MUSIC THEORY ( HARMONY, COUNTERPOINT, RANGE )
When you have more than one pitch sounding at the same time in music, the result is harmony. Harmony is one of the basic elements of music, but it is not as basic as some other elements, such as rhythm and melody. You can have music that is just rhythms, with no pitches at all. You can also have music that is just a single melody, or just a melody with rhythm accompaniment.
But as soon as there is more than one pitch sounding at a time, you have harmony. Even if nobody is actually playing chords, or even if the notes are part of independent contrapuntal lines, you can hear the relationship of any notes that happen at the same time, and it is this relationship that makes the harmony.Note
Harmony does not have to be particularly “harmonious”; it may be quite dissonant, in fact. For the purpose of definitions, the important fact is the notes sounding at the same time.
Harmony is the most emphasized and most highly developed element in Western music, and can be the subject of an entire course on music theory. Many of the concepts underlying Western harmony are explained in greater detail elsewhere (see Triads and Beginning Harmonic Analysis, for example), but here are some basic terms and short definitions that you may find useful in discussions of harmony:
- implied harmony – A melody all by itself (Monophony) can have an implied harmony, even if no other notes are sounding at the same time. In other words, the melody can be constructed so that it strongly suggests a harmony that could accompany it. For example, when you sing a melody by itself, you may be able to “hear” in your mind the chords that usually go with it. A Bach unaccompanied cello suite also has strongly implied harmonies; if someone really wanted to play an accompaniment, the appropriate chords could be found pretty easily. But some melodies don’t imply any harmony; they are not meant to be played with harmony, and don’t need it to be legitimate music. (Good examples of this include plainchant, some modern art music, and some Non-Western music, for example, Native American flute music.)
- drones – The simplest way to add harmony to a melody is to play it with drones. A drone is a note that changes rarely or not at all. Drones can be most easily found in bagpipes music, Indian Classical music and other musics that use instruments that traditionally play drone notes. (See Harmony with Drones.)
- parallel harmony – Parallel harmony occurs when different lines in the music go up or down together (usually following the melody). (See Parallel Harmonies for examples.)
- homophony – Homophony is a texture of music in which there is one line that is obviously the melody. The rest of the notes are harmony and accompaniment. (See Homophonic.)
- polyphony or counterpoint – Both of these terms refer to a texture of music in which there is more than one independent melodic line at the same time, and they are all fairly equal in importance. (See Polyphonic and Counterpoint.)
- chords – In Western music, most harmony is based on chords. Chords are groups of notes built on major or minor triads. In traditional triadic harmony, there are always at least three notes in a chord (there can be more than three), but some of the notes may be left out and only “implied” by the harmony. The notes of the chord may be played at the same time (block chords), or may be played separately with some overlap, or may be played separately but in a quick enough succession that they will be “heard” as a chord or understood to imply a chord (arpeggiated chords or arpeggios).
- chord progression – A series of chords played one after another is a chord progression. Musicians may describe a specific chord progression (for example, “two measures of G major, then a half measure of A minor and a half measure of D seventh”, or just “G, A minor, D seventh”) or speak more generally of classes of chord progressions (for example a “blues chord progression”). Please see Beginning Harmonic Analysis for more information.
- functional harmony – Harmony can simply be more than one note sounding at a time, providing texture and interest to a piece; drones are one example of this non-functional type of harmony. One of the most important features of common practice music, however, is functional harmony. This is harmony in which each chord functions in a specific way in the key, and underpins the form of the piece of music. For an introduction to functional harmony, see Beginning Harmonic Analysis
- harmonic rhythm – The harmonic rhythm of a piece refers to how often the chords change. Music in which the chords change rarely has a slow harmonic rhythm; music in which the chords change often has a fast harmonic rhythm. Harmonic rhythm can be completely separate from other rhythms and tempos. For example, a section of music with many short, quick notes but only one chord has fast rhythms but a slow harmonic rhythm.
- cadence – A cadence is a point where the music feels as if it has come to a temporary or permanent stopping point. In most Western music, cadence is tied very strongly to the harmony. For example, most listeners will feel that the strongest, most satisfying ending to a piece of music involves a dominant chord followed by a tonic chord. In fact, a song that does not end on the tonic chord will sound quite unsettled and even unfinished to most listeners. (See Cadence.)
- diatonic – Diatonic harmony stays in a particular major or minor key.
- chromatic – Chromatic harmony includes many notes and chords that are not in the key and so contains many accidentals.
- dissonance – A dissonance is a note, chord, or interval that does not fit into the triadic harmonies that we have learned to expect from music. A dissonance may sound surprising, jarring, even unpleasant.
- accompaniment – All the parts of the music that are not melody are part of the accompaniment. This includes rhythmic parts, harmonies, the bass line, and chords.
- melodic line – This is just another term for the string of notes that make up the melody.
- bass line – The bass line is the string of notes that are the lowest notes being sung or played. Because of basic laws of physics, the bass line sets up the harmonics that all the other parts – including the melody – must fit into. This makes it a very important line both for tuning and for the harmony. The bass line also often outlines the chord progression, and it is often the most noticeable line of the accompaniment.
- inner parts or inner voices – Accompaniment parts that fill in the music in between the melody (which is often the highest part) and the bass line.
- descant – The melody is not always the highest line in the music. Attention is naturally drawn to high notes, so a part that is higher than the melody is sometimes given a special name such as “descant”. This term is an old one going all the way back to when harmonies first began to be added to medieval chant. (See Counterpoint for more about descants.)
Suggestions for activities that introduce young students to harmony may be found in Harmony with Drones, Simple Chordal Harmony, Parallel Harmonies, and Independent Harmonies.
Counterpoint is an important element of music, but it is not one of the basic elements. Many pieces of music have rhythm, melody, harmony, color, and texture, but no real counterpoint. In fact, when describing the texture of a piece of music, two of the most important questions that need to be addressed are: is there counterpoint, and how important is it?
When there is more than one independent melodic line happening at the same time in a piece of music, we say that the music is contrapuntal. The independent melodic lines are called counterpoint. The music that is made up of counterpoint can also be called polyphony, or one can say that the music is polyphonic or speak of the polyphonic texture of the music. Traditionally, vocal music is more likely to be described as polyphony and instrumental music is more likely to be described as counterpoint. But all of these terms refer to two or more independent, simultaneous melodies. “Simultaneous” means the melodies are happening at the same time. “Independent” means that at any given moment what is happening in one melody (both in the rhythms and in the pitches) is probably not the same thing that is happening in the other melody.
First, some examples of music that is not counterpoint. Obviously, there is no counterpoint if there is no melody at all. If there is one melodic line accompanied only by rhythm, or drones, or only by chords, there is no counterpoint.
Even if different people are singing or playing different parts, it is not necessarily considered counterpoint if the parts are not independent enough, or if one of the parts is very clearly a dominating melody. Many traditional choral pieces are a good example of this. There are four very different singing parts (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), and each part, sung alone, can seem like its own melody, a melody that does not sound at all like the melody of the piece. But the parts have basically the same rhythms, so that the effect, when sung together, is of chords being sung. “Barbershop”-style music is another good example of this homophonic, or chordal, kind of texture, which is not considered counterpoint.
Now for some familiar examples of counterpoint. One of the simplest and most familiar types of counterpoint is the round. In a round, everyone sings the same melody, but they start singing it at different times. Although everyone is singing exactly the same tune, at any particular time different people will be singing different parts of it, so the final effect is of independent parts. You may also have heard some Bach fugues or inventions; there are no better examples of counterpoint than these. Another example that may be familiar is the soloist in a pop or gospel song who, after the refrain has been repeated a few times, takes off on a countermelody or descant part while everyone else continues to sing the refrain. The melody instruments in a dixieland band are also generally playing independent parts, giving this genre its “busy” sound. In fact, when music sounds very “busy” or “complex” or when there is so much going on that it gets difficult to decide where the melody is or what part to sing along with, it is likely that you are hearing counterpoint.
Although there is plenty of music that has no counterpoint, independent parts are one of the most basic ways to make music sound rich and interesting. Even if a piece of music cannot really be called “counterpoint” or “polyphony”, because it clearly has one melody, the accompaniment lines may still be quite contrapuntal. Even music that most people would describe as homophonic or chordal, because all the lines have exactly the same rhythm, is often written following the voice-leading rules of counterpoint. This gives the music a much richer, more interesting texture. Next time you are listening to your favorite song or your favorite piece of music, don’t hum along with the melody. Instead, listen to the bass line. Listen to the harmonies, the inner voices and the instrumental accompaniment parts. Chances are that you will hear some interesting lines, even little pieces of melody, that are completely different from the part you normally hear.
Some Useful Terms
- Canon – In a canon, different voices (or instruments) sing (or play) the same melody, with no changes, but at different times. The melody is usually sung at the same pitch or an octave higher or lower, but there are also canons in which the second part sings or plays the melody a perfect fourth or fifth higher or lower than the first part.
- Round – In a canon, obviously every section of the canon must “fit” with the section that comes after it. (In other words, they must sound good when sung or played at the same time). A round is a special type of canon in which the last section also fits with the first section, so that the canon can be repeated over and over without stopping. Rounds are usually pretty short and always start at the same note, or the octave.
- Fugue – A fugue usually has at least three independent parts, or voices. The different voices enter at different times on the same melodic theme (called the subject), so that the beginning may sound like a canon. But then the different voices develop the theme in different directions. A second melodic theme (called the countersubject) is usually introduced, and the middle of the fugue gets quite intricate, with the subject and countersubject popping in and out of various voices, sometimes in surprising ways (upside-down, for example).
- Countermelody or descant – Sometimes a piece of music that is basically melody-with-accompaniment (homophonic) will include a single part that is truly independent of the melody. For example, a choral piece might be chordal for a few verses and then, to keep the music interesting and fresh, add an independent part for a flute or for the highest sopranos on the third verse. This is a countermelody, sometimes called a descant part. Gospel and pop singers often add countermelodies, sometimes imrovised, and classical music also contains many, many examples of countermelodies.
The range of a voice or instrument is the set of pitches, from lowest to highest, that it can sing or play. A range can be described using the appropriate octave identification, for example, “from one-line c to two-line g”. But it is often easiest to write the range on a staff, as the two notes at the high and low ends of the range.
A piece of music, or one performer’s part in that piece, may also be described as having a range, from the lowest to highest note written for the performer in that piece. There is usually a difference (sometimes a large one) between the total range of the part and a smaller range that the part stays in most of the time (heading to the extreme highs and lows only occasionally). This smaller range is called the tessitura of the part. One can also speak of the tessitura of a performer’s voice, which is the range in which it sounds the best (so that matching the tessitura of the part and of the performer is a very good idea). Notice the similarity between this second definition and the term power range, sometimes used to describe the most powerful or useful part of an instrument’s range.
A register is a distinctive part of a vocal or instrumental range. For example, singers may speak of the head register, in the upper part of their range, and the chest register in the lower part of their range. These two registers sound and feel very different, and the singer may have even have two distinct tessituras, one in each register. The large range of the clarinet is also divided into distinctive registers with different capabilities and very different timbres. Even when an instrument does not have a very large variation in timbre over its range, its players may speak of the difficulty of “playing in the high register” or a “dull timbre in the low register”.
Figure 2.8. Describing a Range
A typical choral arrangement divides women into higher and lower voices and men into higher or lower voices. Most voices can be assigned one of these four ranges, and this gives the composer four vocal lines to work with, which is usually enough. The four main vocal ranges are:
- Soprano – A high female (or boy’s) voice
- Alto – A low female (or boy’s) voice
- Tenor – A high (adult) male voice
- Bass – A low (adult) male voice
Arrangements for these four voices are labelled SATB (for Soprano Alto Tenor Bass). The ranges of the four voices overlap, but singers may find themselves straining or getting an unpleasant sound at the top or a weak sound at the bottom of their ranges. So although the full ranges of an alto and a soprano may look quite similar, the soprano gets a strong, clear sound on the higher notes, and the alto a strong, clear sound in the lower part of the range. But there are vocalists whose strong, best-sounding range falls in a distinctly different place from any of these four voices. The names for some of these ranges are:
- Coloratura Soprano – This is not really a different range from the soprano, but a coloratura soprano has a voice that is unusually high, light, and agile, even for a soprano.
- Mezzo-soprano – In between soprano and alto
- Contralto – Contralto and alto originally referred to the same voice. But some people today use “contralto” to refer to a female voice that is even lower than a typical alto
- Countertenor – A male voice that is unusually high, light, and agile, even for a tenor
- Baritone – A male voice that falls in between tenor and bass
Figure 2.9. Vocal Ranges
Voices are as individual as faces; some altos will have a narrower or wider range, or the sweetest and most powerful part of their range in a different place than other altos. These are approximate, average ranges for each voice category.
The same terms used to identify vocal ranges are also often used to identify particular instruments. For example a bass trombone has a lower range than a tenor trombone, and an alto saxophone sounds higher than a tenor saxophone. Some other terms that are used to describe instrument ranges are:
- Contra – Means lower: for example a contrabassoon sounds lower than a regular bassoon, and a contrabass clarinet is even lower than a bass clarinet.
- Piccolo– Means higher (literally “smaller”): for example, a piccolo trumpet is higher than a regular trumpet.
- A Note Name – If an instrument comes in several different sizes (and ranges), the name of a particular size of the instrument may be a note name: for example, an F horn, a B flat clarinet, and a C trumpet. The note name is the name of the fundamental harmonic of the instrument. An instrument with a slightly higher fundamental will have a slightly higher range; an instrument with a much lower fundamental will have a much lower range. Some instruments that are identified this way are transposing instruments, but others are not.
The ranges of some instruments are definite and absolute. For example, even a beginning piano player can play the highest and lowest keys; and even the best player cannot play beyond these. But the ranges of many instruments are, like vocal ranges, not so definite. For example, an experienced horn or clarinet player can play much higher and lower notes than a beginner. An exceptional trumpet player may be able to play – with good sound and technique – high notes that the average high school trumpet player cannot play at all.
Other instruments may be a mix of absolute and indefinite ranges. For example, on any string instrument, nobody can play lower than the note that the lowest string is tuned to. But experienced players can easily play very high notes that inexperienced players have trouble playing well.
So it is sometimes useful to distinguish between a possible range, which includes the notes that a very experienced player can get, and a practical range, that includes all the notes that any competent player (including a good younger player) can get.Note
Outside of the instrument’s practical range, it may be a strain for even a very good player to play long or tricky passages. So if you are composing or arranging, it’s a very good idea to be able to distinguish between these two ranges for the voices or instruments you include.
Some sources even list the power range of an instrument or voice. This is the part of the range where the instrument or voice is particularly strong. It may be in the middle of the range, or at the top or bottom, but writing in the power range should guarantee that the part is easy to play (or sing), sounds clear and strong, and can be easily heard, even when many other instruments are playing.