Rhythm and melody are the aspects that make us remember a song. But harmony is what accentuates the emotional effect of the song. Today we will discuss how to use harmony to project the desired emotions in a composition.

Harmony happens when two or more notes are played together. Typically, when we talk about harmony, we talk about chords. A chord can be played by one instrument or several instruments. For instance, a guitar player can play the Dm chord alone. But also, a bass can play D, a cello F, a flute A, and you get the Dm chord.

Learn more about chords in our dedicated article ''Music theory: chords''.

The most common forms of harmony are:

  • Diatonic harmony: all the notes and chords belong to one scale.
  • Non-diatonic harmony: some notes or chords are not part of the main scale. For example, finding a Bb7 chord in a song in Ab.
  • Atonal harmony: there is not a tonal center.

How can we use harmony to guide our audience to the desired emotional experience?

Once you figure out what emotions you want to project, you can think about harmony.

These are three questions I highly recommend:

  1. What is the emotion that is triggering my composition?
  2. What is the story I want to tell? If there is any?
  3. What would I like to elicit in those who listen?

Answering them will help you to have clarity about your intentions while composing.

You should choose your song's harmony depending on:

  1. The complexity of the story you want to tell.
  2. The different tensions you want to generate.

If the story is simple and you want the audience to feel one single emotion (let's say happiness), I suggest diatonic harmony in C major. On the contrary, if the story is more complex, and the emotion palette is broader, a non-diatonic/atonal harmony is a better fit.

Learn more about how to choose the right scale in our dedicated article "How to project emotions trough music: choosing the key"

How to integrate harmony and melody

A question I have been asked many times: should I start the composition process with the harmony or with the melody? Actually, it doesn't matter. The key is to integrate them beautifully.
In my case, some songs start from a chord progression that I like, and others from a melody that came to my mid. The melody gives indications of what harmony should be, and the other way around.

Let's put this into practice. Do you remember that I was composing a song for a friend? Well, for this song, in particular, I started with the melody.

The story I want to tell is simple: two lovers who meet again after a long time apart. And I want to project one particular emotion: joy. Considering this,  I will go for the diatonic harmony. As the song is in G, the chords I can use are G, Am, Bm, C, D7, Em, and F#dim.

And this is how the song sounds like:

Now an important question: how to choose the chord progression?
We will talk about this in the next article.

See you soon!



If you liked this article, check out the other articles in this series:

  1. Music: A catalyst for emotions
  2. Choosing the key
  3. Setting the tempo
  4. Melody
  5. Harmony
  6. Chord progression
  7. Modulation