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Tagg’s Harmony Handout

September 9, 2012

“Harmony is today virtually synonymous with tonal polyphony (see p.2 ff.). In an-
cient Greece, however, where the term originates, èrmon¤a (harmonía) literally
meant combination or union. Applied to music in Hellenic times, the word referred
to the joining together of sounds into concords or sequences, not just the simultane-
ous combination of notes. Classical Latin’s harmonia also meant an agreement of
sounds, concord or melody. In medieval Europe, harmony initially meant the simul-
taneous sounding of two notes only (dyads), in much the same way as a backing vo-
calist in popular music may be described as ‘singing harmonies’, even though
harmony, in the general sense of the term, is more likely to be provided by accom-
panying instruments. European theorists of the Renaissance extended the notion
of harmony to the simultaneous sounding of three notes, thus accommodating the
‘common triad’, with its third as well as the fifth.
Since the seventeenth century harmony has, in its musical sense, largely been as-
sociated with the chordal practices of music in the Central European art music tra-
dition and with styles of popular music relating to that tradition. More recently, the
notion of harmony has been popularly applied to any music which sounds in any
way chordal to the Western ear, even, for example, to the vocal polyphony of certain
African and Eastern European traditions, or to the polyphonic instrumental prac-
tices of some Central and South-East Asian music cultures. In short, whereas pop-
ular English-language parlance may qualify as ‘harmony’ such phenomena as a
melody plus drone or two voices singing in parallel homophony see (p.3 ff.), conven-
tional musicology would tend to reserve the term for chordal practices relating to
the Central European classical tradition of tertial harmony. However, since popu-
lar music encompasses a wider range of tonal polyphonic practices than those con-
ventionally covered by musicology, it is appropriate to qualify any type of tonal
polyphony as harmony. This wider meaning of the term makes it possible to speak
of a variety of harmonic practices and thus to treat harmonic idiom as one impor-
tant set of traits distinguishing one style of music from another.”



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