Harmony Writing Part Five.

Piping Today #89, 2017.

In the last three features of this Harmony Writing campaign, we spelunked evermore deeply into the underground realm of chords.  First, we learned the basic idea of chord triads, then we began to match various chords to particular parts of some pipe tune examples, and then we began to craft some very basic harmonies based on those chords.  They were reasonably successful harmonies, I think, but possibly too simple (and thus predictable, and thus potentially a little tiresome).  

In terms of harmony-writing, we now have a foundation and a supporting frame, but I want to take this a little further, filling in our harmony line with a bit more interest and creativity.  There seems to be a good number of pipers out there who are already able to take harmony writing as far as we have in this series, but it’s possible to go further with our creativity. 

If we succeed, we should enjoy harmony lines that are even more compelling and enlivening to our audiences, competition judges, and ourselves.

Before we don our spelunking helmets and switch on our head lamps, however, I want to remind you of how we got to this level of harmony writing.  It took a few steps, which I would always recommend each time you endeavour to write harmonies and countermelodies:

1. Determine the key of the tune that you’ll be harmonising.  (E.g., The Korgi, above, is in the key of A, specifically A-modal [Mixolydian].)

2. Determine the chords that best match the melody (as described in this article).  You may rely on chord symbols already printed on the sheet music, ask an experienced accompanist to assign appropriate chords, use the chord cheat sheet below to choose chords yourself, or rely on your own instincts for designating complimentary chords.

3. Pluck from the three or four notes of a particular chord to craft basic harmony notes to the corresponding section of music (as described in this article).

And now we are at step 4: Experiment with the various note options for each chord.  Allow me to elaborate on this step. Almost all the chords used to accompany traditional music contain at least three notes. 

This means you have at least three notes to choose from for harmonising a particular section of a tune.  For example, an A-Major chord includes A, C#, and E.  Any time you have a section of music that fits nicely with an A-Major chord, those first three notes are almost guaranteed to succeed as a basic harmony part.  That approach is good enough for many pipers and bands. I bet we can do even better.

To begin with, why not choose a different note from the A-Major chord the next time that same chord arrives in the music?  The below example shows that it is sometimes possible to do this in a way that creates a more interesting line, in this case a slowly-ascending scale in the harmony part.

Or why not shift between the three or four notes of a single chord in the very same bar of music?

And why not add in a little more interest, even, by sneaking in both different rhythms and “passing tones” between the main harmony notes?  (Passing tones are often just that: passing or very brief stepping stones that don’t really get in the way of the main harmonic effect, but nonetheless add some interest.  Sometimes they create a very brief moment of dissonance [tension], and that’s not only OK, but sometimes a boon.)

Ultimately my goal for you is to have the ability, the option if you desire it, to craft an artful harmony part that is practically (or wholly) a melody in its own right— one that compliments and enhances the main tune.  Indeed, things get even more stimulating when the harmonic line establishes some independence from the melody line.  It can do this by means of “contrary motion” (moving in opposite, contrary directions to the melody), by featuring different rhythmic patterns, by coming in and out, or a combination of the above.  There is a word used to describe independent harmony lines like this: polyphony (literally “many voices”).  And the most renowned composers and improvisers were some of the most clever at crafting polyphonic music.  They have existed in every era of Western music since the Middle Ages: Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, R.E.M., and so many others.  Composing harmonies like these will not be a skill you can perfect in a day, but it is certainly something anybody can enjoy practising and improving over time.  I suspect you’ll find these types of harmonies further enrich your music. 

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
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies