Music Education

Notes For Musicians - Learning Harmony

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Some people seem to be able to sing or play harmony naturally. This often comes from listening to harmony over a number of years. Others need to carefully work out each section so as to avoid unpleasant clashes. Harmony adds to the overall sound of the music giving it depth and feeling. Harmony is basically anything that is not the main tune.

Chords are important in being able to develop harmony parts. You need to feel the strong beats in the music and the points at which the chord changes. Whatever instrument you play it is useful just to play the chords. If you have a single note instrument play the root note first and then other notes in the chord.

In the key of G for instance the root note is G and the other notes in the chord are B and D. Look at a triad chart to see the various notes that each chords contains. These notes that are in the chords are the start of the harmony parts that you can play. Harmony is mainly within the key you are playing in. This is called diatonic. Sometimes it is possible to use chromatic harmony, using notes not restricted to the key but be very careful.

Harmony can be added by the lowest notes of your instrument (bass line), in the middle section of your instrument (inner harmony), sweeping across the whole range of the instrument (counter melodies) and adding interesting features (ornamentation) such as trills, syncopation, riffs and fanfares.

Bass Lines

All instruments can play this next section. It just refers to lowest notes on your particular instrument.

Part 1

1 Listen to the strong beats in the music and the places at which the chords change.

2 Choose the lowest root note for your instrument and place it on the strong beat. This is one of the simplest harmonies you can have.

3 To make it more interesting choose any note (at the bass end of your instrument) from each of the chords and place it on the strong beat. Use the root note most often and the top note next. Use the middle if it gives a pleasant sounding line of notes.

Part 2

1 Now you can try and add extra notes. These might be in the scale you are using or as runs between notes. These extra notes come with experience. Listen to other players or look at harmony parts to see how this is best done.

2 Listen to the whole tune and decide at what points to bring out the bass line that you have written. At all cost avoid cluttered bass lines that distract from the tune that others are playing.

3 Remember the bass line can be the same as the main tune for some of the notes or very similar at times.

4 The bass line can help with the rhythm and at times give interesting variants.


Inner Harmony

To play inner harmony you need to know the chords that are being played and how the notes are formed within the chord. Refer to the triad sheet to see how the basic chords are formed. The "interval" between the notes is the distance they are apart. You count all the notes in a scale. For instance D to F# is a third (d= first E= second F#= third) and D to B is a sixth.

Parts of a tune can be played simply a third or a sixth difference in parallel to the original tune. You will need to see which parts of a tune can have this technique applied to them. At other times just add a simple harmony using one note of the chord.

Have fun trying out different inner harmonies but always be careful to notice if you are distracting others playing the tune or that you are making too complex a sound.

Counter Melodies

This is the art of weaving two or more melodic lines together so that they harmonise with each other. Imitation can be used so that one tune enters at a different place with a similar tune to the first, rather like singing a round. Great skill is needed in writing these parts but some people are naturally able to add counter melodies to tunes with great effect. Have a go and see if you can do it for parts of a tune.

Ornamentation and other interesting features

There are a number of interesting types of harmony or ornamentation that can give that added extra to a piece of music.

A trill is the most important ornamentation and is a rapid alternation between a note and the one above or below.

Syncopation is stressing or accenting a beat or subdivision of a beat, which is not the main strong beat.

A riff is a set of notes that gives a particular feel to a type of music. It often contains notes outside the key. It can be used many times within the tune relative to the chord being played.

A fanfare is played as a flourish usually by the brass instruments but others can use this to great effect.

Have a go at harmony, treat yourself!