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Harmony - Back to Basics, Part 1

A short review of harmony principles.

Eugene Vasile, Blogger

June 6, 2016

5 Min Read

Harmony – Back to Basics, Part 1

Hello Composers and Sound Designers

We are all busy with creating new sounds, learning new plug-ins or looking for new opportunities in the game industry.

As harmony is one of the two main ingredients in creating music for media including video games, I wanted to provide a quick review of the basic concepts related to harmony as we use them every day. Having a good understanding of the weapons in our arsenal will definitely help us in all sorts of situations when we are under pressure delivering audio assets for our customers.

What is harmony?

Harmony is nothing else but the use of simultaneous notes that together will produce a unique sonic signature. A lot of theorists refer to triads, three notes played simultaneously or in quick succession, as the basic structure for harmony. I would take a step back and mention that even two notes can provide a skeleton for the implied harmony (guide tones).

On the other side, two-part writing technique is another concept that uses exclusively intervals to harmonize a melody line.

Harmony vs. harmonization

I make a clear distinction between harmony and harmonizing a melody. Harmony will deal with the creation of triads (or intervals) played together in a harmonic sequence or phrase. This sequence can or cannot support a melody line.

Without considering unison or octave-unison writing, harmonization usually refers to adding notes to the melody line.


In music, an interval refers to the distance between two notes.

A good review and understanding of intervals is the fundamental brick to mastering harmony. One of the first benefits in learning the intervals is the ability to harmonize melodies. There are many situations in video games where certain scenes do not require full harmonic support and just creating a melody and harmonizing it is the right way to go. Let’s have a detailed review of the intervals and provide as many examples as possible.

In this first episode we’ll focus on unison and octave.

1. Unison and octave

As the name suggests unison is the distance between two notes with the same name, positioned on the very same pitch.

On the other side, octave refers to the distance between two notes with the same name positioned eight tones apart.

Examples and usage – Unison

When talking about unison, I would rather think of different instruments playing the same pitch. Strings, woodwinds, or horn sections are good examples here. There is a certain feeling of thickness and texture as more instruments are playing the same note.

It is very important to know the range of the instruments we are working on as well as the dynamics and timber for specific ranges. While some instruments will sound good together playing a C5 for instance, others will play the same C5 in high register and others will not play it at all as C5 is out of range.

Certain instruments allow you to play the same pitch on different strings (e.g. guitar for instance where a player can take advantage of the tapping technique and play an F# on the 2nd position on string E (1) as well as on the 7th position on string B (2))

Examples and usage - Octave

Range of instruments is very important when considering writing octaves for your audio assets. Regardless the instrumentation used in the cue, either orchestral, electronic or maybe a hybrid of both, I always think in terms of instrument ranges and the texture created by instruments playing together.

More examples - Unison and octave 

Again, I'm stressing on the fact of knowing the range of the instruments we are working on, especially on transposed instruments. As I'm writing most of my scores in Finale, I'm always aware of the range by either replying on Finale's feature that signals a note written outside of the range. And talking about range it is worth to mention that we should always write for the normal range and not the extended one.

If using transposed instruments, other than octave transposed, is it always a good practice to work your score in concert pitch as it becomes easier to read chord voices or intervals instead of transposing them mentally. More on this in the next posts.

Enough with the boring but necessary theory; let's listen to couple of examples: 

Ex.1 Flute and piccolo - unison an octave

Ex.2 Woodwinds section - unison and octave 

Ex.3 Horn section - unison and octave 

Ex.4 String section - unison and octave

Ex.5 Orchestral punches - unison and octave  

Does this last context remind you of something you heard in the past? 

Maybe one of the most popular themes using unison and octave-unison is One Note Samba by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The melody line is built on a rhythmic motif played with one pitch, either at unison or octave-unison; here is a version sung by Astrud Gilberto.


Alone - this is a short context  where I used only unison and octave-unison



Thanks for reading! Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts and comments. I'll try my best to reply to each of you.   


Eugene is involved in various facets of music, either playing guitar professionally, being a session player, teaching or writing/arranging. Eugene is an online student with Berklee Online, the online extension school of Berklee College of Music, pursuing his bachelor of professional studies in Music Composition for Film, TV, and Games

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