Composing Music – Part 5 -Exploring Harmony

To start the final part of this module, it is required that we familiarise ourselves with particualr chapters in The AB Guide to Music Theory by AB Taylor. Temp, Dynamics and Mood plus Articulation were required reading in the previous part and I have detailed these in my Part 4 postings, so I am familiarising myself with the others that are mentioned, notes are taken directly from the AB theory book.

Triads and Chords

Western music is distinguished more than any other musical traditions as it is made up of mixtures of simultaneous sounds if different pitch (harmony), often combined in complex ways.

It has been achieved at a price as Western music is relatively limited in rhythmic and melodic subtlety (ie. compared with say Indian music). Two notes forming a harmonic interval are the simplest example of different bites performed together. Next step in combining is the triad which consists of 3 notes.


A triad is based on the root note, plus the 3rd and 5th note. These triads can be built on each of the degrees of major and minor scales.

The triads are built on the degrees if the scale: tonic, supertonic, mediant, sub-dominant, dominant, sub-mediant and leading note. These are also referred to using roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V , VI, VII. Triads !, IV and V are classed as primary triads as chairs derived from them are particularly important. The triads themselves are classed as being either, major, minor, augmented or diminished.

In my music theory studies for graded exams, I am already familiar with the make up of these triads and how to go about determining their classification.

Using the chord of C the triads are as follows

Notes of a triad can be re arranged from the initial triads shown above and placed into inversions. In this instance the Roman numerals given are combined with letters a b and c, which refer to inversions. The C major chord which we have used can be distinguished as

Root position. Ia
1st inversion Ib
2nd inversion Ic

These are denoted as follows

From here if you wanted to write the second inversion of the V triad you would write this as Vc

Triads can be written in “open position” or “close position”. At all times, an open position triad is still described as being root, first or second inversion.


A triad is the simplest type of chord, however there is no precise meaning of the name chord, and it could be defined as “three or more notes sounded together”. There are no limits to the notes in a chord, just the practical considerations to be taken to ensure that the chord is able to be played on a particular instrument.Over centuries wetern music evolved into an elaborate system of chords and their relationship to each other.

It is important to emphasise the chords and their relationship to each other. The importance its the way they lead to and away from each other and not in isolation. Each triad can be repositioned in numerous ways and layouts vary by the instruments used and also for vocal arrangements.

Chords are identified in the same way as triads. A chord which is made up of notes from the tonic triad is a tonic chord. The same applies with the inversions and they are represented by the Roman numerals. Some chords can be identified in two ways. Examples are shown below

More elaborate chords can be devised using the 7th chord and are called 7th chords. As a 7th chord is make up of 4 notes there are 3 inversions and here we add the letter d to denote this 3rd inversion.

In minor keys the 3rd above the root of the dominant 7th chord is always raised by a semitone.

Chord notation in jazz etc.

Symbols so far havr been designed for the purpose of studying only. Two shorthand ways arose out of a practical need for performers. Fir stly there is the chord notation used in jazz and othr forms of popular music, the second being figured bass.

Figured bass is much older (roughly from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century). Both methods indicate the essential notes of chords whilst leaving the performer free to improvise the layout and perhaps, the decoration of the chords.

The basic harmonies used in jazz are generally very simple. When there are complexities they are usually the result of an improved decoration or elaboration of what are simple chord patterns. Since complexities are improvised, all notation needs to show is the essential notes of the chords around which the performer is free to improvise.

Jazz chord notifications does not need to be very detailed or complicated. The letter came of the root of the chord is shown as a capital letter, and from there the 3rd and 5th can easily be deduced. A chord is assumed to be major unless shown otherwise:

‘m” after the letter name signifies a chord made out of the notes of the minor triad. ‘+’ means that the triad is augmented, and ‘o’ means diminished. Sometimes aug and dim are used instead.

Any figures which are added represent intervals from the bass. C6 is a chord consisting if notes of the C major triad (CEG), plus the 6th note from C (A)

A figure 7 by itself implies the addition of a minor 7th

If the major 7th were required, the chord wild be written Cmaj7

None of the symbols demand that the root of the chord has to be in the bass. Normally any of the notes may be the bass note, at the choice of the performer. On rare occasions when the bass note os specified its later name is given after an /, following the chord description.

The above can be confusing as this is not the standard meaning of root.

Jazz chord notation shows only the bare outlines of the harmony. A great deal of latitude is left to the performer who can freely decorate the given chords or enhance them with additional notes as they see and feel appropriate.

In the next part which is figured bass, I am going to significantly reduce the explanations given in AB Theory on here as I am very familiar with figured bass.

Figured bass

Usually all baroque music, except for that of a solo player , included a part for a continuo player (a bass part as for a keyboard or stringed instrument used especially in baroque ensemble music and consisting of a succession of bass notes with figures that indicate the required chords). The continuo could be any instrument which produced chords, although normally the harpsichord or the organ was used. It was the job of the continuo player to ensure that the required harmonies were complete and clear. If essential harmony notes were missing from other parts, they would be provided. y the continuo. Sometimes other parts were just a solo melody and a bass instrument, perhaps just the bass instrument, then the entire responsibility for supplying complete chords fell upon the continuo player. The music played consisted of the bass line (eg cellos and double basses in an orchestra) written in figures. The figures represented the intervals above the note, the required chord made out of these notes.

The above means that the chord is constructed from the bass note C, the 3rd about it E, and the 5th above it G It can be laid out in any way the performer wanted.

Above is the first inversion chord constructed out of the bass note E, the 3rd about it G and the 6th above it C. Again the performer decides on the note distribution.

The above implies A, D and F#. F # is due to the key signature and it can be realised in a number of ways.

Other things need to be taken into account.

An accidental placed by a figured bass notation refers to the note it represents, regardless of the key signature. A bass note without any figures is assumed to be a root chord, and the number is usually omitted. An accidental placed under a note refers to the 3rd note of that chord.

First inversion chords are usually notated by a 6. If the 3rd note needs to be altered then the appropriate accidental is placed under the 6th.

Figured bass is also used for 7th chords and their inversions. These can be reduced to just figures, unless accidentals are involved, then they have to be written in full.

Some writers combined the Roman numerals with the figured bass. It would be easy for me to work out what the writer was implying but to me it looks messy and not necessary in the music.

Chord Layouts

On instruments which can play chords, chords are frequently payed where all notes are sounded together. They will have patterns and these are called broken chords.

Looking a AB Taylor and referring back to my personal music theory studies I am very familiar with the patterns (the excerpt in Taylor sows there patterns. I did not realise that these were called broken chords. I am used to dealing with complex words when answering questions in past papers from the ABRSM theory examinations.

I was not familiar of the concept of the Alberti Bass which is named after the Italian composer Domenico Alberti , who popularised it. Alberti bass is where the notes if the chord are presented in order lowest to highest or highest to lowest (arpeggio). This pattern is then repeated several times during the piece of music. Alberti Bass was often used in the classical era and sometimes the Romantic era

Phrases and Cadences

The phrase

Phrases are grouped together to form musical sentences , the sentences forming a paragraph.

The phrase is very important – it is a group of notes which are felt to form a unit. There are no rigid rules and there can be disagreements between people over the phrasing. The phrasing structure which is shown in a study context and used at ABRSM to indicate where a phrase is located is one which I am already familiar with. Phrasing marks and articulation are used in a performance setting.

When verses are set to music, phrasing often coincides with the lines in the verses. This is nearly awakes the case when using simple forms – nursery rhymes, hymns, carols, folk songs. In this case the phrases are often the same length and two to four bars in length.

Purely instrumental music tends to have regular phrasing, particularly in shorter pieces such as dances and marches. The beginning and endings of phrases normally complement one another. If a phrase in 3/4 starts on the 3rd beat of the bar, it must end with the 2nd beat is that the best phrase can begin on the 3rd.

There has been a convention balancing an incomplete opening bar with an incomplete bar at the end so the two together form a complete bar, this has been observed but not generally followed these days and in longer pieces it has never been consistent.

A weak beat opening to a phrase is called an anacrusis. Anacrusis, which is also known as a pick up or a fractional pick up, is a note or a sequence of notes, or motif which precedes the first downbeat I a bar in a musical phrase. The downbeat being the first beat and the strongest.


Cadences and phrases

A cadence is the end of a phrase or point of relaxation in the music. Out should feel natural, and a breathing space for wind instruments and vocals.

Chords are involved with the cadences. Particular chords contribute to the feeling, making it more or less definitive. Cadences are categorised according ti the chords invloved. Chords music be used at the right time, to reinforce the feeling the music gives, and relates to rhythm and shape.

Tonal music ends on the tonic chord. The tonic is the foundation. The root position chord, the tonic chord, is the most solid, with other chords leading to it.

Cadences ending on the tonic chord have a “final” feeling. They can be used midway but it will make the piece sound like it has come to a halt prematurely. Distinguish between the cadences which end with the tonic chord and those which do not and those which are never used at the end. There are four types of cadences which are used. Perfect, plagal, imperfect and interrupted.

There are diagrams on Taylor which explain all of this but in my independent music theory studies I can simplify these.

Perfect cadence

This is either a V7 to I or a V to I progression.

The chord which most powerfully leads to the tonic chord is the dominant chord and the progression from a dominant to a tonic at a phrase ending is the perfect cadence. The reasons for this special power is that the 5th note is the next harmonic after the fundamental note and its octave – it is an acoustic reason. Another reason is the inclusion of the the leading note in the chord of the scale. It has a tendency to move up a semitone to the tonic. so the essential elements in the perfect cadence are a move from the dominant to the tonic in the bass and above the bass a move from the leading note to the tonic.

The dominant 7th chord prepares the tonic more powerfully because of the need for the dissonant interval of the 7th to be resolved. Although at a final cadence the tonic is ALWAYS in root position. The progression of VIIb – I is very similar to the effect of the V7c to I and can be regard as a type of perfect cadence.Both are relatively weak as final cadences since the effect of the bass is more powerful of it moves not by a single step buy by a jump from the root of V. The perfect cadence is the most common cadence used to end pieces.

Plagal cadence

IV to I progression

This effect as a final cadence is less compelling than that of a perfect cadence as IV is less powerful than V when preparing for I, as it lacks the leading note as it pushes towards to tonic. Plagal cadences were used more in the 16th century to end pieces much more frequently than it has done since. Some more recent composers have used it though (Sibelius) and a more familiar example is at the end of the carol Good King Wenceslas.

Imperfect cadence

it is a phrase which ends on the dominant.

The dominant chord itself can make a temporary resting place and any cadence ending on the dominant is imperfect. Various chords can be used to to precede this dominant, the most common are I, II, III, IV

Interrupted cadence.

ends on a minor chord.

It could be known as the interrupted perfect cadence. It is where the listener expects a dominant chord to expect a tonic chord but is followed by any chord except the tonic.

There are other cadences- such as VI to IV

Feminine endings

More often or not the last chord of any cadence occurs on a stronger beat than the first, When a second chord is less strongly accented, this phrase is said to have a feminine ending , or the cadence is described as feminine. An imperfect cadence with Ic- V used as a feminine ending was almost a hallmark of music of the classical period (1770-1830)

Research point

A cadenza is a oft improvised solo passage towards the close of a concerto. T his gives the soloist a moment to express themselves, bit many soloists would not improvise this now, they would use the one regularly placed in the composition which is often written out or even composed by someone else

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “cadenza”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Nov. 2021, Accessed 9 February 2023.

Dressing up a perfect cadence

Examples of an extended dominant in the key of G major


Das Rheingold

Cyclic Chords

To form a cyclic chord you go in regular cycles, 2s, 3s 4s, etc

So if the in the key of C major and going in 4s you would move C major to F Major to BbMajor

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