In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches, ( tones or notes) or chords.  The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progression and the principle of connection that govern them. Harmony is the vertical aspect of music as distinguished from melodic line, or the horizontal aspect.

Harmony considers the process by which the composition of individual sounds, or superposition of sounds, is analyzed by hearing. Usually, this means simultaneously occurring frequencies, pitches (tones, notes), or chords.  The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. Harmony is often said to refer to the “vertical” aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the “horizontal” aspect.  Counterpoint, which refers to the relationship between melodic lines, and polyphony, which refers to the simultaneous sounding of separate independent voices, are thus sometimes distinguished from harmony.

In popular and jazz harmony, chords are named by their root plus various terms and characters indicating their qualities. In many types of music, notably baroque, romantic, modern, and jazz, chords are often augmented with “tensions”. A tension is an additional chord member that creates a relatively dissonant interval in relation to the bass. Typically, in the classical common practice period a dissonant chord (chord with tension) “resolves” to a consonant chord. Harmonization usually sounds pleasant to the ear when there is a balance between the consonant and dissonant sounds. In simple words, that occurs when there is a balance between “tense” and “relaxed” moments.


Carl Dahlhaus (1990) distinguishes between coordinate and subordinate harmony. Subordinate harmony is the hierarchical tonality or tonal harmony well known today. Coordinate harmony is the older Medieval and Renaissance tonalité ancienne, “The term is meant to signify that sonorities are linked one after the other without giving rise to the impression of a goal-directed development. A first chord forms a ‘progression’ with a second chord, and a second with a third. But the former chord progression is independent of the later one and vice versa.” Coordinate harmony follows direct (adjacent) relationships rather than indirect as in subordinate. Interval cycles create symmetrical harmonies, which have been extensively used by the composers Alban Berg, George Perle, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5.

Close harmony and open harmony use close position and open position chords, respectively. See: voicing (music) and close and open harmony.

Other types of harmony are based upon the intervals of the chords used in that harmony. Most chords in western music are based on “tertian” harmony, or chords built with the interval of thirds. In the chord C Major7, C-E is a major third; E-G is a minor third; and G to B is a major third. Other types of harmony consist of quartal and quintal harmony.

A unison is considered a harmonic interval, just like a fifth or a third, but is unique in that it is two identical notes produced together. Many people say[weasel words] harmony must involve intervals like thirds, fifths, and sevenths—but unison counts as harmony and is important, especially in orchestration. In Pop music, unison singing is usually called doubling, a technique The Beatles used in many of their earlier recordings. As a type of harmony, singing in unison or playing the same notes, often using different musical instruments, at the same time is commonly called monophonic harmonization.


An interval is the relationship between two separate musical pitches. For example, in the melody Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the first two notes (the first “twinkle”) and the second two notes (the second “twinkle”) are at the interval of one fifth. What this means is that if the first two notes were the pitch C, the second two notes would be the pitch “G”—four scale notes, or seven chromatic notes (a perfect fifth), above it.

The following are common intervals:

Therefore, the combination of notes with their specific intervals —a chord— creates harmony. For example, in a C chord, there are three notes: C, E, and G. The note C is the root. The notes E and G provide harmony, and in a G7 (G dominant 7th) chord, the root G with each subsequent note (in this case B, D and F) provide the harmony.

In the musical scale, there are twelve pitches. Each pitch is referred to as a “degree” of the scale. The names A, B, C, D, E, F, and G are insignificant. The intervals, however, are not. Here is an example:


As can be seen, no note always corresponds to a certain degree of the scale. The tonic, or 1st-degree note, can be any of the 12 notes (pitch classes) of the chromatic scale. All the other notes fall into place. For example, when C is the tonic, the fourth degree or subdominant is F. When D is the tonic, the fourth degree is G. While the note names remain constant, they may refer to different scale degrees, implying different intervals with respect to the tonic. The great power of this fact is that any musical work can be played or sung in any key. It is the same piece of music, as long as the intervals are the same—thus transposing the melody into the corresponding key. When the intervals surpass the perfect Octave (12 semitones), these intervals are called compound intervals, which include particularly the 9th, 11th, and 13th Intervals—widely used in jazz and blues Music.

Perception of harmony

Harmony is based on consonance, a concept whose definition has changed various times during the history of Western music. In a psychological approach, consonance is a continuous variable. Consonance can vary across a wide range. A chord may sound consonant for various reasons.

One is lack of perceptual roughness. Roughness happens when partials (frequency components) lie within a critical bandwidth, which is a measure of the ear’s ability to separate different frequencies. Critical bandwidth lies between 2 and 3 semitones at high frequencies and becomes larger at lower frequencies. The roughness of two simultaneous harmonic complex tones depends on the amplitudes of the harmonics and the interval between the tones. The roughest interval in the chromatic scale is the minor second and its inversion the major seventh. For typical spectral envelopes in the central range, the second roughest interval is the major second and minor seven

th, followed by the tritone, the minor third (major sixth), the major third (minor sixth) and the perfect fourth (fifth).

The second reason is perceptual fusion. A chord fuses in perception if its overall spectrum is similar to a harmonic series. According to this definition a major triad fuses better than a minor triad and a major-minor seventh chord fuses better than a major-major seventh or minor-minor seventh. These differences may not be readily apparent in tempered contexts but can explain why major triads are generally more prevalent than minor triads and major-minor sevenths generally more prevalent than other sevenths (in spite of the dissonance of the tritone interval) in mainstream tonal music. Of course these comparisons depend on style.

The third reason is familiarity. Chords that have often been heard in musical contexts tend to sound more consonant. This principle explains the gradual historical increase in harmonic complexity of Western music. For example, around 1600 unprepared seventh chords gradually became familiar and were therefore gradually perceived as more consonant.

Western music is based on major and minor triads. The reason why these chords are so central is that they are consonant in terms of both fusion and lack of roughness. They fuse because they include the perfect fourth/fifth interval. They lack roughness because they lack major and minor second intervals. No other combination of three tones in the chromatic scale satisfies these criteria.

Consonance and dissonance in balance

Post-nineteenth century music has evolved in the way that tension may be less often prepared and less formally structured than in Baroque or Classical periods, thus producing new styles such as post-romantic harmony, impressionism, pantonality, Jazz and Blues, where dissonance may not be prepared in the way seen in ‘common practice’ harmony. In a jazz or blues song, the tonic chord may be a dominant seventh chord.

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