Is there any tangible difference between a harmony and a chord? Are there other ways to create harmony besides adding chords? In this guide, we’ll explore the differences and similarities between these two terms and look at multiple ways you can harmonize a melody.
Are Harmonies Just Chords
In most situations, yes: harmonies are just chords. But they do not have to be played on the same instrument as most people assume a chord should. Both chords and harmonies are created by playing multiple notes together. People normally associate a “chord” with a set of notes strummed in unison on a single instrument.
But you can also form a chord by having multiple instruments play single notes at the same time. For example, a string quartet can play a C chord by each member playing one of the notes found in C major:
- First violin = C
- Second violin = E
- Viola = G
- Cello = C
Can Harmony Only Be Created With Chords?
No, while most harmonies are made through chords, they can also be created by multiple melodies playing at the same time. This is called counterpoint. The difference between chords and counterpoint melodies may seem a bit subtle, but it does exist.
Chords are notes associated with each other vertically, while melodies are notes associated horizontally through time.
The Technical Details of Chord vs Counterpoint
A “chord” is a collection of notes being played together, and a chord progression is when a series of chords play one after another.
But an important distinction is that the individual notes in a chord are note normally assumed to form a melody with any individual notes in the following chord. A melody, on the other hand, does form a cohesive unit of notes over time.
When two melodies play at the same time and their notes are heard simultaneously, they are also technically creating a series of chords. But they can also be identified as being independent melodies that, if played alone, would still form a cohesive unit of music.
That means any two (or more) instruments playing different notes at the same time can form a chord and thus…create a harmony. This includes multiple singers all singing different notes at the same time (like backup singers who are said to “harmonize” with the lead vocalist).
Don’t Forget The Bass
I’d also like to point out that just adding a bass line to a melody can create harmony. Your accompaniment does not have to play full triad chords.
The TL;DR Version
- If you play a chord progression underneath a melody, then that forms a harmony.
- If you play two different melodies at the same time, then that also forms a harmony (at every moment when two notes play simultaneously, that is).
- A melody with a bass line can also form a simple harmony
Is Harmony The Same As Chords?
Harmony is not the exact same as chords because harmony is a broader term. All chords are harmony, but not all harmony is chords. As we saw in the previous section, counterpoint melodies playing together can also form chords.
Harmony is also used to describe the texture of music. But that topic delves further into the depths of classical music theory so we won’t get into it here.
For those of us making popular format music (like rock, rap, and pop), all we need to know is:
- Chords are the simplest way to create harmonies
- You can also harmonize by playing multiple melodies together
- The difference between harmony and chords is negligible beyond that
Harmony and chords are closely related. But, while chords are viewed as vertical units of music, harmonies can also be formed by horizontal units (melodies) that overlap in time.
If you would like to learn more about topics of pop music theory, then here are a few more articles to consider reading: