by Dean Salant

Understanding harmony in music: a beginner’s guide

Understanding harmony in music

Often when we think of a song, our initial thoughts gravitate towards the melody. The melody or “top-line” is the part of the music that we hum or sing, and the aspect that often lingers in our memories. But a melody seldom stands on its own. The richness and captivating dynamics of a melody largely stem from its surrounding harmonies and chords.

If we understand the definition of harmony in music we can use it to inject our melodies with life. Through clever use of harmony, we can imbue melodies with tension and resolution, complexity and depth.

You may be asking yourself if you should focus on melody or harmony in your own songs. But it isn’t really a melody vs harmony situation. They work in tandem. While melody may be the ‘star’ of the song, it’s the harmony and chords that give the melody its charisma in the first place.

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What is harmony in music?

Harmony in music refers to the sounding of two or more notes simultaneously. Because these notes are being played at the same time and are “stacked” on top of each other, people sometimes refer to harmony as being a “vertical” aspect of music.

Harmony provides richness and texture to music, and it plays a crucial role in shaping the emotional and expressive qualities of a composition.

Let’s look at a basic form of harmonization by stacking notes on top of this C major scale:

C major scale
C major scale

If we play the C major scale with additional notes stacked on top of it (we’re starting on E here and going all the way up the same major scale) it sounds like this:

C major scale with an upper thirds harmony
C major scale with an upper thirds harmony

On the other hand, if we play that same scale but harmonize starting with the A below it, it sounds like this:

C Major scale with a lower thirds harmony
C Major scale with a lower thirds harmony

This shows how harmonies can affect the same melody line in very different ways.

Ultimately, harmony serves to create a “tonal center” or a “home” key that we can resolve to and rest on. It allows us to create tension, and then release.

Jacob Collier explains the idea of the home key fantastically in this video:

It is worth mentioning here that the theory explored in this article is according to Western music practice. There are many alternative approaches to harmony, including scale systems, chords, and instrument tuning. Because popular music generally employs Western harmony, we are focusing on that.

Main aspects of harmony

Now that we broadly understand the definition of harmony in music, let’s break up some essential harmonic concepts: chords, chord progressions, key signatures, and modulation.


When answering the question “What is harmony in music?” it is essential to acknowledge the fundamental significance of chords in the context of harmony.

Chords serve as the very foundation of harmony, upon which a melody builds its evocative power. They provide the context and backdrop for the melody, allowing tunes to unfold and take us on a journey. It is through chords and harmony that music finds its sense of movement.

Chords usually incorporate three or more notes that are played or sung together. Assembling different chord combinations can give vastly different sonic results.

An easy way to construct chords is to take a scale and use every alternate scale degree as a chord note. Let’s look at the C major scale again.

We can construct a chord by taking three alternate degrees of that scale (take one note, skip one note).

Let’s listen to three alternate notes – C, E, and G – that, when sounded together create the C major chord. These are called “chord tones.”

Consonant vs. dissonant chords

Consonant chords are combinations of notes that create a stable and pleasing sound. They provide a sense of resolution and rest. Consonant chords can be major:

Or minor:

On the other hand, dissonant chords can create a tense, unstable, and even harsh sound.

It’s important to realize that while dissonance may sound “wrong” on its own, context is key in music. As seen in the example below, a dissonant chord creates tension that is resolved in a satisfying way by the following consonant chord.

Tonic chords

The tonic chord is the “home” chord of a musical key. It is the most stable chord in a key and is often used at the beginning or end of a phrase. It is always made from the first degree of the scale. So in C major, the tonic chord is C major, and it is made up of C-E-G. Look at the highlighted notes in the piano roll. Those are the chord tones:

The C major chord derived from the C major scale
The C major chord derived from the C major scale

Dominant chords

Dominant chords create a high level of anticipation as they precede tonic resolutions. The dominant chord in a key falls on the fifth degree of the scale. So in C major, the dominant chord is G major/dominant. Its chord tones are G-B-D.

The G major chord (dominant) derived from the C major scale
The G major chord (dominant) derived from the C major scale

Predominant chords

These chords function to set up dominant chords, so they usually occur before the dominant in a chord progression. There are several predominant chords including the second and fourth degrees of the scale. In the case of C major those are D minor and F major. The D minor chord is made up of D-F-A.

The D minor chord derived from the C major scale
The D minor chord derived from the C major scale

The F major chord is made up of F-A-C.

The F major chord derived from the C major scale
The F major chord derived from the C major scale

Chord progressions

In Western music, chords are often strung together to convey specific harmonic movements. These groupings of chords are called chord progressions, and they provide structure and direction to musical compositions.

Certain chord progressions have become very common in pop music, and have been used countless times in songs. Let’s take the chord progression I-III-IV-iv (In C that is C major – E major – F major – F minor) as an example.

(Bear in mind that chord progressions can be played in any key – it just depends on which note/chord you start with).

So in practice – what is harmony in a song we know? Well, this particular sequence of chords has been used in countless popular tracks like Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire.”

“Creep” by Radiohead:

“Get Free” by Lana Del Ray:

And many others.

No one owns chord progressions, so take inspiration from the greats and use them in your own songwriting.

Key signature

A key signature in music indicates the tonal center of a piece and specifies which notes to consistently raise or lower throughout the composition. It acts as a roadmap for musicians, guiding them on which notes to play as naturals, sharps, or flats.

For example, in the key of E minor we have the following notes:


The E minor scale
The E minor scale

Since this is our key signature, both the melody and chord choices for the music will be derived from this specific set.


The key signature of a composition isn’t set in stone. In many pieces of music, we hear “modulations” or changes of key. This can provide a powerful shift of emotion in the music.

Let’s look at what is probably the most famous example of modulation in pop music – “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston.

Most of the song is in the key of A major. You can listen to the chorus in this key at 1:46. The infamous key change occurs at 3:09 where the song rapidly shifts to B major and lifts the mood of the song triumphantly.

Types of harmonies in music

There are many types of harmony in music. In Western music theory, three popular types of harmony are:

  • Diatonic harmony – which uses notes from the key signature to create melodies and chords.
  • Non-diatonic harmony – which utilizes notes from the key signature as well as notes from outside of the key signature.
  • Atonal harmony – which doesn’t use traditional tonal centers at all.

Let’s explore some of these below.

Diatonic harmony

Diatonic harmony occurs when the harmony of the song is focused on the key center, which is dictated by the key signature. In other words, the chords and melodies in diatonic harmony all derive from the key signature. This form of harmony is very common in popular music.

Non-diatonic harmony

This type of harmony uses chords and melodies that deviate from the diatonic scale. This is prevalent in jazz, classical music, and many other genres of modern music. Composers use non-diatonic harmony to “borrow” chords from different tonalities and add harmonic color to their music.

John Coltrane incorporates non-diatonic harmony in this track to add interesting and unexpected tonal colors.

Atonal harmony

Atonal harmony is an approach to music writing that totally avoids establishing a tonal center or home key. Musicians who embrace this concept typically seek to explore aspects of music that deviate from traditional harmonic relationships. Instead, they explore alternative methods of generating musical narratives.

In Jonny Greenwood’s “Future Markets,” for example, it is impossible to hear a tonal center or chordal resolution point. This piece has been composed atonally.

Start using harmony to make music

Now that you have an answer to the question “What is harmony in music?” you can incorporate these ideas into your own tracks.

If you feel like you understand the theory but need a jumpstart to help you brainstorm chords and harmony, check out Playbox – which can generate chords with single-note inputs.

To demonstrate the harmonic capabilities of Playbox, as well as the power of harmonic knowledge, let’s look at how we can transform an empty-sounding melody into something special.

Let’s start with a simple melody without harmony:

Now let’s add some chords straight out of the Curious Sun preset on Playbox. With a bit of tweaking, and some drum and bass additions, we can end up with something like this.

You can get Playbox as a standalone plugin or as part of the Komplete Now bundle for only $9.99 a month.

If you’re looking to jump in for free, you can check out Komplete Start and put your harmonic knowledge into a song right now.

Get Komplete Start free

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