I was reading an article where they said that the lute was derived from the oud, a fretless melodic Middle Eastern instrument. But they added frets to the lute in order to make it easier to harmonize multiple notes at the same time, that way it could better integrate with Western European music which was "harmonically-driven".

But it got me wondering what made Western European music based on harmony in the first place. This isn't the first article I've seen that mentioned this. Is it because Europe had instruments such as the harpsichord that had the ability to play multiple notes together. Is that the context that was going on in Europe before the lute hit the scene? Or is there another reason harmony was a big factor in Western Europe?

Edit: on second thought, there were instruments far before the harpsichord like the Lyre that could play multiple notes together too.

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    Very good question. It might have to do with technological progress at some specific seminal time and place (it takes a lot more effort to build a harpsichord or organ than a drum), but I have no idea whether that's true or not. I'm not even sure where to look up extremely high-level questions like this. Sep 7 '19 at 9:13
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    What do you mean by "harmonically driven"? Melodic structures are very important in much of western music; does harmony drive the music, or is harmony a lens through which we view it? Saying that western music is harmonically driven seems like an over-simplification.
    – ex nihilo
    Sep 7 '19 at 11:22
  • @DavidBowling from wikipedia: "Descriptions and definitions of harmony and harmonic practice may show bias towards European (or Western) musical traditions." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmony
    – user34288
    Sep 7 '19 at 11:37
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    That quote doesn't say that western traditions are driven by harmony. No argument that harmony is important, but musicians and composers are constantly talking about melody too; jazz players disparage players who don't know the melody, or who don't acknowledge the melody in their improvisations; some players have built careers on motivic approaches; players reharmonize melody; a melody is what you remember; composers often say that melody comes first. Even if harmony is always there in western music, that is not the same thing as western music being driven by harmony.
    – ex nihilo
    Sep 7 '19 at 11:48
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    You don't need special instruments to have rich harmonies. Just get three or four singers together. Stick 'em in a monastery for a few hundred years and see what happens... Sep 7 '19 at 14:03

The history of harmony is related to the history of polyphony. The lyra of the Greek had different strings according to different modes but their music was monophone (only melodic).

The polyphony has been developed by the monks (organii, bourdon, fauxbourdon). Mind that the church organ has been introduced before the harpsichord and the oud.

Melody and rhythm can exist without harmony. By far the greatest part of the world’s music is nonharmonic. Many highly sophisticated musical styles, such as those of India and China, consist basically of unharmonized melodic lines and their rhythmic organization. In only a few instances of folk and primitive music are simple chords specifically cultivated. Harmony in the Western sense is a comparatively recent invention having a rather limited geographic spread. It arose less than a millennium ago in the music of western Europe and is embraced today only in those musical cultures that trace their origins to that area.


Why is Western European music harmonically driven?

Some will answer that harmony is a natural - or even a divine - law that western musician have discovered, others may think it is a cultural concept as a result of musical practice (playing around with tones and overtones)

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    "polyphony has been developed by the monks": maybe. They were just the first to write it dpesn. We don't know the extent to which they borrowed these practices from other (unwritten and possibly secular) music. "...the church organ has been introduced before the harpsichord and the oud": the organ was also invented before polyphony.
    – phoog
    Sep 7 '19 at 17:49

Western music has never been "harmonically driven".

To get the misinformation about the lute out of the way first: lutes never had frets to impose "precise tuning". The frets were simply loops of gut tied around the neck of the instrument and were intended to be moveable at will by the performer

They were simply playing aids, when the number of strings increased from 3 on the earliest ouds up to as many as 12 on a lute.

The article itself says the lute was largely a melodic instrument, until a playing style that allowed polyphony (not harmony) was developed. "Strumming chords" on a lute was never the basic playing technique.

The theoretical notion of "chords" and "chord progressions" was very late on the scene in western music. Originally it was simply a convenient shorthand for common polyphonic voice-leading patterns. Later, some theorists forgot its origins and started to use it to "explain" things which it can't.

You only have to look at the complexity of Jazz chord notation to see the disconnect between the attempt to describe something in terms of "chords" and explain what it really going on, which is often quite simple, once you get past all the magical incantations like "C7#5b9" and "tritone substitutions" and see what the voice leading - i.e. the polyphony, not the harmony - is doing.

But musical rabbits have colonized this rabbit hole to such an extent that the misguided idea of teaching "harmony" based on "chords" isn't going to disappear any time soon - and it has the unfortunate attraction that it allows people to write unimaginative music, which requires mininal attention from the listener, with very little training or intellectual effort.

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    This sounds very interesting! Can you post some links to this awesome music that requires attention, training and intellectual effort from the listener? And doesn't use "harmony" based on "chords"? Sep 7 '19 at 14:20
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    Can you elaborate more on what polyphony based explanations would actually look like in more complex settings like Jazz? I have difficulty imagining how to describe such things without referring to chord structure. What has developed around this alternative point of view and why do you think the standard way of describing harmony does not capture what is actually going on?
    – syntonicC
    Sep 7 '19 at 16:43
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    I would downvote this for the first sentence, but the rest of it is too good for a downvote, so I'm upvoting instead.
    – phoog
    Sep 7 '19 at 17:52
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    Problem is that there's absolutely nothing to back this up. It's one guy on the internet claiming that everyone else is wrong. Without any references to real research it's very difficult to judge this answer.
    – pipe
    Sep 7 '19 at 19:33
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    @DavidBowling the last paragraph of the answer implies in polemic internet style that commonly represented ideas about harmony are somehow wrong/bad/harmful and the people using them are ignorant or stupid. And that some better things exist that the poster knows about and others don't. Which is of course very interesting, the only thing missing is links to the supposedly better stuff. Anyway, I think the controversy is unnecessary. Chords are a helpful tool, an abstraction used in common music-making processes, and as such they also provide a means for exchanging harmony-related ideas. Sep 7 '19 at 20:34

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