What is the Difference Between Harmony, Melody, and Chords?

What is the Difference Between Harmony and Chords? What about Harmony and Melody?

Harmony is a word that gets thrown around and used somewhat vaguely. Producers may reference the vocal harmonies of the backup singers; tab books may refer to the guitar chords playing behind the melody as the harmony, as well. People will use the terms “harmony” and “chords” interchangeably. But are they really just names for the same thing? Not quite.

They can be used to talk about the same components of music, but there is a subtle distinction between the two terms. So what’s the difference between harmony and chords? Simply put, harmony is the total number of notes playing together at the same time in a song, from all instruments, while a chord is a set of notes being played on one instrument. A chord is a subset of harmony, just like a tabby is a subset of house cats. Not all harmonies are chords, just like not all house cats are tabbies. To make this even clearer, let’s break down the concept a little further.

What is a Music Chord?

If you’ve read my previous articles about melody vs chords, you will already know that a chord is a collection of notes all played simultaneously on an instrument as an enclosed musical unit. Each combination of individual music notes, when played together, form their own uniquely-named chord. So if you strum the notes C, E, and G at the same time on a guitar, you have just played the chord named C major.

What is a Harmony?

A Harmony, on the other hand, is a set of notes playing simultaneously but can be spread out over many instruments, whether it’s just one guitar or an entire band making noise. Harmony is the sum of all notes being played at a given time in a song, regardless of how many voices or sources they have. So if the guitarist is playing a C major chord, the bassist is thumping a C note, and the keyboard player is holding a high E note; then all of those pitches together are forming a harmony (specifically, one in the key of C).

Harmonies can be formed by the total of melodies playing, too. Let’s say you have three voices in a song and they’re all singing a different melody—that is, each of them is singing their own sequence of notes but they’re doing it at the same time and tempo. The first voice starts on a C note, the second voice starts on a G note, and the third voice starts on an E note. While the three singers are all playing their own independent melody lines, the total of all three singer’s single notes also form a full C major when heard together. This situation I just described is specifically called counterpoint.

Counterpoint is when two or more independent melodies form an interdependent harmony.

What Does it Mean for the Backup Singers to Sing Harmony?

With this in mind, let’s bring the discussion back to those backup singers I mentioned in the first paragraph. If a lead vocalist is belting out the main melody and the producer asks the backup singers to play the harmonies, what he’s really asking is that the extra voices should fill in the rest of the implied chord to form a natural harmony. If the lead is on a C note, then one backup singer would hum an E and the other backup would hum a G. Thus, the sum of all voices will hit your ears sounding like a C major chord. We wouldn’t normally say the three singers together are playing a C major chord, because they are three independent instruments. Rather we would say they are forming a harmony in C major.

If you wanted to shape harmonies around a melody, you can do this by having extra—and usually quieter—voices follow the melody line; usually these backups will sign the perfect fifth, major thirds, and/or an octave of that melody note. If you want to know more about vocal harmony building, I have an article explaining that process.

Can I Use the Terms Interchangeably?

With all that said, can you use the terms harmony and chord interchangeably? In many situations, yes.

Oftentimes in pop music we will use polyphonic instruments for accompaniment, like guitar or piano. Those instruments can play full chords on their own. So if you’re notating on a score or in your lyrics what the accompanying chords should be for a given word or bar, it makes sense to just talk about chords. If you are composing vocal harmonies, it would sound a bit strange to ask the singers to play a D-minor chord, rather you would want to specify who plays what note specifically.

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