What’s the Big Deal About Harmony?

We talk a lot about the importance of melody in our singing. Melody carries the message of the song, helps us think about the words, and sticks in our minds long after the song is over. But melody alone lacks power. It needs the texture and richness of complex harmonies to create moving song settings that connect with the listener.

What Is Harmony?

Without delving too deeply into music theory, harmony consists of notes that correspond with the melody to create chords and keys. Using major and minor harmonies, a composer can create different musical moods, bring a fresh sound to a familiar melody by changing the chords, and direct the emotions of the listener. Let’s take a look at what harmony can do using just those basic elements.


How Harmony Makes a Good Melody Great

Imagine sitting in your living room and plinking out the melody from Star Wars on the piano. It’s a neat melody that evokes nostalgia and makes you think of far away galaxies. But now imagine sitting in a concert hall where the Boston Pops orchestra is playing that same song. Let the sounds of the orchestra wash over you—the brass, strings, woodwinds, and percussion all working together to create a majestic, impressive sound. Now your emotions begin stirring, you see the familiar scenes in your mind, and you may feel ready to take on the Death Star. What’s the difference? John Williams’ memorable melody is now supported by a rich harmonic tapestry that immerses listeners in a musical experience.

So what exactly does harmony do?

·      Provides Texture—Like an artist’s palette, harmony takes the primary colors of the melody and blends them with an infinite array of possible chords and musical lines.

·      Creates a Mood—Harmony can make the same melody sound happy or sad, bright and cheerful or haunting and introspective. Harmony directs our feelings about the music.

·      Creates and Resolves Tension—Using harmonic elements, a composer can create tension within a line of music and then resolve that tension. It keeps us listening.

How Does Harmony Affect the Listener?

Harmony isn’t just about the technical qualities of the music; it’s also about how it affects us as listeners. Let’s use the beautiful Coventry Carol as an example. Written in a minor key, the Coventry Carol tells the story of the slaughter of innocent children by Herod the King following the birth of Christ. Most settings sound haunting and sad, both appropriate emotions for the text. But in the King’s Singers rendition, harsh dissonant harmonies create feelings of terror and horror, almost urging the listener to block out the sound. It’s a different, but still appropriate, emotional response.

Harmony, when used effectively, performs the following functions:

·      Causes us to feel particular emotions

·      Supports the message of the words

·      Brings resolution to a minor key. The technique of ending a minor song with a major chord (known as a Picardy third) allows the composer to conclude a song like the Coventry Carol with a feeling of hope.

If harmony has such power to shape our emotions and thought processes, it stands to reason that we should carefully consider our use of harmony as we create Christ-honoring music. First, harmony should remain subordinate to the melody. Melody carries the message, and harmony should play a supporting role rather than a dominating role. Second, harmony should complement the message of the song. Texts and harmonies should communicate the same message, presenting a cohesive whole to the listener.