We hear the word harmony in everyday conversation on a regular basis. We talk about living, working, and playing in harmony. In ancient times scholars discussed the harmony of the spheres or planets. In the early nineteenth century a man named Robert Owen (1771-1858) established what he hoped would be the ideal utopian community. He called it New Harmony.
In general music terminology harmony is the supporting notes underneath the melody. On a more specific level harmony refers to individual chords, and these two terms are used interchangeably. A chord is the sounding of three or more notes at the same time. There are many different types of chords in music. The triad is the most basic chord and it consists of three notes. Some harmonies have as many as seven or more notes played at the same time. The order in which chords occur is called the harmonic progression.
Harmonies can be broken down into two major groups: consonance and dissonance. Consonant chords are ones that sound stable and feel as if they are at a point of rest. Dissonant chords are more unstable and need to move somewhere else to be resolved. They have notes that are close together and they seem to rub against each other, creating the sound of musical friction.
Our perception of what sounds dissonant has changed from century to century. Dissonance in the twentieth century is much more striking than that of any other period. Our ears have gotten used to particular harmonies that once would have made people run away with their hands over their ears. In the middle ages there was very little harmony to begin with, so what sounded dissonant to them does not hit our ears in the same way at all. In the last few years of Mozart’s career he was criticized for writing music that was too harsh, thick, and muddled. Today that comment seems ridiculous and Mozart’s work seems to possess a perfect balance between dissonance and consonance.
From Beethoven’s era forward, music increased in harmonic tension. The classical music at the beginning of the twentieth century was more dissonant than any other time period. It is no coincidence that socially and politically this era was extremely tense. The music seems to match the cultural stress in the air in Europe before and during World War I. The next time you are watching a suspenseful movie, listen carefully to the background music. You will hear a lot of dissonant harmonies and musical styles which have been influenced by the classical music of the twentieth century.
Harmony and melody work together to create tonality which is like a gravitational force in music. Tonality directs our ears towards one central pitch in a piece. The melody leads the way and the harmony follows along with patterns of dissonance and consonance. At the end of a composition the last chord is consonant and is based on the tonic.
Harmony and melody also work together to establish major and minor tonalities. This system became standard in the baroque era. In very general terms, minor music is often on the sadder, heavier, and darker side. Major music is happier, lighter, and brighter. The distinction between major chords and minor chords comes down to only one note, but that note makes a huge difference in the mood of a piece of music. Most popular music is in major tonalities. “Greensleeves” is one popular song that is in minor.