Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Many great artists, songwriters, and producers are guided by their ears with years of experience, creating music that excites them in their own unique style. Knowledge of music theory concepts helps many of them reach this point and can be a crucial foundation to build from when crafting an artistic identity.
The following information is meant to be a guide for anyone looking to develop their understanding of harmony in the world of beat-making, with basic visual examples from a digital audio workstation (DAW) for reference.
What is Harmony?
Harmony is defined as “the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect.”
The building blocks for harmony are notes with specific pitches, or semitones, which are organized in various ways. What sounds good to each listener is subjective, but having an understanding of harmonic guidelines helps producers create what is pleasing to the common ear.
It is important to note that harmony is a complex subject, so the concepts discussed here will be streamlined for basic beat-making applications.
In music, a key is defined as a group of pitches which serves as the basis of a composition. Essentially, keys are guidelines that tell us which notes “belong” in the piece of music.
Much like how time signatures explain the organization of rhythm in a work of music, key signatures explain how the harmony of a piece of music is organized. A key signature appears both on written sheet music and in your DAW, and while reading key signatures is not entirely essential for beat-making, understanding them can be helpful.
Some important points for understanding key signatures:
Letters in the musical alphabet range from A to G and then repeat; no other letters are used.
A note is sharp (♯) when it is raised by one semitone, and flat (♭) when it is lowered by one semitone.
The musical alphabet consists of twelve semitones in total:
A ♯ / B♭
C ♯ / D♭
D ♯ / E♭
F ♯ / G♭
G ♯ / A♭
The key signature of a piece of music tells us which notes in the key are sharp or flat.
The only key signatures that do not contain any sharps or flats are C Major and A Minor.
A sample key signature for G Major, which has one sharp (F♯) can be found below:
A scale in music is a set of notes in a certain order which outlines the key. The note that the scale starts and ends on is referred to as the root, or tonic, which will be the “home base” or tonal center that the harmony of the piece revolves around. Here is one of the most standard scales, C Major, in which the tonic is C.
The most frequently found types of scales in popular music are major scales and minor scales. A surface-level understanding of the keys formed by these scales is that major keys sound “bright” and “happy,” while minor keys sound “dark” and “sad,” though this is a simplified generalization and varies depending on the context of the music.
What sets major and minor scales apart in a theoretical sense is the formula of intervals, or distances between semitones, that they consist of. The two intervals that separate notes in major and minor scales can be described as a whole tone, which is a distance of two semitones, and a half tone, which is a distance of one semitone.
Below, the C Major scale demonstrates the formula of intervals found in major scales.
Below, the A Minor scale demonstrates the formula of intervals found in minor scales.
A chord is a “layering of notes played simultaneously” which is defined by its root note and quality. Chords can be formed by stacking different degrees of the scales described above.
One of the most common organizations for chords is triads, which consist of three notes. The quality of triads is determined by the intervals between the notes they consist of. The types of triads that fit into major and minor scales are major, minor, and diminished.
Though there is a myriad of intervals that can exist between notes in music, the ones we will focus on for the explanation of these chords are major thirds and minor thirds.
The distance between the first two notes of a major triad is a major third, or four semitones. The second note and the third note are a minor third, or three semitones, apart. This is demonstrated by the C Major chord below.
The first two notes of a minor triad are three semitones (a minor third) apart, and the second and third notes are four semitones (a major third) apart, as demonstrated by the A Minor chord below.
The three notes of a diminished triad have three semitones (minor thirds) of distance between them, as demonstrated by the B Diminished chord below.
The organization of chords in a given key is determined by the degrees assigned to that scale. Below are visual representations of the chords that make up major and minor keys. For reference, capitalized Roman numerals denote a major chord, lowercase Roman numerals denote a minor chord and the degree (°) symbol denotes a diminished chord.
Using C Major as an example, we see that major scale chords are assigned the following qualities:
In major keys, the chords that are generally assigned the most harmonic importance in popular music are I, IV, V, and vi.
Using A Minor as an example, we see that minor scale chords are assigned the following qualities:
In minor keys, the chords that are generally assigned the most harmonic importance in popular music are i, III, VI, and VII.
A chord progression is a sequence of chords which is played in a certain order as to create movement and to build and release tension in music.
The way chord progressions do this is determined by the order in which we hear the tonal qualities of the chords. As music moves, tension is established, and when this happens we anticipate the way that the tension will be released. After tension has been released, we anticipate that it will build up again, then be released again, and so on until the song is over.
Not only are there many ways to build and release tension, but there are many ways to subvert the listener’s expectations by taking creative liberties with chord progressions, which can make for a more exciting listening experience.
Here are some common major key chord progressions to experiment with in your DAW:
Here are some common minor key chord progressions to experiment with in your DAW:
While these popular examples all begin with the tonic chord, chord progressions do not do this by default. It is very common for chord progressions to begin with and revolve around the IV chord of a major scale, which is a technique often used to make songs sound more emotional or cinematic.
The chord progression below, which is also prominent in popular music, uses chords from the key of C Major, starting on the IV chord, F Major.
Using this chord progression, we will now move on to creating a bass line to solidify the harmony we have put forward.
The bass notes, or the lower notes in an arrangement of music, usually lay down the foundation for the harmony that listeners perceive.
Bass in music is typically assigned the role of playing the root notes of the chords happening above them, so if the other instruments are playing an F Major chord, the bass will likely be playing the note F. This establishes what chord is being played and rounds out the overall harmony heard throughout the instrumentation.
The bass does not conform to this role in every case, but for the sake of this demonstration we will assign this bass line to the chord progression from the last example:
Together, the bass and percussive elements form the basis of what is called the rhythm section of an arrangement. Oftentimes, compositions are stronger when the rhythm of the bass and the rhythm of the drums and percussion work together in time to emphasize the strong beats as discussed in Part 1 of this series. This is referred to in several popular music genres as a groove. Using the sample beat from Part 1 on Rhythm, we will adjust the rhythm of the bassline so that it falls on the same strong beats as the drums and percussion.
With these guidelines and examples as starting points in your DAW, try to experiment with changes in rhythmic or harmonic movement in ways that excite you in order to further develop your own unique composition.
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