Developing and teaching your harmonic language

Harmonic language

(2019: Summary of studying a week with Stephen Melillo)

  • Invent your own harmonic language.
  • Books on harmony and harmonic progression teach what we have liked until now. These theories are summaries of all the work we composed and heard until today. They do not prescribe the future. These schemes work, but beware that it doesn’t teach you new sounds for new compositions.
Main major chords we know of and like today.
Main chord progressions we know and like today.
  • There are only 6 ways to voice a chord (1,3,5) or 24 ways (1,3,5,7). that’s all there is. Now press the buttons that sound great.
  • You can decide to just stack (minor) thirds (or any number) for harmonic theory. That works fine and simple.
  • In harmony there is only tension and release, silence and sound. Stand still and go forward. The contrast makes the music interesting. Stephen is pushing that black/white contrast to it’s limits.
  • There are no accidentals, only ‘purposeful’s’: these are the changed leading notes that seek release. (Note from Anneloes: ‘Start thinking in a different way on harmonic theory by listening to Robert Gjerdingen‘. Robert advocates learning the original Partimenti and take it from there. )They have to be accented, not the release in the root-chord. In this way the release can be soft or even silent.
  • Knowledge of chords can make you design songs based upon known forms and developments. It does not make you a free composer who listens to the overtoneseries to make beautiful sounds.
  • I found that people like to play music that is designed according to the laws of nature rather than the habits of nurture. They just don’t know that they enjoy the power of the use of the overtone-series so much more than a fancy fashionable chord.
  • It is helpful to know it all and than leave it behind you and start composing your own music.
  • The (dis)advantages of a limitless world: To understand the power of the great masters, you have to know their limited worlds of chords and rules. The musical world was very restricted then, composers could shock the hell out of the audience. There were riats in the opera-house. Now there are no limits, but you get more creative when you set limitations. A limited idea is more likely to develop into something beautiful, limitless ideas end in tomeconsuming chaos.
  • A lot of jazz musicians get stuck in their structured world, they end up writing known chordprogressions in 4 bar systems and repeat the whole time.
  • The masters wrote in C (Mozart, Beethoven)
  • Double only to accent the bass-note.
  • Never repeat a third, it sticks out by itself because you already hear it in the overtoneseries. Leaving the lower third out and adding it higher sounds nice because you accent the already sounding overtones.


  • Sing 5,4,3,2 in 15 keys. Then sing 1, 2flat, 5.
  • Teach the harmonic language of the piece before playing.
  • In different keys, the notes have different roles and will be played differently. This makes the difference between the bright F3 and the dark Gflat.
  • For violinists D+ C+ and G+ are great keys because of their fingering.
  • The role of the note in the scale determines the pitch. So the note in every harmonic language must be played differently because the orchestra is not tempered tuned.
  • Leading tones are often too low, passing tones are always perfect. (on trombones especially)


  • Tuning the orchestra in B- is a problem because many instruments do not sound well at that note. Also is this a high note on the clarinet.
  • Tune in F, more instruments sound naturally.
  • The piano is tempered, the orchestra is not. Do not use a piano to tune.
  • There are no dissonances: also a dissonant can be played in tune without fluttering.
  • Virtual instruments are tempered tuned, so they will never sound like a real orchestra.
  • You have to introduce your own world of harmonic language to the orchestra. So they can tune in that language. When they can tune in your language, you can start with the piece.
  • Chapter 55 can be seen (figures with colors) by Quido Weinar, apparently this music is like that of Mozart and Beethoven.

(2018 Summary of studying a week with Thomas Trachsel)

Thomas Trachsel on harmonic language

Every key has it’s own feeling, you can’t just write a piece in a different pitch because the music will feel differently. There are practical reasons for choosing key, such as instruments or range. But compositions with certain emotions often have the same key:

Earth: C-moll A-moll

Sorrow: D-moll B-moll E-moll

Dramatic: Des-moll Cis-moll

Joyfull: ES-dur Bes-dur

Thomas Trachsel uses (combinations and scales from) keys from former works in his new work to give his whole oeuvre a specific sound.

More reading:

By Anneloes Wolters


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