AskDefine | Define harmony

Dictionary Definition



1 compatibility in opinion and action [syn: harmoniousness]
2 the structure of music with respect to the composition and progression of chords [syn: musical harmony]
3 a harmonious state of things in general and of their properties (as of colors and sounds); congruity of parts with one another and with the whole [syn: concord, concordance]
4 agreement of opinions [syn: concord, concordance]
5 an agreeable sound property [ant: dissonance]

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1602. From etyl enm armonye from etyl fro harmonie/armonie from etyl la harmonia from etyl grc ἁρμονία


  • (US)
    • /ˈhɑrməni/
    • /"hArm@ni/


  1. agreement or accord
  2. a pleasing combination of elements, or arrangement of sounds
  3. the academic study of chords
  4. two or more notes played simultaneously to produce a chord
  5. the relationship between two distinct musical pitches (musical pitches being frequencies of vibration which produce audible sound) played simultaneously


agreement or accord
a pleasing combination of elements, or arrangement of sounds
music: the academic study of chords
music: two or more notes played simultaneously to produce a chord

Extensive Definition

This article is about musical harmony and harmonies. For other uses of the term, see Harmony (disambiguation).
In Western music, harmony is the use of different pitches simultaneously, and chords, actual or implied, in music. The study of harmony may often refer to the study of harmonic progressions, the movement from one pitch simultaneously to another, and the structural principles that govern such progressions. In Western Music, harmony often refers to the "vertical" aspects of music, distinguished from ideas of melodic line, or the "horizontal" aspect. For this reason, considerations of counterpoint or polyphony are often distinguished from those of harmony, though contrapuntal writing of the common practice period of western music is often conceived and defined in terms of underlying harmonic motion.

Definitions, origin of term, and history of use

The term harmony originates in the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonía), meaning "joint, agreement, concord". In Ancient Greek music, the term was used to define the combination of contrasted elements: a higher and lower note.
Nevertheless, the simultaneous sounding of notes was not part of musical practice in the antiquity, harmonía merely provided a system of classification for the relationships between different pitches. In the Middle Ages the term was used to describe two pitches sounding in combination, and in the Renaissance the concept was expanded to denote three pitches sounding together.
It was not until the publication of Rameau's 'Traité de l'harmonie', in 1722, that any text discussing musical practice made use of the term in the title. The work is however by no means considered the earliest record of theoretical discussion of the topic. This and similar texts tend to survey and codify the musical relationships that were closely linked to the evolution of tonality from the Renaissance, to the late Romanic periods. The underlying principle behind these texts is the notion that harmony sanctions harmoniousness (sounds that 'please') by conforming to certain pre-established compositional principles.
Current dictionary definitions, while attempting to give concise descriptions often highlight the ambiguity of the term in modern use. Such ambiguities tend to arise from either aesthetic considerations (espousing, for example, the view that only 'pleasing' concords may be harmonious) or from the point of view of musical texture (distinguishing between harmonic, simultaneously sounding pitches and contrapuntal, successively sounding tones). In the words of Arnold Whitall:
While the entire history of music theory appears to depend on just such a distinction between harmony and counterpoint, it is no less evident that developments in the nature of musical composition down the centuries have presumed the interdependence—at times amounting to integration, at other times a source of sustained tension—between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of musical space.}}
The view that modern tonal harmony in Western music began in about 1600 is commonplace in music theory. This is usually accounted for by the 'replacement' of horizontal (of contrapuntal) writing, common in the music of the Renaissance, with a new emphasis on the 'vertical' element of composed music. Modern theorists, however, tend to see this as an unsatisfactory generalisation. As Carl Dahlhaus puts it:
Yet the evolution of harmonic practice and language itself, in Western art music, is and was facilitated by this process of prior composition (which permitted the study and analysis by theorists and composers alike of individual pre-constructed works in which pitches (and to some extent rhythms) remained unchanged regardless of the nature of the performance).

Historical rules

Some traditions of music performance, composition, and theory have specific rules of harmony. These rules are often held to be based on "natural" properties such as Pythagorean tuning's low whole number ratios ("harmoniousness" being inherent in the ratios either perceptually or in themselves) or harmonics and resonances ("harmoniousness" being inherent in the quality of sound), with the allowable pitches and harmonies gaining their beauty or simplicity from their closeness to those properties. While Pythagorean ratios can provide a rough approximation of perceptual harmonicity, they cannot account for cultural factors.
Early Western religious music often features parallel perfect intervals; these intervals would preserve the clarity of the original plainsong. These works were created and performed in cathedrals, and made use of the resonant modes of their respective cathedrals to create harmonies. As polyphony developed, however, the use of parallel intervals was slowly replaced by the English style of consonance that used thirds and sixths. The English style was considered to have a sweeter sound, and was better suited to polyphony in that it offered greater linear flexibility in part-writing. Early music also forbade usage of the tritone, as its dissonance was associated with the devil, and composers often went to considerable lengths, via musica ficta, to avoid using it. In the newer triadic harmonic system, however, the tritone became permissible, as it could form part of a consonant, yet unstable, dominant seventh chord.
Although most harmony comes about as a result of two or more notes being sounded simultaneously, it is possible to strongly imply harmony with only one melodic line through the use of arpeggios or hocket. Many pieces from the baroque period for solo string instruments, such as Bach's Sonatas and partitas for solo violin, convey subtle harmony through inference rather than full chordal structures; see below:


Carl Dahlhaus (1990) distinguishes between coordinate and subordinate harmony. Subordinate harmony is the hierarchical tonality or tonal harmony well known today, while 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 earlier 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, such as frequently in the music of Alban Berg, George Perle, Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5.

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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