General Principles of Harmony


This book is the final installment in a series of four short works on the teaching of musical composition. Its aim is to provide some general principles of harmony, in concise, practical terms, and to provide guidance for student composers. This will not be a “theory” text, nor an analysis treatise, but rather a guide to some of the basic tools of the trade.
This book is the last in a series. The others are: Counterpoint, and Orchestration.  All are based on my own experience as a composer.
I have also written “Musical Composition: Craft and Art” published by Yale University Press.
A pdf version of this book is available for download here.
This series is dedicated to the memory of my teacher and friend Marvin Duchow, one of the rare true scholars, a musician of immense depth and sensitivity, and a man of unsurpassed kindness and generosity.


A note concerning the musical examples: All the musical examples with audio here are my own, composed especially for this work, and are covered by copyright. Unless indicated otherwise, they are intended for piano or for strings. To hear other examples of my music, please visit the worklist page.
© 2003, Alan Belkin



Introduction: Why this book?

  • Discussion of other approaches
  • Limits of our discussion
  • A new approach to understanding harmony


  • A definition of harmony
  • Intervals
  • Chords
  • Progressions

Principles of coherence and continuity

  • Pitch and interval limitations
  • Linear aspects: melody and bass lines; voice leading
  • An aside: open vs. closed harmonic systems
  • Hierarchy, landmarks, cadences

Principles of movement, interest and variety

  • General aspects of harmonic accent
  • Creating momentum and renewing interest on various structural levels
    • Locally
    • Higher Levels
  • Harmonic rhythm
  • Modulation and harmonic transition

Transitions between various types of harmony
Harmony, texture, and orchestration

  • Spacing and register
  • Doubling
  • Timbre
  • Harmony with multiple planes of tone

Criteria for evaluating harmony; pedagogy