Music Theory Tutorial: Parallel Harmony
Learn how to use an effective technique called parallel harmony to create musically obscure chord progressions from melodies.
Parallel Harmony Overview
Parallel harmony is an effective technique commonly used in electronic music to create unique chord progressions and melodies. Chord progressions made of parallel harmonies retain the same note structure when moving from one chord to another. Unlike traditional progressions that often move between major and minor chords, the parallel movement of each note in a chord moves by the same number of semitones all in the same direction. For example, to create a chord progression using parallel harmonies you could copy the same chord several times and then transpose each chord up or down in the series to build a sequence. This technique defies music theory in a way because many notes in each chord may play outside the key your working in. However, when done correctly, parallel harmonies can be musically pleasing.
Early and modern house music is an excellent example that captures the distinct sound of chord progression created from parallel harmonies. A common technique used to recreate a classic style heard in house music is to take a single chord sample and play it like a melody at different pitches. The resulting harmony moves in parallel because the chord structure is recorded into the sample, and when you transpose the sample up or down all the notes that make up that chord move by the same number of semitones. This method creates a dissonant sound at times that is commonly heard in house music. Let’s explore parallel harmony further by building a chord progression from a melody.
Parallel Harmony in Practice
Let’s begin by creating a single melody line in the key of G major using Ableton Live. A crafty way of working with only the notes in a specific key within Live’s piano roll is to write in the notes for a scale and then activating the ‘Fold’ button to hide all rows that do note have MIDI notes leaving only the notes you wish to work with.
Now that we are familiar with the notes that make up a G major scale let’s work out a melody. There are several ways to write good melodies, try playing around with different note placements or even try singing a melody out loud and then do your best to work out what notes you were singing.
Since a lot of electronic music is loop based, it’s important to resolve a sequence before it begins to repeat itself. This is important when creating good melody and chord progressions that flow and transition well. Check out a previous tutorial ‘Tips for Better Chord Progressions‘ to learn more about resolving phrases. An effective way to signify the end of the progression is to end the phrase on the same note it began with to create a sense of completeness. Using other notes and chords outside the key you’re working in creates varying degrees of tension that may sound incomplete or awkward. Resolving progressions using the same chord or note you started with will likely sound more pleasing and will transition better when looping phrases. This basic technique reinforces the tonic or tonal center of your melody.
Now that we have a solid melody let’s use the notes to begin building chords. Each note will be the root or tonal center for our chords. Our goal is to create parallel harmonies, so we need to choose only one type of chord, major or minor and then apply the same structure to each note of the melody. Let’s choose minor chords, since a majority of electronic music is written in a minor key. A quick way to achieve this in Live is to select all the notes, hold ‘Option’ and drag all the notes up three semitones and then again seven semitones to create minor triad chords.
Another clever way to create chords in Live is to use the ‘Chord’ MIDI device. Simply choose the number off semitones relative to the incoming MIDI note to build a chord. This method works great for creating parallel chords.
The resulting phrase may sound a little jarring at first, but it works musically. To test your ears and this theory, try transposing the second line on the fourth chord up one semitone to create a major chord. You should quickly notice how that chord does not work with the others.
Parallel Harmony in Action
Unravel electronic music’s origins, build your chops, learn musical language and theory, and make and play music the way you want. Students will develop a deeper understanding of the roots and lineage of a variety of electronic and dance music genres, strengthen their keyboard skills, and learn valuable music theory, deepening their creative practice and facilitating effective collaborations with musical partners.
About This Program
The best producers, DJs, and musicians in the world strive to be well-rounded. So should you. In Dubspot’s Music Foundations Program, you’ll explore three major aspects of music: rhythmic theory, melodic theory, and critical listening.
Most pioneering early electronic musicians had years of conservatory training in theory and performance but had access to very limited technologies. In today’s musical world, it’s the opposite: we have a powerful and versatile array of electronic music making tools at our fingertips, but often fall short in our theoretical understanding of how electronic music works.
Our Music Foundations program is designed to fill this gap and provide training in fundamental skills and concepts with the electronic musician, DJ, and producer in mind. In this course, you’ll build your chops and learn the basics of musical language and theory so that you can make and play the music you want. You will also develop a deeper understanding of the roots and lineage of a variety of electronic and dance music genres, and explore compositional techniques and song structure. The weekly homework lessons for all three courses have been designed using Ableton Live, and along the way you’ll also learn the basics of Ableton and how to use it as a powerful tool to improve your musicianship in a variety of ways.
- Music Foundations Level 1: Pads & Rhythmic Theory
- Music Foundations Level 2: Keys & Melodic Theory
- Music Foundations Level 3: Critical Listening
Visit the Music Foundations course page for detailed information on this program here.
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