes” (play songs or pieces exactly as originally recorded by someone else); they do their own songs or they change the arrangements of familiar ones. A great example, IMHO, of making tunes one’s own in a skillful way is Willie Nelson’s ability to take some old turkey of a song and make it wonderful.
In the ‘70’s I sang with a band called Frostwater (www.frostwater.com). We toured around the East Coast. Our style was sort of a cross between Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Robin Williamson and His Merry Band. We composed and arranged all of our songs, most of which had four-part harmonies. As we created our arrangements it was often my job to find those harmonies. I had studied music theory in college but didn’t remember much because it had been taught on a blackboard rather than in actual practice. So I still depended on my ear. I noticed that for any melody note, there are always four notes that can be sung harmoniously with it; three that harmonize and one that is an octave from the original note. If you duplicate any note in another octave, you get more than four parts. If you change one harmony note up or down a step or a half-step, the mood of the harmony changes.
In the language of very simple music theory: if you call any note “1”, the notes 3 and 5 will always harmonize with it to create a major chord , and you can also add the octave (8). Three-part harmony creates triad chords or inversions thereof, and four-part harmony creates full chords. You can move the 3 note down a half step if you want a minor chord. You can move the 8 note down a step for a jazzy 7th chord, or to 6, or to 9 (the octave of 2) or even 10 (the octave of 3).
Additionally, to find chords to go with a note: for any note there are three basic chord choices to go with it because they that contain that note; it will be at the top, in the middle, or at the bottom of the chord. (i.e. for the note C, the basic chord choices are CEG, ACE, and FAC.)
Of course it’s easy to teach harmony by teaching theory, but if you teach it on paper or on a blackboard, the person you’ve taught may forever only see the harmony relationships instead of primarily hearing them. IMHO, it’s better to learn to hear and integrate them before seeing them. I’ll repeat what I said a few posts ago: if a child were not allowed to speak before he could read and write, he would never learn to speak well. Music is a language, and language is learned first by ear.
One can learn to sing harmony by learning to sing major chords by choosing a note, calling it “1” and then singing 1,3,5,8, ascending and then 5,3,1 descending; starting on, say C and then repeating the pattern starting on D, and so on. Then you can do the same making the chords minor by dropping the 3 note a half step, and maybe then make them into 7th chords, 6th chords, and 9th chords. It’s really fun to get together with a group and sing sustained notes while taking turns changing one note at a time, so the chords morph.
Bobby McFerrin did a marvelous participation demonstration to show an audience that they could intuitively sing harmony. See this site: http://www.ted.com/talks/bobby_mcferrin_hacks_your_brain_with_music.html
There are billions of people around the globe who create harmonies without consciously knowing anything about music theory. Some of the most beautiful harmonies I can think of are sung by women in certain tribal cultures in Africa. (If you’ve ever seen “The Gods Must be Crazy”, you’ll remember the gorgeous greeting song sung in multi-part harmony by village women upon the arrival of visitors. I can assure you that such traditional songs are learned “by heart” rather than from a choral director.)
If you can hear melody, you can hear harmony. If you can hear harmony, you can play it or sing it. It may take a little practice, but the brain loves harmonious sound and is willing to integrate it.