The Case For Harmony

As I was humming my typical harmonies above the melody line along to Sufjan at work the other day, I realized I really have very little grasp not on how vocal or instrumental harmony is constructed, but how it is learned: acquired, if you will. Now if you know me, you know I spend several blissful (albeit difficult) hours per week teaching young students private voice and piano. So when I say I do not understand how it is learned, let me explain.

In any singer’s intermediate level of coursework, there will come the time when a few different things should take place. They need to acquire a basic knowledge of chord structure, and preferably be able to pick out phrases on the piano. Reading introductory level music, then, also becomes a must. When one is playing two contrasting parts of a melody line together, harmony is created. If they can hear and discern the melody tones from the latter, they are learning harmony. There are also various exercises I assign my students more specifically to improve their note matching and pitch, but the ability to harmonize can also be improved through playing any note on the piano, and trying to sing typically 1.5, 2 or 5 whole steps above it, creating intervals of a minor or Major 3rd, or a perfect 5th. Now singing harmony in perfect 5ths for more than about 2 seconds will only result in parallel 5ths and I would avoid that like the plague…but I digress.

My point is, I have full faith that the majority of people with healthy vocal chords have the capability to learn and sing harmony, because statistics show that cases of amusia, or Tone Deafness, are quite seldom indeed. What I’m not yet grasping, is how does one come “harmony-equipped?” As someone who was singing at the age of three, I cannot recall how I began to form harmonies; main problem being that it must have been before I could remember. I never came to properly read music and understand chordal structure until after High School. It was always solely “by ear”…and thus we come to the crux of my dilemma: Is harmony innate? Is it like absolute pitch, where one simply “has it” and though others may work for years to finally achieve relative pitch, they still fall necessarily short of the natural inclination?