Part 4: Harmony

Today we’re talking about the final building block: Harmony. You’re going to read a lot of similar information to what was covered in Parts 1-3 – Especially Part 3, since the Harmony and Bass Line are deeply intertwined. Before we get to the technical stuff, I want to share some general thoughts about Harmony.

We’re about to move into what is often the most intimidating aspect of learning a musical language: Music Theory. Music Theory, learning scales and chords, dissecting chord progressions to find the exact logic – it can all start to feel a bit like a math class rather than the fun, creative class we all want Band to be! When diving into this subject, it’s very easy to overwhelm students with information and shut them off. If you like talking and thinking about Music Theory, as I do from time to time, it’s also easy to start nerding out and sharing every cool little thing with your kids.

While there is a time in a developing musician’s life where diving into the mechanics of the musical language is helpful, or even necessary, let’s first ask: What is Harmony? 

Harmony notes as the notes that accompany the Bass Line to bring its sound and texture from Black and White into Full Color. Everything after that – all the theory, the proper leading tone movement – is simply a way of describing how that process happens. So before we dive into the mechanics of it all, let’s begin with this premise: What are some notes that add clarity and intrigue to our HOME and AWAY bass notes?

Therefore, especially while introducing these ideas, we don’t begin with chords, or even scales. We begin with what we call Neighbor Notes. If you’re familiar with Guide Tones, you’ll be familiar with a similar idea. Neighbor Notes are groups of notes that are very close to each other – ½ step, whole step, 1 ½ steps at most – that accompany the HOME and AWAY movement of the Bass Line.

Each song has 3-4 Neighbor Note “Combos”. Each “Combo” can be taught using similar techniques to the Bass Line: “OK, we’re talking about Combo #1. In Combo #1, your HOME note is ___ . Here is(are) your AWAY note(s). Let’s follow the Bass Line. If the Bass Line begins Phrase 1 HOME and moves AWAY, the Neighbor Notes move with it. If the Bass Line moves from AWAY back HOME in Phrase 2, the Neighbor Notes do the same thing!

The magic comes once all of the Combos have been learned. If we stack the neighbor notes on top of each other, we are introduced to chords and a full HOME or AWAY SOUND! Before we jump into the theory of these chords, let’s just listen. How does the movement of the chords align with the Bass Line? How does it change the sound of “Home” and “Away”? 

Just like the Bass Line, the key here is not that they learn the theory. It’s that they learn to hear the notes that make up the Harmony.

Just knowing the Neighbor Note Combos already gives our students new musical possibilities:

  • They can build their own background (in chords) by coordinating who is playing which combo. Once they have their notes, all they need is to choose a rhythm.
  • They can use the Neighbor Note movement to explore and create new phrases – either composing or improvising
  • They can more easily hear the Form, keeping everyone anchored in the song.
  • Quite often, these neighbor notes actually make up most (if not all) of the “Home” scale. We can start answering the question: “I have this scale. But what notes do I actually play?”

There will come a time – especially for rhythm section musicians – where they will need to dive into understanding how to WRITE what they HEAR. Just like any other language, learning to write often helps clarify difficult concepts and provides another outlet for expression. That endeavour is made so much easier if 1) The musician already has an aural framework for what they’re learning  and 2) They have an underlying knowledge to fit their new information into.

It can’t be said enough – our goal is to give your students the tools to most comfortably (though not too comfortably!) explore music and express themselves. These four building blocks are the jumping off point – the foundation upon which everything else is built. The next step is to not only help them use these tools in Performance, but also while Creating, Responding, and Connecting with music as well. We’re done our version of these songs, but don’t be afraid to build your own. Your and your students have the tools! Have fun with them!

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