Hearing Harmonies

Music is experiential, and that is how harmony and chord progressions should be learned: with the ears more than with the mind. Most music theory courses and websites make this mistake.

If you look at a typical music theory book or website you would never realize that harmony is simpler than you think it is. The seven harmonies that this mini-course teach you are the basis of Western music, and they can be learned by listening to example tracks while watching the on-screen symbols.

ē The seven harmonies are the essence of how music works.
ē The harmonies can and should be learned experientially first, and intellectually second.


Music has many dimensions: melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm, and other factors, but harmony is its essential aspect. Learning the harmonies experientially first, and the theory of them later, is the reverse of how music is taught practically everywhere. It is the correct approach, however, because:

ē Good teachers know that the best way to teach any topic is to start with concrete experience first, followed by abstraction.
ē You donít need to learn the factual theory if you donít want to. You can learn to hear the harmonies and your enjoyment of music will forever be richer. After learning them experientially, you may want to enhance your understanding and appreciation of them by learning more about what they are.
ē Many music theory students, even after studying for a year or more in the traditional way, never do develop a good feel for the harmonies. The fact is, many musicians donít have a comfortable familiarity with the seven harmonies, and one of the reasons is that we donít have a simple language for talking about them. Such terms as 'supertonic', 'subdominant', or 'submediant' are awkward and misleading, because they convey little about the actual harmonic function. The subdominant harmony, for instance, should at least have its own name, which doesnít sound like a comparison to another completely different harmony (the dominant). Such terms are an unnecessary obstacle to learning. Harmonic terminology needs to be as simple as possible so that it doesn't get in the way of learning the properties of the harmonies themselves.

Musicians often use numbers for the harmonies in place of the cumbersome words. Traditionally Roman numerals are used. In this tutorial I will use the ordinary numerals 1 though 7, instead of Roman numerals, because they are easier to work with. Those numbers will be underlined when we are talking about a chord. A number without the underline just means a note of the scale. Ordinary numbers make the musical concepts seem less obscure and more accessible,
A note about terminology: 'chord' is a generic term for any combination of notes; 'triad' is three notes. When I mention the 'harmonies' I am referring to seven triads, that are distinguished from each other mainly by what their root note is (the root note is the note of the scale that the chord is built upon). There are only three different chord structures among the seven harmonies (major, minor and diminished). The main difference among the harmonies is the root note.

Another problem in traditional music theory education is that it avoids exploring the sources of emotion in music. Yes, the affective qualities of the different intervals are mentioned, but not usually those of the different harmonies, each of which has its own feel and personality that goes beyond interval qualities. Music is so full of power and feeling, and to discuss its principles without considering emotion is like dwelling on the mechanical details of a painting or beautiful photograph, ignoring the depths of feeling that it evokes.

The harmonies seem to affect most people in the same way emotionally, as if our individual consciousnesses all have identical programming as regards the effects of sound. Or perhaps we all share the same universal consciousness. The major mode is universally experienced as expansive and bright, while the minor mode is subdued. The 4 and 5 harmonies are both major mode, but 4 sounds bold and forward-moving to almost everyone, while 5 feels solid and safe. The 2 and 6 harmonies are both minor mode, but they are subtle in different ways, which will be explored on this site. In the final analysis we learn how to recognize the harmonies mostly by 'feeling' them in ways that may not be describable in words.

Unconsciously, your mind already knows how music works. That's how you can appreciate music when you hear it, without knowing anything about music. Something underneath your conscious awareness knows the details of what's going on. That unconscious understanding can be brought into awareness, and you will know consciously how music works. Your appreciation of a painting is not diminished by knowing the names of the colors, and your appreciation of music will not suffer for naming and hearing its harmonies; rather it will be enhanced. Your experience of music over a lifetime will be the greater for it.

If you are a musician, understanding the harmonies brings many practical benefits. If you play a chord instrument such as guitar, piano or harp, you will know what chord to play most of the time, even in unfamiliar keys. If you sing, this knowledge is a starting point for learning to sight-read. And if you write songs, you absolutely must be aware of the harmonies, especially the ones that are too little-used only because many musicians donít know about them. They are the ones that make the difference between an ordinary song and something memorable.

Go now to the short Tutorial.