I really want to start understanding how harmony works, so I was wondering if anyone could could give me a general explanation as to how chords resolve just to tie me over until I begin studying harmony.

I always hear people say "4/4 has a strong beat on such and such.." but I never know what they mean. Are some beats better for dissonance than others? I'm having difficulty understanding what the various effects of these little bits of information might be when they combine (presumably to form C. P. E. harmony)

Also voice leading seems like it would play a significant role in maintaining distinct parts, as well as getting from one chord to the next as smoothly as possible.

Does any of what I've gathered here seem off base? These things may seem unrelated, but to me they seem linked.

Tips on how to proceed would be appreciated.


3 Answers 3


The concept of some chords in 4/4 having a strong beat is called "harmonic stress". You can search this forum or Google for "harmonic stress for chords" to see more information about that.

Voice leading is a whole different concept, which it seems you may have a basic understanding of, and relates not so much to how chords themselves resolve but more specifically to how individual notes within those chords resolve.

Finally, you may want to learn more about diatonic chord function, which is I think where you will get the most bang for your buck in terms of understanding why chord "x" sounds good when following chord "y".

The idea of "how chords work" is kind of the basis for all music theory, and in Western music I would say it comprises about 80% of academic discussion about music. So it's something you can learn over time, but just to give you an idea it would take the average person about two years of committed self-practice or formal study to fully grasp the basics of harmony in Western music. You can start with learning about those three topics. Avoid Wikipedia and other high-level reference sites. Make sure you're looking at information that's your level. You're probably going to need to go back and make sure you really understand scales, intervals and chord construction before you can really understand how chords work together.

It's also important to understand that much formal discussion of music theory stems from academicians who focus either on classical theory or jazz theory, and yet most average people use similar and related but informal systems. To be quite blunt, I would suggest you not waste your time learning about CPE or classical tonal harmony right now, unless you are composing tonal/classical music. Just understanding scales, intervals, chord construction and chord analysis should be enough, and these basically overlap in all systems of music theory study so they're pretty accessible and very useful.

Good luck!

  • In terms of harmonic stress, how do consonant chords and dissonant fit into the strong/weak scheme? In a major key signature, do consonant chords always dominate the strong beats in common time? Are there any books or websites that you would recommend that discusses diatonic chord function? Aug 23, 2014 at 8:01
  • The consonance or dissonance of a chord is related, but it's not a very strong relationship in many cases. The best example I can think of is sometimes a very dissonant, tense chord structure resolves to a target chord. For instance C#dim7 may resolve to Dmin7, or Eb7#11 may resolve to Dmaj7. Because both C#dim7 and Eb7#11 are very dissonant chords, they'd often be used on a weak beat to help smooth out the dissonance.
    – Grey
    Aug 23, 2014 at 8:10

Basic resolution comes from a "home/away from home" feeling. You'll find this a lot in the V-I resolution or more strongly in the V7-I resolution (for an extra 50 geek points, check out how the 3rd and 7th of the V7 chord [which form the very dissonant tritone] lead back to the Root and 3rd of the I chord - look for minimal movement! Think half steps). There is some physics behind this which I won't get into but is very interesting - check out the overtone series if you feel like getting SUPER geek points!

There are situations (often times in jazz for example) where the song may go to a new 'context' for a few bars and resolve to a chord that isn't the tonic. The listener will be able to pick up that the harmonic movement has temporarily reached a resting place on the way back home but still has a some traveling to do. For example, lets say I have a progression:

I   |  V  |  I  |  I  |

I   | iii |  VI7| II  |

ii  | V7  |  I  |  I  |

This isn't diatonic (bars 7 and 8 are out of the key) but we temporarily land on a major II chord that will feel like a temporary resolution (we call this movement between the VI7 and the II the "five of two" or a "secondary dominant" - the VI7 chord is acting like the dominant chord in the key with II as the tonic. And once again we have that tritone resolution that I mentioned before - potent stuff!). However the brain keeps track of the I chord and won't be fooled! It will only be satisfied when it hears a resolution to the I chord! This is of course a gross generalization and there are a lot of exceptions to this 'rule'. Bach wrote a great canon (Canon per Tonos) which always resolves up a whole step (Cmin to Dmin, Dmin to Emin) but tricks the listener into thinking that the piece has resolved back to the i chord.

There is a lot more detail to resolution and there is dissonance and consonance that isn't harmonic in nature. However this V-I relationship is EVERYWHERE! One of the beauties of western music is how such a simple relationship can lend itself to such a plethora if interpretation.

Keep up the studies and always dig deeper, but be careful! I started off as a music major, got sidetracked by math and physics, and now I'm just another unemployed joe hanging out on forums!


in 4/4 time, the first and third beats establish the harmony. On these beats, the tone or tones you play must be a fundamental part of the chord you want: typically the 3rd, 5th, or 7th

The study of harmony is the study of a how a "tonal center" is established. There are two different types of tonal centers: the "key of the moment" (the key that the current passage of music is in), and a "temporary tonic" which can be a single tonic chord that may or may not be in the same key.

In order to understand these things, you need to understand both diatonic harmony (the set of chords that you can construct using only the tones of a major key) and non-diatonic harmony which involves passing chords, secondary dominant chords and these things which are "outside" the key of the moment (ie derived from other keys but which nonetheless help to reinforce your main key.)

The best way to understand these things is one or more of the following sources:

  • if you want online video instruction, there is no better site than Paul Abraham www.learnjazzpianoonline.com. He gives you instruction in fundamental harmony and builds from there
  • For a book, you can try: Understanding and Implementing Harmony on the Piano. Start with volume 1 which you can buy on Amazon.
  • or you can try The Jazz Harmony Book. by Dave Berkman. Also on Amazon.
  • If you're a pianist, then also you need: Play Piano by Ear. by Simon Schott.

Those are the best instructional materials that I've been able to find. They will take you from the basics and build on top of it. If you don't read music, then the Paul Abrahams site is especially useful.

I enjoy helping and sharing music knowledge, so feel free to message me offline anytime you want (that goes for anyone reading this thread.)

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