Which came first... Harmony or Melody?

*Fake cough... Harmony... Before we dive in, the music I am discussing is from a classical western tonal system, which refers to most but NOT all music. For example, Balinese Gamelan uses a unique tonal system that is developed by the instrument maker and  does not have a "standard tuning" like in the classical western tonal system. Music like this will be excluded (but not forgotten) from this conversation of what the clasical western tonal system consider "harmony."

So which came first, melody or harmony? This sounds like the classic "chicken or the egg" question. In my opinion, it might help to start by asking another question... Can you have one without the other? Looking at a melody it is a single line with some notes. Nature has provided these notes with context (harmonic series) and from a linguistic perspective music has syntax. "Above" the fundemental pitch are colorful notes that are more audabile to the trained ear. The higher they go the harder it is to hear. The overtone series outlines a major chord (Do - Mi - So)  in the first few overtones. Put a few notes together in a "row" in some rhythmic fasion and you have a melody. It is imporant to note that thee melody has purpose, it is not just randomly moving around. 

There are harmonic pathways and a desitination. That destination is what we would consider as humans to be a BED! Yes, even melody can get tired... unless it comes back to the resting tone (tonal center or a place for a melody to rest). Which is the tonal center for the said tonality (i.e. Major, Minor, Lydian, Phrigian, etc.) You do not always have to start or finish on the resting tone, sometimes you wake up from your bed, go throughout your day and then crash on the couch. (i.e. imperfect cadence, deceptive cadence, modulation etc.)

If we are in a Major tonality, "Do" would be our resting tone. When you sing a note in that tonality for example "So" you find that it has name (solfege) because it has harmonic purpose. "So" is only "So" because "Do" says so. This harmonic language shows that all the notes are related to each other in some shape or form. When played in a sequence they all have a harmonic chord progression that carries our ear on a melodic journey. Even when you only hear a single melody, there is still an inaudible harmonic frame underneath... or perhaps over the melody because of the overtones... The harmonic series is another rabbit hole worth exploring. 

When it comes to learning music, I learned a lot more by supporting the melody with harmony and developing a listening and speaking vocabulary of main chord functions (i.e. Major - I, IV, V) in multiple tonalities. If I just sang a bunch of melodies it would be equivalent to studying for the test instead of undersanding the concept on a deep level. In a few months, how much of that information would I still have? A melody can be regurgitated and forgotten, which makes me wonder if this is why beginning sopranos and tenors (often who have the melody) might sing out of tune compared to their peers in the alto and bass section who sing the chord roots and thirds... but thats another story... 

I believe that singing harmony is like being in a supporting role instead of lead role in a musical or film. The is the lead for a reason, they have more experience. But, as the lead you are in the foreground which means that you can't see everything. As a supporting role in the background you get to see everything... which  means you get to learn more. It is a shame that our society has such a competitive habit of feeling down on themselves or others when they do not obtain a lead role. If I do not have much experience, I would rather learn

Teach a student a melody and they will sing it. Teach a student harmony they will be able to musically communicate... so how do you teach harmony to younger students? There are a few ways but two that my students have fun with are games using the resting tone and simple I and V chord root ostinatos while you or the group sings the melody. If you really want students to sing "in tune" they need some context (establish tonality, resting tone, chord functions, solfege, etc.) so they can navigate and self-correct. If you play one note on the piano and expect them to sing it, you are limiting yourself and your students. It would by like throwing everyone in the pool, not every person will be able to swim. The simple addition of context one provides by playing I - V - I on the piano or singing a tonal sequence 5 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 7 - 1 (please see context vs content for picture examples) before you ask students to sing provides them allows them to understand where they are. Give your students an aural map by providing context and help develop their music vocabulary. 

Which RHYTHM syllables should I use?

It is important to recognize the reason for syllables (or solfege) is a bridge to music literacy. All pedagogs would agree that when first learning music we start with the ears before the eyes, also known as "sound before symbol." The syllables that YOU want to use depends on what YOUR goal is when utilizing the syllables. This is not to say that the other rhythmic syllable systems are "wrong" because they were designed with a different goal in mind. WHAT? I thought all of these were designed to help students read music? Yes... but there is a difference between decoding and reading what you are audiating. If your goal is to have your students audiate (being able to hear what is not physcially present and understand how it functions) then one might be interested in using a Beat-Function system.

Most music teachers I have seen at the secondary level utilize the number system (1e+a) because not every student has had music education and they need some kind of context they are familiar with (i.e. numbers). There are some teachers who use Takadimi which originated in the country of India. In the 1990's some college professors in the United States were tired of musicians in the ensembles not knowing how to read let alone feel the music rhythmically so they decided to utilize the Indian Rhythmic system (Takadimi). So regardless of the elementary experience some younger musicians have, it seems like the secondary teachers still feel the need to start from scratch and reteach how to read music to create an equitable learning environment. 

Below I have created a comparison sheet of the different syllable systems. On the right you will see a pros and cons list for the four major rhythm syllable systems currently in practice. Below this article is a side by side comparison of how the syllables are used for curtain types of rhythm examples... (Scroll to continue article)

Pros (+)

Numbers (1e+a)


Beat Function: Froseth & Blaser

Cons (-)

Numbers (1e+a) 


Beat Function: Froseth & Blaser









1  + 

Ta - di

Ti - Ti

Du - De

1 e + a

Taka - dimi

Tika - Tika

Duta - Deta

1 ... +

Ta ... di

Tum ... ti*
*Other variations

Du ... De

1 + (2) +

Taka - di

Syn - co - pa

Du - De   De









1       2       3

Ta   Ki   Da

Ti   Ti   Ti

Du  Da  Di

1   +   2   +   3  +

Tava - Kidi - Dama

Tiri - Tiri - Tiri

Duta - Data - Dita

1 ____ 3

Ta ___ Da

Ta ___ Ti

Du ___ Di





1   2     3   4   5

Ta-di    Ta-ki-da


Du-be    Du-ba-bi

1   2     3   4    5   6   7

Ta-di   Ta-di   Ta-ki-da


Du-be   Du-be   Du-ba-bi

Rhythm Syllables (Continued)

The easiest way to compare these syllables is to read different kinds of rhythm cells (like I have presented above) and make that decision for yourself. It is a long (and continuous) road to music literacy, so it is important to explore the different paths and determine if some are less rough than others to travel through with your students. I will discuss some of what I have visually presented above .

Consistency is very important when teaching so that students do not get confused. After reviewing these commonly used rhythmic syllable styles, I have found the beat-function solfege created by James Froseth and Albert Blaser (Famously known through Edwin Gordon's MLT) to be the most consistent. Though most educators know it to be "Gordon" or "MLT" rhythmic syllables. We must give credit where credit is due. It is based on how music is felt. No matter what meter (i.e. duple, triple, mixed) you are in, the main beat is always "Du." The numeric system changes each beat to a different number (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc). Kodaly is inconsistent and changes based on how it is written. A common duple quarter note "Ta" quickly turns into "Ti Ti" when divided into two eighth notes. On the other hand Takadimi does maintain their main beats as "Ta" similar to the Gordon syllables. 

Though when thinking about divisions in Takadimi takes more thinking because we have 4 syllables (Ta Ka Di Mi) so rhythms like (Ta Ka - Mi) would actually be easier to read using Gordon's syllable's (Du Ta - Ta). It also takes less thinking than the numeric system (1e - a). When discussing Kodaly in this regard it becomes more difficult to compare because the more I look for a simple original Kodaly syllables, the more confused I get. It seems that it has been redesigned by teachers over the past few decades. If you find a resource that provides the original Kodaly syllable for all meters, please let me know. There are other small differences between the different rhythmic syllables (that carry a heavy weight when teaching) that are worth exploring. I just wanted to point out some of the main inconstancies of the other rhythmic syllable options.

When teaching mixed meter the only syllable system that has its own set of syllables that does not recycle from other meters would be the beat-function syallbles. "Du-be Du-ba-bi"... What about takadimi? Well they basically just put duple and triple together. It is important to also note you can be in Duple but have triplets which would be a great place to use your main syllables then add from a different meter. This is called combined meter. The theme song from "Spongebob Squarepants" is a great example that is felt in two (duple) but has triplets inside. The classical jazz standard "take five" is mixed meter and is felt differently than duple or triple.

The one con I did not put on the beat-based function collumn is a concern I hear from teachers who are new to the syllbles system and that is that "Duta-Deta or Duta-Data-Dita is TOO HARD to say FAST!" Well yeah, everything is hard unless you practice it slow. If the music is too fast for the syllbles you are using, why are you using them? You have two options at that point; (1) slow the music down and adjust where your macro/micro/divisions are (enrhythmics) and practice it so that you can then audiate it on a neutral syllable or (2) remove the syllables for the "fast" portion if one can learn it releativally quickly for that section. Remember why you use these syllables in the first place. It is a starting point to learn the music. If you don't need the syllables for every part of music learning that is okay. They are just another tool to make music. 

I offer one final tool to help music teachers deside what rhythmic syllables to use in their classroom. Listen to some music and try to transcribe (without writing it down) the rhythm you are hearing. I have noticed with the beat-based syllable system I can audiate how the rhythm functions and form the patterns together more clearly.

If you want another perspectives on this beat-function system, I recommend the music educator...

Andy Mullen who has a great overview called  How to "Du De" 

Eric Bluestines amazing book: "The Ways Chidlren Learn Music." Specifically look at Chapter 11: Formal Instruction to understand the reason for verbal association. (i.e. solfege).




Bluestine, E. (2000). The Ways Chidlren Learn Music: An introduction and practical guide to music learning theory. GIA Publications. 

Gordon, E. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. GIA Publications.

Hoffman, R. (2009). The Rhythm Book. Smith Creek Music. Retrieved from: http://takadimi.net/rhythmBook.html

Mullen, A. (2017). How to "Du De": The Gordon/Froseth Rhythm Syllable System Explained. Retrived from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RYOte_xRKg

Row, D. (2016). Rythhm Syllables Systems -- What to use and Why! Make Momements Matter. Retrived from: https://makemomentsmatter.org/classroom-ideas/rhythm-syllable-systems-what-to-use-and-why/

Vande􏰁G􏰁aaff, Z. (2021). Ultimate Guide To Counting Rhythm And Rhythm Syllables. Dynamic Music Room Retrieved from: https://dynamicmusicroom.com/counting-rhythm-and-rhythm-syllables/

Wicks, D. (2003). Rhythm Guide. Kodaly Music Education Institute of Australia. Retrieved from: https://kodaly.org.au/resources/

Context (vs) Content

If you were a music major - you might have come across the game called  what's that interval? During my undergraduate degree while hanging out with fellow musicians we found this to be entertaining. After studying music for quite sometime you start to hear rhythmic and tonal patterns everywhere. For the music theory "nerds" we liked to try and guess the intervals (Major 2nd, perfect 4th, minor 7th, etc.) of random noises (i.e. door squeak, farts, elevator noise, washer machine beep noise, alarms, etc.) What happens is when a noise occurs and it has two distinct pitches, our musicians brains try to "decode" it by naming the interval. Though it was fun, in hindsight I can now say that there was no way for us to know who was actually correct because of the subjectitivty of the two pitches and where they might be within a scale. 

Without tonal context (hearing a simple I - V7 - I progression) we would have no clue as to what the resting tone was. I know what you're thinking... isn't a perfect 4th just a perfect 4th? Technically no... A perfect fourth can occur (in a Major tonality) from Do - Fa and but it can also occur from So - Do. Here is where it can get a little risky calling a random interval a perfect 4th. Think of the classic "example" of a perfect 4th "Here comes the bride." Do you hear it as Do - Fa or So - Do? 

If you answered Do - Fa, then you might want to stop playing the “name that interval” game and trade it for what solfege do you hear? Again it can still be subjective to the ear without provided context, but I believe context is more educational and fun to practice than just naming intervals out of context. When you have context, you can help understand more of what you hear around you. But if you only learn content (i.e. intervals) what good will that do for your ear training? 

I am a firm believer in learning what something is by learning what it is not. This philosophy of course derived from Edwin Gordon's Music Learning Theory. I was trained primarily with Major and minor and then we somewhat talked about the other tonalites as "Modes" but didn't pay much attention to them since then. What I didn't realize was that those other tonalities were going to help open my ears even more.

No offence to my awesome music teachers, they did great, but honestly I gave myself more ear training from a $10 book than I did in my ear training classes and hours of listening to recordings of a interval and tonal dictation machine playing a synthesizer piano. That $10 book is called Songs and Chants without words in conjunction with singing the main chords (i.e. I, IV, V, VII, etc.)  in multiple tonalities to help build my music vocabulary. Technqiuely I used more resources than this to help me audiate the chord functions but the practice came from singing the songs from this book. 

My ears opened up and I could actually hear harmonic progressions, solfege translations and resting tones more clearly. There is a cool website that provides resources such as chord progression, tonal sequences with solfege and notation (along with amazing video context and courses) called The Improving Musician created by Andy Mullen who is a very wise secondary MLT based teacher. The moral of the story is that if you are going to study music, just have fun and explore diverse music in different tonalities, meters and styles. Don't just learn the melody, learn the harmony, it will teach you a lot about the language of music. Try to understand the basic function of a I-chord and a V-chord because that will naturally help you hear (audiate) the harmonic relationship to the resting tone. Lastly, if someone asks you to, "name that interval '' stop and ask them, "What solfege do you hear? What do you hear as the resting tone?" 

Note on Undergraduate Jury Exams:

If I were to redesin the jury exams for my undergraduate degree I would removed scales and ask students to sing tonal patterns and a short tune (with no words) from each tonality (i.e. Major, Harmonic Minor, Lydian, Phrygian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian). What I was judged  on (and almost failed twice) was scales (Major, minor(s), whole tone and chromatic), singing songs from the Vaccai book, along with seasoned repertoire from that semester. I see the benefit of the itliaian repitore but I have a bone to pick with singing scales. Unless a composer wrote a scale on the music, where else will we utlaize this? One could argue that it shows the abliity to maintain a consitant tone through the different vocal registers. That it may be, what if the lack of audiation causes a lack of confidence in the vocal production? If one has a confidence in audiation, the tone then could be the focus, but if all we do is focus on tone production, we are not teaching the musician holistically. 

I believe scales are great for vocal lessons but are a limitation on our assessing ones musical vocabulary. I think it would be more impressive to improvise in different tonalities. Intonation is a biproduct of understanding harmony and we should not put so much attention on scales but rather building our listening and speaking vocabulary.  Compared to my undergraduate ear training, I learned a lot... ALOT! ... I MEAN ALOT MORE about harmony in the short time I studied MLT and practing singing tonal patterns in diverse tonalities. I could actaully start hearing the harmonic shifts (with acurate chord labeling) in the songs I was listening to. Dr. Cindy Taggart once said, "When you are saying theoretical understanding, you are assuming audiation." If my universeity is tired of the results they are hearing as a whole, then they need to shift their thinking and invest in developing their undergraduates audiation.

Fig 1: Different Strings vibrating at the different steps of the harmonic series. Mathematical representation of overtones.


Fig 2: Overtones series visually overlapped.  

Why is the Majority of "popular music"
in a MAJOR tonality? 

Before we dive into this we need to define TONALITY and what MAJOR is and what it is not. A tonality can be defined as music space (melody) in which there is a tonal center (resting tone) that has the other notes in a given scale within the western 12 tone  tonal system. If that is confusing, an easier way to think about it is that tonalities are like different flavors of ice cream. The main ingredeints are just ice and milk (melody) but you can change the flavor (tonality) to change how it tastes (sounds). So, what is MAJOR? Subjectively... in my opinion MAJOR is just plain vanilla.

Now, the next part is going to get a little more theoretical so buckle up.  From a physical stand point, when a tone (or pitch) resonates in the air, depending on the timbre (color to our ears) it has what is called overtones (see fig. 1-2). A common person with a set of untrained ears doesn't think about this because the higher the overtones the more faint it sounds. The timbre of the instrument(s) can also effect how many overtones are present. Below is a standard music notation of the overtones with additional adjustments because our equal temperament tuning system we have in our western tuning system is just a compromise to what nature creates on its own. This begs the question, is nature really quantifiable? But I digress.

So, when you break down the overtones you will notice that the first five overtones outlines a major chord - solfege = Do Mi So (see fig. 3). What does this mean? Is major the divine tonality that other tonalities like locrian or dorian should bow down to? Probably not... I have not seen any research that shows that human ears prefer major over minor or dissonance over consonance for that matter. The popularity of MAJOR tonality could possible stim from the overtones naturally create a Major Triad.

Fig. 3: Music notation of overtones with added alterations to equal-temperament tuning (tuning traditionally used on pianos) 

Fig. 4: Tonalities of the top 40 billboard hits (2018)


...  According to a study of the 2018 top 40 billboard hits it would seem that MAJOR is only a little more popular than MINOR (see fig. 4). For those who don't know minor, is another tonality (or different flavor of ice cream). Some people (okay alot of western minds) believe that MAJOR = HAPPY and MINOR = SAD. In actuality they don't mean anything at all. MINOR is just a reflection of MAJOR (see UNDERtone series theorized in fig. 5)


Fig. 5: Undertone series (first five undertones outline a Minor chord)

.This sense of duality is just a mere reflection of each other like the roots and the branch of the tree, or yin and yang. One exists because of its polar opposite.

So where emotions come from? For that, I give credit to the Romantic era in which music was really emotive of the human experience. Then soon thereafter when moving pictures came about people started to hear patterns in music that music composers use during scenes of a movie. That is a short answer as to why the emotions have been labeled. Though it is not factual that MAJOR = happy, it is important to understand the cultural influences and how that might develop a perspective. Going deeper into this emotional code... If a culture is mostly listening to what they consider "happy" music, does that mean they are seeking happiness with in music to fill a void? Or listening to music in MINOR because the culture has labeled it as "sad" because they want to find someone who is feeling the same pain as they might be feeling? 

Just to recap so far, we know that Major is a tonality and it might be popular because it is labeled "happy" by the misguided masses. The last theoretical piece is something called a "leading tone." This a note (or notes) that lead you into a direction toward home (resting tone). In a MAJOR tonality we have not one but two leading tones that lead us back home. Ti > Do and we also have Fa > Mi (which leads back to Do, or you can think of it as "arriving" harmonically Do "Mi" So). This makes it easier to hear where the tonality is moving toward. Other tonalities with less or no leading tones are more difficult to audiate and sing for example the Locrian tonality having a diminished tonic chord. Which is why most music people study when they are younger is in a MAJOR tonality. MAJOR should not be the only tonality in our musical lives. There are so many other flavors that actually help teach us more about the other tonalities. As humans, we learn what something is, by learning what it is not. 

“Making comparisons, knowing what something is not helps us to know what it is…. Imagine a whole world in which everything were purple: purple sky, purple water, purple grass and trees, purple food, everything. anything purple? Would we even coin the word ‘purple’? No, we wouldn’t need it. But imagine, in all that purple, you came across a single yellow flower…. All of a sudden, yellow and purple have meaning. What is purple? Everything that isn’t yellow. And now imagine a multicolored world in which our understanding of purple is dramatically more precise because we now have so much more to compare it with.”  (Bluestine, 2000, p. 69)

Final plausible answer... Perhaps because a MAJOR tonality has two leading tones, making it easier for the ear to navigate back home to the resting tone. There also seems to be a cultural influence (empasised in the romantic era, then re-articulated with film scores) of a happy emotion labeled to the MAJOR tonality, possibly using it to feel better, or mask a negative emotion? ... which leaves me with one more question... Are you feeling okay? Take a deep breath, explore nature and hug another human. 

Another possible speculation could be that the names of these tonalities (modes) are derived from ancient civilizations 1000 BC. and the sea that surrounded these civilizations was called the Ionian sea. Could this be a sacred metaphor for the popularity for this tonality?

Solution to getting out of the box...

Listen to diverse music with different kinds of tonalities. Build a speaking vocabulary in different tonalities. Then try to improvise and your own music in those tonalities. Finally, read and write in those different tonalities. 

If a culture only listens to two different tonalities (MAJOR / MINOR), how does that affect the way they see other cultures that use different tonalities more often? Here is a non-musical example of this phycological phenomenon... A man eats, nothing but Mac & Cheese for over 17 years. You would think he would get tired of it but he actually re-wired his brain through a selective eating disorder (also known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) which has created a negative response to other foods. You do not have to be a doctor to know that you can not thrive on just Mac & Cheese. So when it comes to music, open up your ears and enjoy all the colorful flavors of tonalities. Allow your ears travel the world and explore other sounds.  

Bluestien, E. (2000). The Ways Children Learn Music: An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Learning Theory. GIA Publications. 

Tonality (Modes)

Walk into an ice cream store and you will find a variety of flavors that all contain the two core ingredients; Milk and Ice. When it comes to melody you can change the "flavor" of that melody by utalizing different tonalities. The melody (milk) with its rhythm (ice) still exists, the difference is the flavor within the other "sound flavors" you get from different tonalities. More often than not though most people who only know "popular" music on the radio are hardly exposed to tonalities other than Ionian (Major) and Harmonic Minor. To help identify what tonality you are hearing Dr. Heather Shouldice has created a great Tonality Flow Chart that help one identify the characteristic tones. If one just wants to hear what is out there but is still new to identifing these tonalities, she has also created a Crowd Source Sheet of music in different tonalities. If you can read music, there are some great short musical examples on this link... Sheet music with different tonalities... 

FUN FACT! The origin of where these tonality names came is shown in the photo above. Unfortantly, WHY these names were chosen are difficult to research, if you know of any resources please let me know. The fact that the Ionian sea surrounds the other civilization makes me wonder if this is some sacred reason why the tonality become so popular. 

Hand Signs... Useful?

According to music learning theory, students first learn (after preparatory audiation AKA informal guidance) tonal patterns on a neutral syllable, then assign those tonal patterns to solfege. After this the next logical step is to show them what that looks like on standard western notation. Teachers who choose to use iconic notation to help "prepare" the students for standard notation might be trying to make up for students lack of audiation skills. 

"Trying to teach students to read notation with aid of pre-reading techniques, such as numbers, lines, dots, and creative pitcutres (often referred to as iconic devices), is a futher impediment to progress. Students learn to read and write notational symbols naturally and quickly when they audiate what they see using verbal associations. No other transitional scheme is neccesary." (Gordon, 2012, p. 110) 

When we use iconic notation, we might be using this as a crutch for the lack of ones ability to audiate. Gordon believed that tonal solfege is to be sung and rhythm syllables are to be chants... but not read. When we use a sign that says "Do Re Mi" and point to it as we sing, this is now shifting focus of the words and the sounds. The sounds (i.e. solfege) should followed by (when appropriately scaffold) standard notation. Keep it simple and just say, "this is what that looks like."

Now what about Cerwen hand signs? This is often used with a Kodaly methology and have their reasons for using them. It depends on "why" you would use them. If you want your students to audiate, they might be preventing them to do so. Lets say you are signing a tonal pattern "Do Mi So" and you also sign it. Then ask you students to replicate it. You are expecting your students to sing the solfege and shape their hand differently for each note. This asks for more thinking than just singing the solfege. 

I personally would find it more impressive if a student could recongize that is Major tonic pattern or could make up their own tonic pattern that is different from which you created. I would even find it more impressive if a student just sung "Do" (resting tone) in tune after I sung "Do Mi So" ... paused, then breathed with them to audiate and sing the resting tone. In my opinion, hand shapes are a mental hurdle for students and can potentially prevent them from audiating the context. 

One might say, well if you are in a choral setting and you want to give non-verbal cues while students move between solfege notes (as an exercise), wouldn't that be helpful? To that I would say, understanding of basic harmonic function would be more impressive. If my students understood the piece we are singing has a chord progression of [I IV V I], I would allow them to make their own choice on how to navitgate through these harmonies while I show them what chord we are on with my fingers. Or if they can hear the progression without my hands, then they can freely make that choice on their own. THAT is impressive and helpful for understanding the piece as a whole. I guarantee the melody with be dramatically more in tune. 

Again, I am not saying that these hands signs are "BAD or WRONG", it just depends on the reason "why" we use them. I personally would not use hand signs to help develop students' audiation. 

Gordon, E. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. GIA Publications.