Harmony Writing Part Two.

Piping Today #86, 2017.

In the last instalment of this column on music theory, we began looking at the most primitive, basic form of harmony that I could think of: the drone, or ‘pedal point’.  Of course, droning is what most bagpipes do automatically, so we went a little further and looked at why the drone is effective, and how we can also try out pedal points on the chanter, with one piper playing an appropriate long, solitary note on his or her chanter while another piper plays the tune.  This type of chanter harmony can be potent in sparse, short segments, but obviously it will become irritating if employed any more than that.  We’ll need some other ideas if we want to succeed at writing effective harmonies.  Thankfully there are plenty of other options!

The next approach that we’ll be looking at is one that most of you will be familiar with — possibly too familiar with — the harmony ‘of thirds’ (or sometimes ‘in thirds’).  Second only to the pedal point, this would probably be the quickest, easiest, cheapest, just-add-water solution to harmonizing a given melody.1  It’s an approach that, with a little practice, could even be improvised on the spot.  Harmonies of thirds are ubiquitous in pipe band music, particularly the older settings of massed band tunes.  If you’ve ever heard massed bands playing The Rowan Tree, When the Battle’s O’er, Skye Boat Song, etc., in harmony, you’ve heard harmonies of thirds.  This style harmonisation is so common because it doesn’t require any more than the most elementary knowledge of music theory to produce: simply play two notes below the melody, or two notes above the melody, and presto!, you have just created a harmony of thirds.

1. The harmony of thirds is so popular that there is a stop on many pipe organs called the tierce (French for third, or triple), which causes the organ to automatically sound an additional note a major-third above whatever note is being played on the keyboard.  If you were to play the equivalent of our low-A on the keyboard with the tierce stop pulled out, the organ will simultaneously sound both the A and also an C# (albeit often in a higher octave).

You might be wondering why I’m using the word ‘thirds’ to describe a harmony part that involves playing either two notes below or two notes above the melody.  The word ‘third’ in this case refers to the interval, or the distance between two different pitches.  If you play a low-A on your chanter, and then I play a high-A, we’ll be an ‘octave’ apart from each other.  What’s being imagined is that there is a standard musical scale forming above your low-A, and if you were to play every note of that scale all the way up to the high-A, that would be the eighth ‘degree’ (or note) of the scale, the octave.  If I were to play a high-G against your low-A, then together we would be creating the interval of a ‘seventh’.  An F(#), and it will be a ‘sixth’.  Follow that pattern all the way down to C(#), and you will also arrive at the word-du-jour, ‘third’.  It may seem counterintuitive at first, but any interval that involves two notes that are two scale degrees apart from each other is considered a third apart.  The chart below may provide more clarity:

If you use the pattern of thirds above or below the melody, you will be instantly creating a passable harmony.  At times the harmony part may sound very good, even exciting; at other times, it may sound a bit naff, not-quite-right.  There may be several reasons for the naffness of a particular harmony, and I think those will become more clear as this series continues to explore different types of harmony.2  But I will give some quick examples as to why a harmony of thirds can be less than ideal.  As we have explored in previous issues, there are a great number of pentatonic tunes in our repertoire —tunes that use only five notes of the scale.  Take G.S.McLennan’s retreat march, Loch Maree, for example.  It’s a tune that completely avoids Gs and Ds in the melody, and thus has a particular quality to it similar to other pentatonic tunes: timeless, uncomplicated, light.  If you add a harmony part based on thirds, then the moment you try to harmonise the B, you’ll get either a low-G or a D, thus compromising the originally intended pentatonic feel.  If you harmonise the E from above, you’ll introduce a high-G, which again changes the nature of the tune.  The above concern also applies for tunes like Colin’s Cattle which imply the key of A-Major, but use more than five notes.

2. I would argue that the most successful harmony writing is based not on prescribed mathematical intervals, but rather on a good intuitive sense and understanding of the musical chords implied by a given melody.  Musical chords make up a very broad topic which will be explored piecemeal in forthcoming Theory Top-Up columns.

There are also tunes that imply more of a minor (darker, sadder) key, despite being based on an incomplete, or ‘gapped’, scale.  MacGregor of Ruara, for example, does not feature any C(#)s anywhere in its melody.  But if you were to harmonize it using thirds, you would be introducing C(#)s.  And when based in the key of A, as is the case with MacGregor of Ruara, bringing in C(#)s will change the mood from being darker to sounding much brighter and happier.  It would completely corrupt the tune, in my opinion.

(I must also admit there are times when introducing new notes via a harmony part can be quite enjoyable, and can help flesh out a tune harmonically.  The common seconds for Amazing Grace quickly come to mind.  As with everything in music, these matters ultimately come down to personal taste.  But what’s important to keep in mind is that the harmony-of-thirds approach does not guarantee musical success.)

In closing, I offer a suggestion for those of you trying out a harmony of thirds: if, as you test-drive the harmony part, you find there are some parts of the harmony that don’t quite jive for you, there’s no reason whatsoever not to change them.  Try shifting the offending note(s) up or down one degree, or even further.  (Consider, too, sneaking in a brief pedal point somewhere, as discussed in the previous issue.)  Explore all the possibilities and simply play the music (in the literal sense of ‘play’) and see what comes out.  After all, composing is often just a form of play, of slow-motion improvisation.

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles