Music Theory Question - Playing Harmony on a Baritone

nancejo

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Okay, I am a bit new to music - 9 months now. I finally learned that playing a musical instrument or listening to music is the equivalent of making love or just watching p***. I am having so much fun going to song circles. Okay, enough of the sidebar.

I was discussing "harmony" with a music instructor. He said in simple terms it it playing the 5th above what key the rest of the band is playing in. If that is true, can I play the same chords shapes (they play C, I play G) on my baritone uke in a ukelele song circle and be playing harmony with the rest of the people? Is it just that simple? Are there any drawbacks to do that?
 
I am not a music theoretician, but in general I think the answer is NO - at least it didn't work for me when I tried playing my baritone with the same chord shapes as others in my group playing regular ukuleles. I finally got tired of transposing chords in my head, and just quit bringing my baritone to meet-ups.

Most of the time a note will be in harmony with other notes when it is a couple of notes in the scale above or below it. Think about the notes in the C chord (all in the C scale) for example. To make it really simplified we can usually play the I, III, and V notes in the scale (C, E, G). Those notes are all in harmony.

The notes in a C chord fingered in position 1 are C G E C on a soprano.
The notes in a G chord fingered in position 1 are D G B F on a baritone.

Usually notes that are right beside each other, do not sound in harmony. Hit two adjacent keys on a piano keyboard to see what I mean. In the above, the C on the uke will clash with the D on the baritone, as will the E and F, and B and C.
 
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I was discussing "harmony" with a music instructor. He said in simple terms it it playing the 5th above what key the rest of the band is playing in. If that is true, can I play the same chords shapes (they play C, I play G) on my baritone uke in a ukelele song circle and be playing harmony with the rest of the people? Is it just that simple? Are there any drawbacks to do that?

It's usually not true. I'm not really that simple. And there are many drawbacks. :p

"Harmony" is simply more than one note played at the same time. If you play a melody (not chords... a melody) and I play another melody a 5th above that--or a 3rd, or any other interval for that matter--then we are playing "in harmony". That doesn't necessarily mean it will sound good, mind you, and for that reason I think it's a bit too simplistic of an approach.

In any case, if you apply that approach to entire chords, rather than melodies, you can really run into trouble. Chord are already multiple notes played at the same time. The "harmony" is built-in. Playing another chord on top of the original chord means that every note in your new chord has to harmonize well with every note in the original chord. That's a tall order (especially on a baritone... even if you did want a multiple-chord kind of sound, the bari would play the original chord as a sort of "foundation", since it's lower-pitched.)

For strumming along with your friends, that's pretty much all you need to know. You can play inversions of the same chord. But trying to play a different chord on top of their chord is seldom a good idea in most common cases.

So what is harmony, then?

In practical terms, think of it like this: Songs are in keys. Keys are the same thing, essentially, as scales. The melody more or less derives from notes in that key/scale. The chords used are made up of notes that more or less come from that key/scale.

Think of a key as a small box of crayons. There are an infinite number of colors in the world. And the big crayon box with the built-in sharpener might have narrowed those colors down to 64 or 128. But your box has further narrowed things down to only 8 colors. Everything you draw uses those 8 colors, because that's all you have in your box. A different drawing might require a box with different colors in it--in other words, it's in a different key. :cool:

Most folk/pop songs stick exclusively to notes and chords from the key/scale. Jazz songs often go outside the key/scale temporarily, or might have different sections in different keys (they borrow from another box of crayons!). But the basic idea still applies.

To harmonize and have it sound good, you'd want to pick notes to go along with the melody and are in the same key. Following a strict formula of "play a fifth away" won't always do that.

JJ
 
JJ offered a very good basic intro to harmony. I'll only add that you need to realize that there is a whole world of music theory that fits on top of that. Seriously. Whole books have been written on the topic. (Schoenberg's comes to mind.)

If you played a melody line, and a friend played the same line a fifth higher, you'd be in harmony, but the result would be boring and pedestrian. Start changing things up, and you start getting into countermelody, which can sound really cool when done right. :)

The quick answer is that music is a path. If you really want to start learning this stuff, a whole new world is going to open up for you!

-Pete
 
I think the best way to learn about chords is to look at the shapes of chords on the white keys of a piano. You play those chords by pushing down every other key. So if the whole scale is this:

ABCDEFG

...Then you build chords by removing every other note. For example:

A C E G

is a chord. So is:

B D F

Playing one chord on top of another would be like playing this:

A C E G B D F

Technically that is a chord, but it's a very cluttered and noisy chord. Not one you would want to play in the vast majority of songs. Harmony usually consists of staying within the same three or four note chord.
 
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