You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note.
– Doug Floyd
Bach Brandenburg No 2
Harmony is the sound you get when more than one note is played together.
It’s a nice word, suggesting agreement and togetherness and making everything sound pleasant and simple. But the musical concept of Harmony broadens into a system of astonishing complexity, a system that underpins our entire musical culture. And I’m not just talking about classical music, but everything else from Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles, ACDC to Taylor Swift.
Western Music speaks in the same harmonic language. Speaking the same language is easy enough. But understanding how that language works is of course much more complicated.
As if the subject matter wasn’t huge enough, you often have to deal with awkward-sounding language when talking about harmony, with clunky words like diatonic or sub-dominant elbowing their way into sentences.
So rather than getting bogged down in words, let’s listen to the principals of Harmony in action.
We need to spin back some 1500 years, right to the heart of that period of history I learnt as the Dark Ages. We need to find ourselves a monastery, sit down, and listen:
This is the kind of thing you may have heard in the earliest of Europe’s monasteries, just a few hundred years after Christ’s death.
A plain song.
Plainsong began as a way to memorize passages of scripture, and evolved into a form of religious service itself, sanctified by the church.
It began life as single voice, but inevitably, that solitary voice became a chorus, as more monks joined together in what we term unison singing:
Notice how everyone is singing the same notes. More voices, but still only a single melody. So there is still no harmony.
Monotonously. Literally: a single (mono) tone (tonos).
But then, sometime around the 9th century AD, some bright spark somewhere had the bright idea of singing different notes at the same time.
Lo and behold, Harmony had been discovered.
There were different ways to create harmony. One voice holding a bass note in a drone, for example, whilst another sung the melody.
Or the second voice could follow the first at an equidistant musical pitch. Or it could follow its own melody. Each technique thickens the texture of the music. If you listen carefully to the above clip, you can hear each of these methods in action.
And yet, this is still a primitive form of harmony. The musical space, although thicker, is essentially still rather bare.
Out with the Dark, in with the New
Hundreds of years again passed, before the Renaissance blossomed out of late Medieval Europe sometime around the 15th century. Just as the Renaissance breathed depth and light into its paintings, so it also added a wonderful new harmony to the musical mix.
In musical terms, the specific harmonic discovery was actually a small step. A third added between a note and its fifth, creating the chord known as the major triad. But the discovery of these three notes provided a giant leap for Western music, I’m going to stick my neck out and say the single most important event in our entire musical culture.
Music now sets off in a new direction: a strong system of musical ‘keys’ based on major triads. This is the structure of music that will define the music of all the composers on this course, and indeed most music artists working today. This is our musical heritage, and it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.
What we are experiencing is a much fuller realization of harmony. The sound has filled out, its texture thicker and brighter. Music has gained an entire extra dimension, quite literally. Rhythm gave us our first axis, and Melody our second.
Now Harmony guides us into a third musical dimension.
The effect on melody is immense.
Previously, melody laid the basis for harmonic language. Harmony was made up from modes, and each mode was created out of a musical scale. In other words, a melodic line.
Modes form the musical structure behind music from the dark ages, indeed music (we think) of the ancient Greeks. If you could hear their music (and knowledge is understandably a little sketchy on this subject), you would hear Melos, music lead by the melodic line. that is certainly what you hear from those dark age monks.
But now Harmony leads the construction of music. The Melody locks inside the harmonic nature of the music. Another way of saying this is that the harmonic structure of music will have an intense gravitational pull on the melodic line. Melody will cluster around those notes dictated by the underlying harmony of the music. Melody is now tethered to the harmonic progression of the piece, rather than those ancient scales we call modes.
Harmony is now the master of Melody. That defines the music of Bach just as it does the music of Beyoncé. The harmonic structure of the music comes first, and the melody fits inside that.
It’s worth listen to those four clips again, just to experience how profoundly this greater conceptualization of Harmony changes the sound.
Remember, each one of them is essentially the same artifact: a ‘Kyrie‘ prayer from the Latin mass. But how different they sound:
You can hear Western Civilization emerging from the Dark Ages into Renaissance over the course of these four short clips, like a historical soundtrack.
The transformation is stunning. It’s like opening shutters in a dark room, and suddenly being flooded with light. Or going from black and white into a full rainbow spectrum of glorious colour.
This harmonic system is a BIG subject which we’re going to be exploring throughout this course. For now, just revel in what these new harmonies brought to the kind of church music you would have heard in Rome some time around the 1560s. That final clip comes from the work of the composer Palestrina, composed some 150 years before Bach.
Back to Bach
Bach Brandenburg No 2
By the time we spin on to Bach, more than a 100 years later, the system of harmonics behind Palestrina’s music had become pretty much established, like the rules of grammar for a language.
Harmonic relationships had became formalized into a twelve unit scale. Composers could now choose one of twelve major and twelve minor keys to compose in. Not only that, they could also change into new keys in the same piece.
This presented a multitude of potential musical relationships. It was musical alchemy, and it liberated composers into producing the most miraculous music ever created.
This was the harmonic template that defined classical music for the next 200 years, right through the work of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that composers like Richard Wagner began to push the system towards its boundaries. By the 20th century, the system was obliterated and replaced in classical music, before popular music reaffirmed the system which we all intuitively understand today.
There’s much to tell about this harmonic journey: it’s a fascinating story we’ll be pursuing throughout this course.
But for now, that’s your brief introduction completed.
Next the Main Course, with a look at our Bach, and the instruments that create the sound…
- I would highly recommend Howard Goodall’s TV documentaries for an introduction to classical music. You can find at least two of his series (Story of Music and Big Bangs) on our youtube page here.