It's quite clear to most that certain artists have a distinct sound. While a lot of it may be down to production elements and instrument choice, there can really be no denying that their personal harmonic language plays a role.

While music theory gives a good framework for describing and analyzing their choice of notes/chords, I find that it often stifles an inexperienced players creativity by imposing itself as a set of rules that must be followed. Eventually they may reach a point where they constantly come across caveats such as: "This works here but not there", or "That's modal interchange to the artist's taste, but it probably works because XYZ". With an almost certainty being that the artists themselves were unconcerned with these explanations of why their material "works".

Not to hate on music theory of course - It certainly is a pure way of analyzing many things, but I just wonder if there isn't a lower level way of describing a complete picture of an individuals harmonic language without caveats. Perhaps using set theory or mathematics?

For example, we are able to accurately determine if a painting was done by someone like Da Vinci, or if it is simply a good fake. Might there be a way of completely defining the sound of an artist? A method of extracting and preserving their harmonic language - their musical 'soul'?

Edit 1: Just to clarify, I understand that music theory is used as a way of describing what is happening rather than a set of rules - however as someone who has seen young musicians over and again try to improvise over a piece and essentially walk the major scale or modes up and down, I just wonder if there isn't another way of imparting the sound they WANT to play quicker than years of listening, transcribing, then deriving. Specifically, I was curious if there has ever been a way of or an attempt at summarizing a signature sound in some form of notation, rather than simply getting a feel for it, or recognizing licks after years of practice? A packet of information that contains constantly recurring ideas that are a signature of the artist written in a standardized way - that would also include rhythmic, compositional, and other elements.

  • what is a harmonic language?
    – Neil Meyer
    May 19, 2020 at 6:42
  • 1
    Current descriptions of music do not stifle creativity any more than words stifle creativity. Would you propose asking a question here by jumbling up letter, words, and symbols in a way that is completely random to the rest of us but look pretty to you? Music, like any other language or artistic medium, is about communicating with others. What's wrong with learning things like pp, mp, ff, crescendo (which is just Italian for get louder), etc. And then using them? If your "language" is for you then it doesn't matter if it uses existing notation or not.
    – user50691
    May 19, 2020 at 13:07
  • 1
    Do you mean something like a "design language" for music, like the Snow White design language en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_design_language So, how was the design language written down? I guess it must have been some kind of a set of books containing descriptions of how to do different kinds of things. So, "how to do harmony the way I like it" book. What would you write in it? I think it would be just any sort of text, descriptions, maybe notation. Something you could give to other musicians in order to make "your" music. "Never play a maj7 chord in a bar full of rednecks" etc. May 19, 2020 at 13:32
  • @ggcg There are plenty of areas of life in which we come up with terminology to represent specific concepts. Often such technical jargon is a bit opaque to those who are not familiar with it, but that doesn't mean it solely hinders communication - it makes up for its lack of 'common currency' by allowing more precise communication about a certain domain. I think OP is asking whether there's any terminology that could be used for the specific technical task of capturing an artist's "style". May 19, 2020 at 14:53
  • Numpy - I am a bit confused though as to why you seem to equate 'signature sound' or musical 'soul' with harmonic language? For many artists, their 'signature' may be in their timbre or rhythm, rather in aspects of music that would (traditionally) be seen as 'harmony'... May 19, 2020 at 14:55

5 Answers 5


Hmm... this is an interesting question. I'll mostly stick to the harmonic idea, as that was the original focus of the question (even though, as other answers have pointed out, musical style involves a lot more than harmony).

What you're really getting after is a notion of style analysis. Specifically, you seem to want a kind of notation or "language" for compactly notating some composer's style. I suppose the classic work on this idea is Jan LaRue's Guidelines for Style Analysis, which proposed a methodology for classifying various aspects of compositional style. I wouldn't say it created any sort of compact language, but it's still a useful read for laying out some of the problems and the various parameters one might begin to think about.

But to harmony in particular, if you want to quantify the harmonic language of a composer, the first thing you might begin to do is create a sort of table of potential harmonic motions, with probability of movement from harmony X to harmony Y. You might then incorporate some Bayesian concepts or Markov chain models to predict the likelihood of harmonic paths within a given context.

The early 2000s saw the development of a lot of potential models for harmony in this direction. Some of these early attempts include things like David Temperley's The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures (2001) and Music and Probability (2007), Fred Lerdahl's Tonal Pitch Space (2001), and David Huron's Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (2006). Since these books, there have been lots of literature and articles attempting all sorts of methods of quantifying harmonic patterns.

Most of these early attempts focused on single harmonic motions between two chords. But the next level of stylistic analysis would have to consider context (e.g., the effect of rhythm and accent on harmonic placement and progression). One might then move on to building up a database of chains of three-chord, four-chord, etc. patterns, as corpus analysis in linguistics focuses on bigrams, trigrams, etc. to see patterns of word usage. Some early attempts at this sort of corpus analysis can be found, for example, in Dmitri Tymoczko's A Geometry of Music (2011), where he showed the relative frequency of harmonic cycles in composers like Bach and Mozart (i.e., patterns that begin and end on tonic), though he's done a lot more work since then.

A lot of this type of corpus analysis has been facilitated in recent years by Michael Cuthbert (an occasional contributor here) and his work on the analysis package music21.

So far, there are lots of academic papers attempting to quantify style, but it's quite a challenge. Even for a well-understood circumscribed collection like the Bach chorales, harmony can be very difficult to quantify. In fact, one might say that recent attempts at corpus analysis have shown that our models (like tonal functions -- tonic, predominant, dominant) are overly simplistic and not up to the task of explaining how harmony works. (See, for example, Chris White and Ian Quinn's recent article "Chord Context and Harmonic Function in Tonal Music.")

So, where does this leave us? The basic answer to the question is that we can quantify harmonic patterns, perhaps for a particular composer and maybe even in an particular genre. But since we're dealing with works of art, any classification system is going to be complex. Would it be possible to identify stereotypical "signature" harmonic patterns of a particular composer? Possibly. Music theorists have been attempting this for at least a century, particularly because it might be relevant for adjudicating cases of questionable attribution of a historical work. But, as noted above, patterns of harmony can't really be considered in isolation. Rhythmic and phrase context, the question of harmonic function in ambiguous key situations, not to mention genre expectations, could be relevant.

Bottom line is that most such attempts at quantification are bound to be rather complex, consisting of long tables of numbers and probabilities, rather than the compact language the question hopes for. Even in cases where we could summarize the data into "signature harmonic patterns," those will likely be rather unique to each composer, thereby making it difficult to come up with an effective and concise classification system.

But music theorists are working on it. :)

  • 1
    This is an extremely informative answer, you have given me much to read and learn about! I’m going to be attempting such an analysis at some point in the coming years, and I’m certain all of these sources will come in handy. Thank you!
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 16:26

I guess there are two ways of looking at music theory.

  1. As a set of rules that you must abide by in order to make music, or
  2. A set of concepts which have have been developed to describe, in words and symbols, what a combination of different sounds are.

So to answer your question, yes and no. Yes, in that if you analyse enough of a person's music you will find a set of musical "ideas" that are repeated enough to be considered someones "harmonic language" as you put it. No, in that almost all music can be broken down into its individual parts and described with conventional analysis and so creating a new "harmonic language" for a single musician/composer seems a little like a waste of time in that we already have a fairly robust set of analysis tools to do such a thing.

I will give you an example that may or may not help. When I was studying Miles Davis, I spent many hours transcribing his solo's from many different era's where he played different styles and with different people. Throughout his entire career, I was able to find ideas he would repeat again and again and again. Licks he would play over early bebop would reappear over his fusion era. Sure if you weren't transcribing the amount that I was at the time, you may not even realise these licks were the same. But sure enough, through conventional musical analysis, I was able to discern patterns and in a way, form somewhat of a basis for harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas that you might be able to call his "harmonic language". Although I didn't think of it this way, I thought of it through the lens of conventional analysis.

So I guess, it comes down to definition and if you are willing to forget the idea that music theory is a set of rules and accept that it is just a set of tools.

  • 1
    Thanks for posting! I've edited the question for hopefully some more clarity
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 13:52
  • I thought for a second there you said "when I was studying with Miles Davis" - May 19, 2020 at 14:23
  • I would say #1 would be composition methods and #2 is music theory. Yes, there is overlap, especially historically. But, I think the modern view of theory is #2. May 19, 2020 at 14:51

You propose there is some unique harmonic language which cannot be described with music theory terminology, but then say nothing about what that unique harmonic language is. Whose style are you asking about?

There isn't much to say except there have been many harmonic styles that music theory provides the means to describe. Although, I suspect in many cases purely harmonic descriptions aren't going to tell the whole picture. Rhythm, melody, timbre, and other factors will contribute hugely to a musician's style. If music theory is thought of as common practice harmony/voice leading rules only, it is a short sighted view, and will be inadequate to describe a musician's style.

One area I think poses an obvious problem is non-western music and tuning systems. The problem isn't about such music not fitting into the western system - it doesn't make much sense to trying doing that in the first place - but the immediate barrier for a foreigner. If you cannot speak the language, or read the notation, you cannot discuss the music on its own terms.

If a musician's unique style involved a lot of "foreign" elements, it could be a problem for western theory to describe. One case that comes to mind is Debussy and Javanese music. The story goes that Debussy heard a gamelan at the Paris world fair and then tried to imitate the sound using the whole tone scale. The end result was music neither Javanese nor western common practice. Western theory has little to say about it harmonically other than it's functionally static. So you describe other aspects: rhythm, tempo, dynamics, timbre, melody, etc. That isn't a failure or abandonment of music theory. It's just using everything else except chord progression and voice leading.

  • Thanks for posting! I've edited the question for hopefully some more clarity
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 13:50
  • @Numpy, your edit really brings up something else: how to improvise, specifically how to not improvise badly. That's a lifetime journey! I'm also not the best to answer, because I'm still learning the basics of improvisation. IMO things work better musically when you dump the "chord/scale" system and focus on embellishing chord tones as the jazz greats of the first part of the 20th century did. Modal jazz is different, but I don't see how "chord/scale" helps with that beyond the obvious choice of scales. May 19, 2020 at 14:46
  • Yeah I agree it reads as focused on improvisation, but what I am more concerned with is creation in general. While it sounds counter-intuitive that standardized information on how to replicate a musicians signature sound should encourage creativity, I think it may just have the opposite effect if introduced early. It could give rise to the idea that one can also define their own sound, and make their own 'rules'. Something that is sorely lacking in the currently musical pedagogy. Most wouldn't come across the chord tone/arpeggio approach you mentioned for several years for example.
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 15:24
  • I like the idea of learning by imitation, but that isn't what theory/harmony texts are about. Look for composition/improvisation methods instead of theory texts. You can find online tutorial to "fake" various general styles or particular musician's styles, but caveat emptor! Personally, I think the burden is on the imitator to develop a deep knowledge of the imitated musician. Even if you start with some tips about how to imitate someone you need to take a deep dive into that musician's work and see the actual origin of such tips. May 19, 2020 at 16:25
  • For example, if one claims to imitate Mozart, can that person really distinguish Mozart from Haydn, or are they just generically doing classical style? That difference won't come from a quick list of easy rules. May 19, 2020 at 16:25

First of all anyone can make up their own language people do it all the time. I've done it too. It's fun. You can pick up a book on creating languages and have at it. Your post seems very confusing to me as I think you are inadvertently describing multiple things. On the one hand there is the matter of how we as musicians describe what to play and how to play it. This basically uses directions given in Italian like accelerando, crescendo, piano, forte, Allegro, some of which have been turned into symbols, pp, ff, m, D.S. al coda. These are instructions related to style, tempo, etc. So in fact learning how to use the language we already use has nothing to do with creativity at all. It also uses set divisions of time, and notation for what notes to play and when. It has to do with communication. If you don't want to communicate your ideas to people then create your own language and keep notes in it. I read somewhere that Steve Vai created his own language when he was young to prevent people from reading his ideas, not sure it was "musical" or to keep a personal diary personal.

On the other hand you seem to be talking about music theory in the context of harmony, chord progression, etc. You are mistaking what theory is, which is a very common mistake. Western music theory evolved as a set of best practices in our culture, the culture of Western Europe. It is NOT a set of rules that dictate what you are allowed or not allowed to do. Music existed for 1000s of years before anyone ever wrote down these "rules". So in realty if you take them too seriously or become influenced by a bad teacher or method you might get stifled. But that shouldn't happen if you have a good teacher, either private lessons or in school. Of course, to pass a class on multi voice homophoinc harmony you will have to demonstrate that you know the "rules" they are teaching. But every one of them has been broken without consequence (perhaps I should say with GOOD consequences in some cases). The rules of music theory are common best practices of Western European cultures and should not ever be interpreted as rules. At the very least that is ethnocentric as Indian and other forms of Eastern and Middle Eastern music sound wonderful and do NOT follow these "rules".

That all being said there is nothing wrong with learning the patterns of music as we know them today in a language we've been using for 100s of years. This is not to force an opinion on you, the young musician, but a means to allow you to communicate your ideas to a wide audience. Again, if you are the only person how will read your notes then it doesn't matter what you write and how. But if you want to share these ideas or have an orchestra play them under your direction it would not hurt to learn how we write ideas down and explain them. Don't worry about theory, it's there to enhance your understanding of culture, not to bind you to a set of chains (although cultures are good at doing this to people). There is some natural curiosity and validity to wanting to understand WHY certain ideas become best practices and others not. Is it really just opinion? Or is there a real underlying physics based reason why we should NOT harmonize in parallel 5ths or octaves (even though we do all the time)? There have been attempts to use physics and other scientific means to explain the "rules" of Western Music and why some ideas sound good and others don't. At the end of the day there really are mathematical relationships in music and some of those may be hard wired into our brains through evolution but they are different in different parts of the world so it must be true that "music theory" is just a small part of a bigger picture. I'd say it's a tool like any other tool. Learn it and use it as you see fit. But there is nothing wrong with making up your own set of rules that express your unique ideas.

  • Thanks for posting! I've edited the question for hopefully some more clarity
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 13:50
  • @Numpy, you edit, for me, makes it less clear. Improv is variation in a theme and one can't improv w/o KNOWING the thing they are improving with. You seem to want to circumvent the process of learning with a quick a dirty rule that removes the need for practice. That is not how we learn language. On the other hand I feel like you are now contradicting yourself. First you stated that rules stifle creativity and now you seem to want a rule that makes on creative w/o effort. At least that's how I read it. Please discuss.
    – user50691
    May 19, 2020 at 15:01
  • Sure, so what I actually said was that theory stifles creativity by imposing itself as a set of rules - not that it is responsible for imposing itself as such, nor that rules necessarily stifle creativity either. This is just an observation I've made from watching young musicians learn theory and struggle to break out of the rudimentary ideas. It seems to be a product of the current musical pedagogy. I was, and am, asking if anyone has come across a way of helping anyone caught in this loop break out by giving them structured information on how to achieve the sound they're after.
    – Numpy
    May 19, 2020 at 15:15
  • I find theory very helpful in boosting creativity. FIrst, there are lots new ideas that I may not have seen. Second, If I want to get a certain effect, I can use theory (and history even more) to see how other people got that effect (if they did) and adapt (steal) various ideas which I combine differently from previous use. Third, (actually 2.5) I can see what other people did that I wish to avoid. (Cannot avoid what one doesn't know; most non-theory musicians I know have trouble breaking out of their ruts too.) There's more, but not in a comment.
    – ttw
    May 19, 2020 at 19:27

There is an approach I didn't see in the answers (or I missed). One could select a set of musical elements: rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions, melodic patterns, timbre, etc., which one thinks are useful (or which work in the experiments proposed below.) Then one makes a "signature" from a piece of work like the number of ii-V-I or ii6-V-I or eighth-quarter-eighth-quarter-quarter, or modulation up a third minor to minor, etc. A simple statistical classifier (linear or quadratic discriminant analysis would be my first choice but others may prefer something yet.) Then one can see if any combination has discriminatory power.

We read in the literature things like, "Handel was fond of V42 chords" or "Mahler liked certain melodic patterns,".... This would indicate that there are some patterns of use.

  • The Bayesian concepts / Markov chain models in Athanasius' answer are related to this idea~ May 19, 2020 at 20:28

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