I was wondering if there's any people that approach harmony by ear. I've noticed the majority of instructors teach harmonizing by knowing: 1. the scale pattern. 2. figuring the diatonic chords from the scale pattern. 3. pairing a given melody with these diatonic chords, which most often than not is just the I IV V in a major key.

But I've found this process tedious. I noticed it's fairly basic to find a melody by ear (regardless of what note I start off with, which puts it in a different key). Can't harmony be learned in the same way? So instead of knowing visual patterns just to "hear" in your mind what chords sounds nice and then play them on the piano along with your melody.

One thing I've noticed is if I play a chord, let's say an F# major on a piano. Electronic tuners (I have an app on my phone for this) they hear it as "F#". Same with pretty much any chord -regardless of its inversion- when you play a chord its overall sound is just the name of the chord, ie its root note. This works on both piano and guitar. Which leads me to believe a sound of a chord is just the sound of its root, and it also sounds this way to the ear. As far as major or minor chord that's pretty easy to hear the difference. So when harmonizing, it's just looking for that basic root tone that encapsulates the sound of the entire chord and making it sound either major or minor. This would make finding chords as easy as finding melodies. wouldn't it be better to just play without looking and doing the whole thing by ear.

Said in another way, are there musicians that don't even know what scale or chords they're playing in and just do the whole thing by ear; yet can successfully jam with people in different keys?

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    I've had to ask someone singing a spontaneous harmonization not to sing the third because there's a suspended chord at that point. Without using harmony terms, this is a very difficult conversation. Knowing harmony lets you talk about harmony in a very concise way. Jul 25, 2017 at 12:40
  • @foreyez, I'm not sure I understand which version of the question you're asking: (1) is it possible to learn theory (including the names of chords, etc.) without one's sight or (2) is it possible to learn harmony without creating any verbal descriptions of chords, chord functions, inversions, etc.
    – jdjazz
    Jul 25, 2017 at 20:25
  • It's not even about talking to other people about harmony - it's about talking to yourself about harmony. Unless you use the grammar and concepts of harmony you can't generalize and explain what you're hearing and what you're playing. Jul 26, 2017 at 11:54

3 Answers 3


If the role of harmony training was only to teach you what chords sound good with a melody, you might be right, you could probably just learn what sounds good and call it a day.

The problem with that idea is that harmony training and theory in general is more than this. It teaches you a shared language that lets you talk about, read about, and otherwise communicate ideas relating to music. This is important if you want to grow because it gives you access to a wealth of historical and institutional knowledge about music, history and theory that would be inaccessible to you know without knowing the proper names of things.

Harmony also provides a framework for understanding the relationship between the way things sound and why they sound that way. For instance, if you want to know why a particular measure of Wagner sounds the way it does, you need to be able to understand the structure of the harmonic movement on an abstract level. It's not nearly as useful to simply say, 'he moves from f to e in the base and a to a# in the upper voice'. It's significantly more useful to be able to talk about it in terms voice leading and the tension created by dissonance, or the effect of borrowing from other modes, etc. This is true for almost all specialized fields — imagine a chemist who wasn't interested in understanding chemical bonds, but instead just learned by mixing stuff together. To be able to internalize why must sounds the way it does without the the structure provided by theory and the language of harmony would require you to reinvent it all for your self. Maybe not impossible if you're a genius, but certainly much harder than just buckling down for a few weeks or months and learning some theory.

  • Good answer but maybe you're neglecting a simple point: Even if you have a great talent you learn can much more about harmony - different types of harmony, and the use chords etc - by learning about it. IMO there is no talent that will not benefit from education. A great percentage of the greats in the jazz and classical genres had some good formal training to get them started, as well as many rockers. Their natural talent was enhanced and expanded by education.
    – Vector
    Jul 25, 2017 at 15:16
  • good point about the chemist... but Stevie Wonder never saw the patterns. he only did it by sound. so I think it's possible to understand theory with sound alone.. so it's not like I'm shelving theory completely. I wouldn't be on this forum otherwise..
    – user34288
    Jul 25, 2017 at 16:39
  • my issue with the visual stuff (scale patterns / diatonic chords), is that it takes away from the sound. So I think it actually impedes ones ability. I think the sound and muscle memory of intervals is far more important. I could be wrong tho. still experimenting with this..
    – user34288
    Jul 25, 2017 at 17:09
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    @foreyez I think it only appears to take away from the music because it requires more work while you're learning it. It eventually becomes internalized and requires no additional work at which point your experience will become richer. It's the same way that understanding meter and rhyme improve one's appreciation of poetry. And take it from someone who has made lots of performance mistakes — muscle memory is unreliable under pressure. It needs to be augmented and controlled with a real understanding of music structure.
    – user13034
    Jul 25, 2017 at 19:35

MarkM's answer is wonderful for explaining the value of learning harmonic theory, and I concur that it is possible to learn at least some harmony by ear. Certainly, there are people whose natural ability allows them to "jam" with others. (Though, fair warning, that word encompasses a vast array of human activity.)

The problem, though, is that harmony is far more complex than melody by itself, and this complexity only increases as you get further and further along. There is a level that you will reach naturally, and to get beyond that, you will need to study.

As a nice positive, however, on the other side of all of that study, you do wind up where you wanted. The theory1, once deeply internalized, can translate into simply hearing the chord that you want next and knowing how to play it. So, at least there's a light at the end of that tunnel :)

Finally, if you're finding it dry, then look for a different presentation or a different teacher. It really can be rich, deep, and satisfying.

1 - (and ear training)

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    Whilst I agree mostly, when I'm putting the third or fourth (or fifth) harmony voice into a harmonised passage, I never think theoretically about what note or what harmony chord it is we're on. I just sing. And I know a bit of theory!
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2017 at 16:01

Obviously. Listen to most African songs where they're sung acapella. It's all spontaneous, and I doubt anyone's had formal training.

I've sung with loads of others who I know haven't a clue about the theory, but it didn't stop great harmony happening.

It appears it's not easy to teach harmony just by ear. I think a lot of folk either have it or don't. So it's difficult to teach someone to sing harmony if it's not intrinsically there already, without resorting to the theoretical 'written' side, as you allude.

Your app is most likely picking up the notes from the chord, and separating out the fact that the other notes relate to the root it quotes in that they are fairly strong partials (harmonics) of that note.

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