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Exploring the World of Music

Harmony

When two or more notes sound together, harmony occurs. This interaction of pitches, understood in vastly different ways around the world, is analyzed here in jazz, chamber music, Bosnian ganga singing, early music plainchants, and barbershop quartets.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program# 9 “Harmony” Transcript

 

NARRATOR

Much of the world’s music involves the interaction of two or more tones being sounded simultaneously. This interaction, how the pitches relate to each other is defined in western music theory as harmony.

 

TIMOTHY YING

To me harmony is similar to the spice that you use when you’re creating a sauce. You’ve got a melody, there are many different ways you can harmonize the same melody and the way you choose to harmonize it is what will give you a different emotional response. So in that sense I really feel that the harmony is responsible for how a melody makes you feel.

 

RAVE TESAR

Harmony can best be described as notes sounding together in combination, pitches that are stacked on top of one another. If we hear only a melody by itself, with no harmonic accompaniment, it might sound something like this (plays). Now if we hear an accompaniment to it this would be considered harmonizing the melody. This hand is going to play the harmonic accompaniment, this hand will play the melody again.

 

ERNEST BROWN

If you look at harmony as the sounding of a number of musical notes at the same time, it’s not a phenomenon that is confined to Europe or the United States. It happens in a million different ways all around the world. In Indonesia, in Gamelan music, you have a kind of harmony because you have notes that are tuned together that are being sounded simultaneously.

In Zimbabwean Mbira music there is a kind of harmony, although Africans don’t have words for chord and don’t have a word  for harmony.  In a general sense harmony means being in agreement. You can say that some people are working in harmony, they’re working in agreement with each other toward a common goal. In music it’s similar, musical notes, musical pitches can be in agreement with each other. What constitutes agreement is the key question. In Eastern Europe there are some sounds that they think are in agreement that most people who are not from Eastern Europe will think are very very much in disagreement in the style of music called Ganga. In Gangan music they sound notes at the same time that are very very close together. And in Bosnia that sound is of the essence of music.

 

 

What constitutes being in agreement or being dissonant or being consonant is a culturally determined thing. And it can change over time.

 

NARRATOR

Within the Western Classical tradition ideas have varied over time as to what combinations of notes make good harmony. The story of how these ideas developed can be traced back through the Baroque, Renaissance and Medieval periods.

 

TOM ZAJAC

Well the term harmony is used in Western music to describe the simultaneous sounding of several notes, what we call chords. That’s what we use as the basis of our music in the 19th and 20th Century, but it really wasn’t always the case. In order to understand  the development  of harmony you have to really go back to the very beginnings of Western music to the origin of Plainchants.  Plainchant  is a term  used to describe the singing of the sacred text in the Christian Church. Plainchant is always just one line of music. As if only one person’s singing. But often times several people would be singing this music at the same time but they would always be singing in unison, the same melody exactly at the same time. But around the year 900 we know from some treatises that survive, that they were adding lines on top of these Plainchant originals. At first it was a line that would move exactly in parallel contour with the original melody and one theory is that because men and boys often sang together in the liturgical services and the boys just didn’t have voices low enough to sing with the men, they would sing as best they can in their own range and it wound up being just not an octave higher and not in unison they would have to sing a fifth higher, about five notes higher than where the men could sing. And so it was an accidental development that these two lines were sung simultaneously a fifth apart. The church musicians must have really liked the sound because they really took off on this idea and soon there developed a free form where the added line was not tied to the melodic contour of the original melody, but sometimes went up when the original Plainchant went down or vice verse. Eventually even more lines were added so that in the late middle ages, around the year 1400 for example, three voices was the norm. By the year 1500, a hundred years later, four voices were the norm. The texture of having these four voices work together was such that there was a lot of imitation between the four lines. And it was rather playful, the four parts would weave in and out of each other, they would chase each other, echo each other, and always come to a nice chord at the end. The notes were sounding together forming chords, even if the composer didn’t think of them as chords.

 

 

GRANT HERREID

Certain notes would line up at a certain time and create a chord. And in the Renaissance in the 15th, 16th centuries these harmonies were sort of the result of the different lines of polyphony as they sort of made a tapestry of music all together.

 

TOM ZAJAC

Composers became increasingly aware of these vertical seniorities or chords.     By the end of the 16th century composers were ready to drop the middle lines of a standard  four part texture and just keep the top and bottom lines. Why did they do this? For a very good reason. This is at the time when the earliest operas were being written and the solo song was of prime importance. In these new art forms the composer intended to get across the text of the song in as clear and immediate way as possible. So by getting rid of the middle lines he focused all the attention on that top line so you could really hear what the singer was singing.

 

GRANT HERREID

The melody and the bass became the two most important voices as the inner voices became less important.

 

TOM ZAJAC

What the composer substituted for those middle lines was little chord symbols that he wrote above the notes of the bass line and the instruments that played that bass line were the instruments that can actually play more than one note at a time, instruments such as the lute, harpsichord, organ, and performers became adept at reading these symbols and knowing what notes to add on top of the bass line.

 

GRANT HERREID

All written in this shorthand of figures over the bass line. It probably saved a lot of paper.

 

TOM ZAJAC

The use of the figured bass adding symbols above these bass notes is really the whole foundation of our modem concept of harmony.

 

NARRATOR

The harmony that underlies much of the standard classical and popular music we hear today was developed by the 18th century. It involves rules and conventions about how chords are constructed and how they progress frorn one to the next.

 

MARY JO PAGANO

A chord will have certain sounds or colors that give the composer a lot of choices in how he’s going to rnake a piece sound. In fact it’s kind of like a painter’s palette. They have a palette of different colors  to choose  frorn and a composer has different chords or harmony to choose frorn to rnake his piece corne alive. When a composer takes chords and strings thern along one after another that’s called a chord progression. Here’s a very simple chord progression (plays). Three chords corning back to the first chord. In a chord progression often the chords  will lead to a point of tension and then you have to have resolution. See if you can hear (plays) the tension of this one, it wants to resolve it’s not finished, and then we corne horne.

 

NARRATOR

The idea of moving music to and frorn a tonal center is referred to in Western music as tonality.

 

GERALD SHAPIRO

This is the really great discovery in European music where,  you know where horne is. You have a tonal center. If I go like this (plays) and I stop there, after a while you have to run down and (plays) turn off the light or something like that.  You  say, I’rn not done  yet.  He’s saying the end the end the end over and over again so you don’t rnake any mistake about it.

This symphony which has taken 45 minutes is done. And so whenever you talk about harmony in our context, you’re talking about tonality, about the way the harmony shapes the rnovernent of the music. And that’s what provides that sense of shape and direction and flow.

 

DAVID YING

We as musicians would like to sort of define harmonies and the way they operate because they create within us a set of expectations when I hear a chord like this (plays) I want to hear (plays) as a resolution of the first chord. And those expectations are important  and they’re very conditioned to us especially in Western civilizations. What is really exciting about harmony is when those conventions are gone against. At the beginning of the Brahms B Major Trio there are certain notes like when I play with the violin this sort of melody in sixths, not every interval is a sixth. Even if we’re not aware technically of what’s going on, your ear picks this up, it disturbs our sense of emotions and that’s one reason why music stirs us.

 

 

MARY JO PAGANO

Harmony in Westem classical music has always kind of come with a set of rules. Composers were supposed to follow those rules. Of course being creative people they also wanted to explore further tonal possibilities. So each composer would try to take harmony to kind of the next step. By the end of the 19th century composers had moved harmony almost to a breaking point. They had basically explored as far as they could go and then they decided to break with harmony and tonality. And that’s when atonal music came in. It was so to the edge that you don’t have a neat clean predictable harmonic progression.

 

NARRATOR

While much of Western Classical Music in the twentieth century has moved away from tonality, popular music and traditional  jazz have not. In jazz it is the chord progression of the tune that provides the foundation for the improvisations of the soloist.

 

RAVE TESAR

If I’m playing with a group, I have to coordinate certain elements of the harmonic accompaniment with other players particularly the bass player. He and I have got to be in agreement.

 

MARK BERNSTEIN

The main function of the bass is to play the bottom note of a chord. That’s pretty much what you’re hired for, that’s your function, that’s your responsibility. Outside of that you can play other notes in the chord, for instance the piano player or the guitar player is playing a G chord, the root of that chord is a G note. Now other notes in the G chord would be the G and the B or the third, moving up to the fifth which is D and then in the octave another G at the top. You can use those notes to create an  interesting line, you know, that’s the first, those are the most common  tones, the most inside notes to play that will agree with what the piano player is playing.

 

RAVE TESAR

After we agree on the basic harmony we can still shape each individual chord a little bit differently.  The page  may call for E minor, 7,  A, D major so it’ll give us a description of chords. But I can play the chords in different registers.  I can play them close.  I can spread the notes out so I can change the general texture of the chord so we have the freedom to improvise harmonically. A very important thing to be listening for is the soloist. I have got to listen to that person and play forms of  the chord that are hopefully going to best complement the melodies that the soloist is playing. Let’s just say somebody plays something  and they’re playing a lot of notes, they’re playing a very fast passage. Maybe I want to stay out of their way and not fill things up and just play a chord and hold it out. Let’s say the person’s holding one long note and they’re sustaining it and it’s growing dynamically and they’re really milking this one long note, I may want to play (plays), I  may  want to play a rising pattern  to create some kind of further supporting tension for what that person is trying to do. You want to have the soloist have the freedom to choose their direction yet you want to give them some support and that might mean sort of helping  to  push them in a direction, even if maybe its not where they were not intending to go originally because that’s where the best performances sometimes come from, those little surprise turns that music can take when you’re improvising.

 

MARKSLOBIN

Harmony is a word that was developed to understand Western music, that is music of the European and American  traditions over about the last 500 years. When people started going out from that tradition  and running into the musics of the rest of the world, they needed words to talk about how those other musics work that didn’t have our tradition. So harmony  is applied sometimes to other kinds of music than the music it was meant to describe.

 

NARRATOR

There are many forms of harmony  found  throughout  Africa.  In Zimbabwe one of the most common traditional harmony producing instruments is called the Mbira. Mbiras are often used to accompany song and dance. They are constructed with metal keys fixed to a sound box that is often surrounded by a gourd resonator.

 

ERNEST BROWN

In Africa there is no word for chord and there is no word for harmony but there are chords in African music and there is harmony in African  music. For example, in Zimbabwean Mbira music, the chords will consist of two notes being sounded simultaneously that are a fourth or a fifth or an octave apart. And that’s what the harmony is built on.

 

Now that song consists of a series of two note chords that are being sounded in sequence so there’s a chord progression. There are two phrases, here’s the first phrase (plays). Here’s the second phrase (plays).

 

So the whole song consists of two phrases, each of which has three chords. Now that’s the basic framework, I want to elaborate on it so I’m going to take some notes out of the chords, play them independently of each other and develop a more interesting melody. So here we go (plays). The chord progressions in Mbira music are very much like the chord progressions in Jazz or the chord progressions in Bach.  They are the underlying framework. In a jazz context, you improvise over a recurrent cycle of chords,  of chord progression.  In Mbira music it’s the same.   You improvise over a recurring chord progression. You don’t have the word for chord and you don’t have an explicit body of  musical theory.  But if  you play notes that are not in the chord your teacher will tell you. Or someone in the audience will tell you. Or they’ll throw a stick at you. You don’t do that. They’ll say “Here, leave that alone, don’t play that note here” and they’ll show you, “here play this one.” And if you analyze what they’re telling you to play, they’re telling you to play the notes that are within the chord.  So they’re hearing  the relationship of tones to each  other, they’re hearing chords but you don’t have a word for it. And really that was the situation that existed in Western Europe before music theory was developed. Music theory is something that is based upon practice. It’s based upon what musicians do. You look at what musicians do and you find some patterns in it and then you write down those patterns and you can make that prescriptive. You can make those into rules.

 

NARRATOR

While some musical genres have explicit, formalized rules for harmony, others do not. But the impulse to sound notes together, to make harmony, is an essential part of music in many diverse cultures around the world.

 

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