Harmony for ocarina players

Harmony in music occurs when multiple notes sound at the same time. It is one of the fundamentals of music, creating tension, release, and the ultimate sense of progression. Harmony will be present in most of the music you listen to as it adds a lot of depth and complexity to the sound.

Yet, it may not be obvious why understanding harmony is useful to you as an ocarina player, given that the instrument only plays one note at a time. You may be tempted to ignore it, as it may feel irrelevant, but that would be ill advised.

In fact, there is a lot of value in understanding harmony, as:

  • It deepens your appreciation of the music you are playing. Melodies and harmony are closely related, and the patterns of harmony are often mirrored by the notes used in a melody.
  • It frees your creativity. Understanding harmony allows you to improvise around a melody to make it your own,
  • It improves communication. Any time that you play with accompaniment, you are playing in harmony. If you are playing with another musician, it allows you to understand what your accompanist is doing, and communicate better.

An understanding of harmony also has various non-obvious applications. For example, a group of ocarinas playing together. Such music is usually arranged to form harmonies between the players, and understanding harmony allows you to understand what the group as a whole is doing.

Harmony ocarinas - while limited, also require an understanding of harmony to play well.

What tools do I need to learn harmony?

To develop an intuitive feel for harmony, you really need to hear how different notes sound when played simultaneously. And since ocarinas can only play one note at a time (monophonic), you will need a different instrument to do so. Harmony ocarinas won't do much to help you as they are too technically limited to understand the whole topic.

There are a few options:

  • MIDI sequencers allow you to play chords by dragging notes on your computer, without learning another instrument. —LMMS, for example, which is free.
  • There are also many 'virtual piano' apps for iOS and Andriod which do the same thing using the touch screen. Some applications allow you to play notes using your computer keyboard.
  • Another option is a MIDI keyboard, a standard keyboard which uses your computer to produce sound.

The goal here is to use another instrument as a tool to learn harmony, and to do so you don't need to learn to play well. The piano keyboard, and similar tools like MIDI sequencers are intuitive as they have a linier layout, and melodies and harmony are played using the same input. All instruments play the same system of notes.

I'd generally advise against instruments like ukulele or guitar unless you have serious intention to learn to play them, as their design makes some chords considerably easier to play than others, and the nature of how these instruments are tuned makes the relationships between notes less obvious.

Consonance and dissonance: harmony 101

The most fundamental aspect of harmony is the concepts of consonance and dissonance.

Consonance is when notes played together sound pleasing or 'harmonious', for example:

Dissonance is the opposite, notes that sound unstable, grating or uneasy when played together, for example:

Weather a given collection of notes sounds consonant or dissonant depends on the distance between those notes, which is called an 'interval. To hear this for yourself:

  • Press a bunch of keys randomly on a piano, the result will almost certainly sound dissonant.
  • But if you play two keys that are 7 notes apart (including the black keys) they will sound harmonious.

Dissonance is not 'bad'. Rather, consonance and dissonance are flavours that are mixed, depending on the desired sound. Dissonance is an effective tool for creating progression as it creates tension, which can be released by moving into consonance.

The consonance and dissonance of intervals

Whether a selection of notes sound harmonious or not is determined by the distance between those notes in semitones, called an 'interval'.

As you will know from Octaves and scale formation, the distance between any 2 adjacent chromatic notes is called a 'semitone'. You can continue from this point forming larger intervals like the whole tone, and they all have distinct sounds.

If you have an instrument, try playing these for yourself. Remember that 1 semitone correlates to any two adjacent keys on a piano keyboard, inclusive of the black keys, and that you can form these intervals starting from any note.

Just listen to how the different intervals sound, and observe how their sound makes you feel.

Note that these intervals have multiple names, which are given in parenthesis.

1 semitone (minor second)

The semitone is a generally dissonant interval, and is the smallest interval that most western instruments are able to play.

A minor second is the interval between any two notes in the chromatic scale.

2 semitones (whole tone, major second)

The whole tone is fairly dissonant, but less so than the semitone.

A major second or whole tone is an interval of two semitones.

3 semitones (minor third)

As you form intervals using larger intervals they become more consonant. The minor third is somewhere between consonant and dissonant, and sounds somewhat sad.

A minor third is an interval of three semitones.

4 semitones (Major third)

The major third is the first really consonant interval, and you may notice that it sounds 'happy'.

A major third is an interval of four semitones.

5 semitones (perfect forth)

Following the major third is the perfect forth, which is also harmonious.

A perfect fourth is an interval of five semitones.

6 semitones (tritone)

Following the fourth, 6 semitones is a very dissonant interval called the 'tritone'. The tritone is an outlier as it is immediately preceded by the fourth, and followed by the perfect fifth (7 semitones), both consonant intervals.

A tritone is an interval of six semitones.

7 semitones (perfect fifth)

The fifth is a very consonant interval.

A perfect fifth is an interval of seven semitones.

8 semitones (minor sixth)

A minor sixth is an interval of eight semitones.

9 semitones (major sixth)

The major sixth (9 semitones) is a consonant interval with a somewhat melancholy characteristic, pleasing in its sound but slightly less consonant than the fifth.

A major sixth is an interval of nine semitones.

10 semitones (minor seventh)

The minor seventh is itself quite dissonant, and from this point the intervals sound progressively more dissonant, until you get to the octave.

A minor seventh is an interval of ten semitones.

11 semitones (major seventh)

A major seventh is an interval of eleven semitones.

12 semitones (octave)

Notes that are an octave apart are so harmonious that they almost sound the same, the added note more 'changing the colour' of the note, rather than sounding distinct. It is why octaves are considered equivalent in music theory.

An octave is an interval of 12 semitones, or a doubling of frequency.

Finding the chords of a scale

You can in principle build harmonies by playing different notes together, experimenting to find ones that produce the sound you want. However, musicians before you have devised a system to make this easier, which are called 'chords'.

Up to this point we have been exploring the intervals of the chromatic scale. But for chords, we are going to switch to a diatonic scale. We will be using the G major scale for a bit of variation, and to demonstrate that the same method applies to any scale:

G, A, B, C, D, E, F♯, G

As the diatonic scales are formed from a selection of Major and Minor intervals, if you think about the intervals within one of these scales, the exact number of semitones between the notes changes depending on where you are within the scale.

You can either be conscious of this, observing the number of semitones, but it is actually easier if you ignore it for now. Diatonic intervals can just be called 'second', 'third', 'sixth', and weather it is major or minor depends on where that is played within the scale.

Chords are formed from a diatonic scale using the interval of a third. If you begin on G, skip A and land on B. B is a third above G.

A third is an interval formed when you choose a note within a major scale, and choose the note two scale degrees higher or lower, a third between G and B is shown

Harmony can be formed from two notes in this way, but chords of 3 notes are more common as they have a richer sound. A three note chord is called a 'triad'.

To form a G triad, you raise 1 third from G to B, then another to D. Thus you get the notes G, B, and D.

A triad can be formed if you stack two thirds in sequence. An example of a G major triad is shown, G B and D

By following the same pattern from the other notes of the scale, their chords may be found. The triads for D, E, and F♯ ascend into the following octave.

A diagram showing most triads that can be played in G major:

A C E,
B D F sharp
D F sharp A
F sharp A C

Triad types

If you play these chords on an instrument you'll notice that some of them sound different. This arises from the irregular spacing of the notes within the major scale. The interval of a 'third' within the major scale also changes.

If you take the first chord, the one built from G and count the number of semitones between the root and third you'll find there are 4. If you then begin from the third and count forward you'll find that there are 3 semitones.

There are actually two kinds of third, the major third and the minor third. The major third is an interval of 4 semitones, the minor third is an interval of 3.

Major triads

A chord formed from a major third followed by a minor third is called a major triad.

A G major triad shown within the chromatic scale, demonstrating that major thirds have 4 semitones, and minor thirds have 3

Minor triads

If you examine the intervals of the second chord of the scale, A, C, E you will find that the intervals are swapped around. The first interval is a minor third, while the second is a major third. This is called a minor triad.

An A minor shown within the chromatic scale to demonstrate that a minor triad reverses the order of the intervals in a major triad

Diminished triads

These covers every triad found in the scale except for one. If you examine the intervals of the F♯ triad you will find that they follow a pattern of minor third, minor third. This is called a diminished triad.

A diagram showing an F sharp diminished triad, a stack of two minor thirds

Augmented triads

You may have realized that there is one last combination of thirds, namely a stack of two major thirds. This is called an augmented triad. Augmented triads don't occur anywhere within the major scale, and I'm only mentioning this for the sake of completeness as you don't need to understand them for basic harmony.

An augmented triad is a chord made from two major thirds.

Chord progressions

The harmony of a melody usually does not stay on only one single chord for a whole song. Just like a melody moves through a series of different pitches, harmony will move through a series of chords, called a chord progression.

The 7 chords of the diatonic scale are numbered starting from 1, for G major these are:

  • 1: G Major
  • 2: A minor
  • 3: B minor
  • 4: C Major
  • 5: D Major
  • 6: E minor
  • 7: F♯ diminished

In their simplest form, a chord progression means moving through a sequence of these chords, often repeatedly. For example, the chord progression "1, 4, 5, 1" can be found in a lot of mainstream music.

X: 1
R: jig
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: Gmaj
"1 (G)"  GBdB |  "4 (C)" Gege  |
"5 (D)"  Adfd  | "1 (G)" GBdB

The 5 chord to 1 chord resolution is extremely common as it creates a very strong sense of resolution. The technical term for it is 'authentic cadence'.

If you would like to know more, it is easy to find information about common chord progressions online.

Moving forward

I'd suggest experimenting with the different intervals, build chords from them and experiment to see how they sound. What emotional effect do they have?

As was noted, chords and melodies are closely related, and the next step once you have learned to play some melodies is to study this relationship. Which is covered on the page Finding the chords in a melody.