Essay on Music Theory: Striking Harmony

Submitted By lindakim1998
Words: 1339
Pages: 6

The term harmony derives from the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonía), meaning "joint, agreement, concord",[4] from the verb ἁρμόζω (harmozo), "to fit together, to join".[5] The term was often used for the whole field of music, while "music" referred to the arts in general. In Ancient Greece, the term defined the combination of contrasted elements: a higher and lower note.[6] Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the simultaneous sounding of notes was part of ancient Greek musical practice; "harmonía" may have merely provided a system of classification of 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.[6]

Rameau's 'Traité de l'harmonie' (Treatise on Harmony) from 1722.
It was not until the publication of Rameau's 'Traité de l'harmonie' (Treatise on Harmony) in 1722 that any text discussing musical practice made use of the term in the title, though that work is not the earliest record of theoretical discussion of the topic. The underlying principle behind these texts is that harmony sanctions harmoniousness (sounds that 'please') by conforming to certain pre-established compositional principles.[7]

Current dictionary definitions, while attempting to give concise descriptions, often highlight the ambiguity of the term in modern use. Ambiguities tend to arise from either aesthetic considerations (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).[7] In the words of Arnold Whittall:

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:

It was not that counterpoint was supplanted by harmony (Bach’s tonal counterpoint is surely no less polyphonic than Palestrina’s modal writing) but that an older type both of counterpoint and of vertical technique was succeeded by a newer type. And harmony comprises not only the (‘vertical’) structure of chords but also their (‘horizontal’) movement. Like music as a whole, harmony is a process.


Descriptions and definitions of harmony and harmonic practice may show bias towards European (or Western) musical traditions. For example, South Asian art music (Hindustani and Carnatic music) is frequently cited as placing little emphasis on what is perceived in western practice as conventional 'harmony'; the underlying 'harmonic' foundation for most South Asian music is the drone, a held open fifth (or fourth) that does not alter in pitch throughout the course of a composition.[10] Pitch simultaneity in particular is rarely a major consideration. Nevertheless many other considerations of pitch are relevant to the music, its theory and its structure, such as the complex system of Rāgas, which combines both melodic and modal considerations and codifications within it.[11]

So, intricate pitches combinations that sound simultaneously do occur in Indian classical music—but they are rarely studied as teleological harmonic or contrapuntal progressions—as with notated Western music. This…