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Some Clues to Social Harmony from Music

Part of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development


In a group or gathering, music may be used as a metaphor to view each role or individual as a note, a chord, a musical instrument, or as a melody. The issues of group integration can then be interpreted as:

  • - what kind of music can the group as a whole play -- and what does "playing" mean?
  • - how do the group members relate to one another to ensure their appropriate contribution to the music?
  • - what of the distinction between rehearsal of classic or popular pieces as opposed to composition and improvisation of new music?

Hints of these possibilities are already evident in common use of: "the same old refrain", "his usual number", "blowing his own trumpet", "the note they are sounding", "singing the same tune", etc


A tone is characterized by four attributes: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. Musical sound can be regarded as having two dimensions, vertical and horizontal organization.

A. Horizontal Harmonic Organization

Namely organization over time. Music structures time and this may be seen in terms of:

  • (a) Tempo, as the pace of the fundamental beat of the music or the rate at which tones are produced. Groups (and individuals) may also be perceived as having a tempo, some being "faced paced", etc
  • (b) Rhythm, as an ordered alternation of contrasting elements (of whatever tones) grouped instinctively by the mind into twos and threes, stressing every second or third as a beat to convert a monotonous series into a succession of strong and weak beats. There are six principal rhythmic modes or metres (also in poetry): trochee, iamb, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and tribarch. Rhythm unregulated by metre may be considered a seventh mode.
  • (c) Melody, as an organized succession of groups of musical tones, involving repetition (with the same phrases repeated), contrast (of a completely different phrase), or variation (such that despite the change its identity is conserved).

In the case of horizontal organization, the focus is on "where the music is going to". This is of course helpful in understanding how an integrative goal may be understood and how the status of different goals has been brought into question through the evolution of understanding harmonic possibilities.

How does a group endeavour to structure time? How are the different notes or melodies inserted into the meeting space and how is their meaning held over time?

B. Vertical Harmonic Organization

Namely the sum total of what is happening at a particular time. The emphasis here is on the vertical relationships, if any, between tones.This includes the results of notes that sound against each other in counterpoint. In, the case of melody and accompaniment, it includes the underpinning of chords that the composer gives to the principal notes of the melody.

This can be broadly defined as the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously (even if sounded one after another and so integrated by the hearer).

  • (a) It is the succession of harmonies that give a piece of music its distinctive personality. Harmony is an optional additional form of organization or integration. Rhythm and melody can exist without harmony and in fact most of the world's music is non-harmonic, using unharmonized melodic lines often with a sophisticated rhythmic organization.
  • (b) The concept of harmony is not an arbitrary creation. It is based on certain relationships among musical tones that the ear accepts almost reflexively, especially the octave, fifth and fourth. Are there natural harmonies between psycho-social functions, namely the "notes" sounded by individuals? Is it appropriate to accompany one note by another to create a chord which imbues the activity of the group with a higher quality?

The interplay of consonance and dissonance is the very foundation of harmonic music:

  • (a) Consonance: This is the normal range of tone combinations accepted as implying "repose" by theorists and composers during a given period. Dissonance refers to any sound outside this range. Many attempts have been made to link consonant with pleasant, smooth, stable, beautiful, and dissonant with unpleasant, grating unstable and ugly. These may prove meaningful in a particular context, but generalizations to a broader contexts.
  • (b) Dissonance: This is recognized as the prime element creating movement in harmony. When the ear recognizes a certain harmony as unstable within the given musical context, it "demands" that this instability or tension be rectified by resolution to a stable harmony. Without dissonance music would be hopelessly static. The historical development of music can be sen as the exploration of different approaches to the treatment of dissonance so that the musical flow is an ordered alternation of tension and relaxation.


In a group, but especially in society as a whole, it is usual for advocates of a proposal, a model, a method, a cosmology or an ideology, to propagate it as though it alone should achieve dominance -- effectively excluding alternative approaches. Within the musical framework this can lead to pieces which are either immediately monotonous and boring, or whose interesting characteristics quickly become an intolerable imposition unless balanced by other pieces in the musical diet (cf. the life cycle of a hit record).

There is of course no musical continuity between the succession of such separate pieces of music. The challenge lies in the way in which the relationship between distinct "voices" is approached. This is of course basic to polyphonic music and symphonic integration. In music such as the fugue however, the relationship between "competing" voices is explored within a musical continuum. This represents a new level of integration. In effect the concept (strategy, model, etc) is explored, inverted, countered, distorted, etc within the overriding set of rules which permit a new level of freedom. The rules ensure a more exciting balance of tension and harmony.

The key to such integration lies in the time dimension which music effectively organizes. Somehow the potential for organizing the time dimension in which competing perspectives are presented and countered needs to be better understood. Perhaps it is linear time which is the trap, as many have argued. There is the possibility of a new level of integration in the interplay between competing alternatives.

On the one hand the theory of harmony provides a script which could be decoded to provide insights into new relationships between opposing views. But on the other hand there is a need to learn to treat the interplay between such views as a pattern which could be represented in musical form.

In the case of a group meeting there is some merit in seeing it as a "broken pattern" or cycle, vainly trying to get together a coherent tone or harmonic pattern. It may also be seen in terms of polyphony and the challenge of competing voices. But in the light of the historical evolution of harmony, the value of moving the gathering through a series of consonant and dissonant "chords" to a tonic goal may be viewed as somewhat simplistic -- although perhaps only achieved in rare cases. The closing phases of most conferences reveal the superficiality of that goal. The possibilities of integration need to be "liberated" from the simplistic understandings of social "harmony" which prevail.


For Western music, harmony has evolved over the centuries

Vertical harmonic organization (the moment)

  • (a) Ancient Greece: Harmony based on the succession of tones within an octave. Scales were used as a basis for singing in unison. Melody was synonymous with harmony.
  • (b) 6th to 9th century: Use of any 12 such modes (scalemous with harmony.
  • (b) 6th to 9th century: Use of any 12 such modes (scale patterns of tones and semi-tones) in which the notes also had characteristic functions.
  • (c) 9th century: Only the simplest "perfect" harmonic ratios were accepted: fourth, fifth, octave. This allowed the addition of one or two voices which exactly paralleled the original melody. Later these voices acquired melodic independence, possibly moving contrary to the original melody.
  • (d) 12th to 15th century: Inclusion of other intervals, thirds and sixths, and in some cases, seconds and sevenths. This was associated with the development beyond 3-part scoring to 4-, 5-, and 6-part scores, thus further enriching the harmony of voices.
  • (e) 15th century: Introduction of additional notes outside the mode, thus breaking down the distinction between the 12 classical modes and foreshadowing the major/minor mode system.
  • (f) 16th century: The tonic, or keynote, triad then became the point of departure and of arrival in a composition and in its component phrases.
  • (g) 17th century: Greater emphasis was then placed on expressive melodic line harmonically underpinned by a base line as the generating force upon which harmonics were built (often by improvisation) -- contrasting markedly with the interweaving of parts of equal importance.
  • (h) 19th century: Deliberate use was then made of unresolved harmonies (unstable chords used as self-sufficient entities) and of ambiguous chords. Although rooted in tonality, every possible device is used to complicate or obscure the tonal sense.
  • (i) 20th century: Use of chords seemingly conforming to classical practice but which are resolved in unexpected directions. Tonality exists in the sense that there are extended stable areas that give the impression of being in some definable key, but the intense use of notes outside the scale of the basic key (chromatism) makes it nearly impossible to group the unity of a work in terms of its adherence to a clear tonal plan.
  • (j) 20th century: Use of atonality, abandoning the traditional duality of consonance and dissonance (eliminating the concept of a single predominant key as tonic). Break away from traditional scales in recognition of the power of context and the sense of a continuum between consonance and dissonance.
  • (k) 20th century: Emphasis on performer improvisation/interpretation catalyzed by indeterminacy procedures making any concept of overall harmonic direction irrelevant.

Musical composition is currently in a phase of intense experiment. Although concepts of classical harmony have lost their importance, it is not a question of the dissolution of harmony but rather of the uses to which such harmonies are put, and the changing relationship of harmony to musical structure -- and the emergence of a new, fundamentally different harmony.

Horizontal harmonic organization (over time)

  • (a) Up to 15th century: In the use of 7 to 12 harmonic modes, the harmonic goal was governed by the given scale pattern. Although chants were sung unharmonized and in a rhythmically free manner, there were constraints and there was a proper final note for a modal melody.
  • (b) With the development of melodic independence between voices (polyphony) and the use of dissonances within the composition, emerged an emphasis on the resolution of such tensions through consonances at the end of compositions as the point of arrival. This reinforces the idea of the cadence, or the finality of the keynote of a mode on which pieces normally ended.
  • (c) From the 16th century: Devices such as the suspension were used as a way of enhancing, through dissonance, the resolution to consonance and the sense of completion of the final chord. In a suspension one note of a chord is sustained while the other voices change to a new chord. In the new chord the suspended note is dissonant. One or two beats later the suspended note changes pitch so that it resolves into, or becomes consonant with, the chord of the remaining voices. This reinforced awareness that harmony moves through individual chords towards a goal.
  • (d) 17th century: The concept of a key was developed as a group of related notes (belonging to either a major or minor scale), plus the chords formed from those notes, and the hierarchy of relationships among those chords. The keynote, and the chord built on it is a focal chord towards which all chords and notes in the key gravitate. Given chords assumed specific functions in moving toward or away from harmonic goals, the main goal being the tonic key or keynote - of which there were a total of 24 possibilities. These derive from the 12 major key scales and 12 minor key scales (each of 7 tones). The most common movement from chord to chord is through "strong" intervals (fourths, fifths, seconds) which have the' fewest notes in common.
  • (e) 18th century: Modulation, or change of key, became an important factor because it allowed the composer to exploit the listener's ability to sense the relation between the keys. Modulation was usually to a "dominant" key which was a "strong" interval" apart. After the modulation there is a process of return to the initial key. During this process the harmonic movement tends to pass rapidly through many chords and often with momentary diversions into many new keys thus dramatized as unstable -- and in this way lending greater impact to the eventual return to the stability of the original key. This modulatory scheme from tonic to dominant key and back to tonic key formed the basis of large-scale musical forms, although often with additional refinements (such as secondary dominants) to strengthen the sense of completion of the tonal journey.
  • (f) 19th century: There was increasing disavowal of modulation, in terms of any tonal goal. By deliberately failing to resolve dissonances, or by creating ambiguity so that it was unclear whether resolution had been achieved, the status of the harmonic goal was redefined. The listener was called into an active role to respond to the "questions" raised by the unresolved elements and to define the unity to be supplied. This blurring was also counter-balanced by an emphasis on continuous, goal-less melody. Two simultaneous tonalities (polytonality), neither dominating the other as a tonal goal, were also used.
  • (g) 20th century: With the advent of serialism, no single note could any longer serve as a harmonic goal. Whereas melody, from being synonymous with harmony (Ancient Greece), became the surface of underlying harmonies (16th century), and then bore its own harmonies (into the 19th century), serialism provided a melodic sequence out of which harmonies were generated. Such harmony effectively became the surface, or final result, of melody.

Contemporary music may be said to be "goal-free", or to call upon the listener to be responsible for any goal he chooses to derive from the music. The emphasis is very much on: the response of the individual listener, the context to which performers respond (including audience response), and increasingly the process of improvisation. The goal lies in appreciation of the moment whatever the range of sounds which define it.

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