The Concept of Musical Harmony Explained in Five Levels of Difficulty, Starting with a Child & Ending with Herbie Hancock


Wired mag­a­zine has entered the video explain­er game with a nov­el series that takes con­cepts from kinder­garten to grad­u­ate school and beyond in under twen­ty min­utes. Their “5 Lev­els of Dif­fi­cul­ty” videos have it all: hip 21st cen­tu­ry ideas like blockchain, cute kids say­ing smart things, a cel­e­bra­tion of exper­tise and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills today’s experts need to present their work to a diverse, inter­na­tion­al pub­lic of all ages and edu­ca­tion lev­els. This is no gimmick—it’s enter­tain­ing and acces­si­ble, while still infor­ma­tive for even the best informed.

Take the video above, in which 23-year-old com­pos­er and musi­cian Jacob Col­lier explains the con­cept of musi­cal har­mo­ny. His stu­dents include a child, a teen, a col­lege stu­dent, a pro­fes­sion­al, and… Her­bie Han­cock. “I’m pos­i­tive,” he says, “that every­one can leave this video with some under­stand­ing, at some lev­el.” At lev­el 1, we under­stand har­mo­ny as an expres­sion of mood or feel­ing, pro­duced by adding “more notes” to a melody. A sim­ple but effec­tive def­i­n­i­tion.

Lev­el 2 intro­duces basic theory—using chords, or tri­ads, to explain how har­mo­ny can pro­duce dif­fer­ent emo­tions, mod­u­lat­ing from major to minor, and cre­at­ing “nar­ra­tives” with­in a song. In Lev­el 3, har­mo­ny becomes a lan­guage, and the vocab­u­lary of the cir­cle of fifths comes in. Collier’s col­lege stu­dent com­pan­ion also plays gui­tar, and the two jam through a few chord voic­ings to give his exam­ple song, “Amaz­ing Grace,” a smooth and jazzy feel. At Lev­el 4, a pro­fes­sion­al pianist learns a few things about over­tones and under­tones, com­po­si­tion­al arrang­ing, and “neg­a­tive har­mo­ny.”

Then, at 8:30, we get to the main attrac­tion, and, as tends to hap­pen in these videos at the final stage, stu­dent and teacher roles reverse. Col­lier essen­tial­ly inter­views Han­cock on har­mo­ny, both perched behind key­boards and speak­ing the lan­guage of music flu­ent­ly. Non-pro­fes­sion­als won’t have had near­ly enough prepa­ra­tion in 8 min­utes to grasp what’s going on. It’s high lev­el stuff, but even if you’re mys­ti­fied by the the­o­ry, stick around for the stories—and learn what Miles Davis meant when he told Han­cock, “don’t play the but­ter notes,” advice on play­ing har­mo­ny that changed every­thing for him.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Explain­ing Hard Ideas: Sci­en­tists Try to Explain Gene Edit­ing & Brain Map­ping to Young Kids & Stu­dents

Her­bie Han­cock Explains the Big Les­son He Learned From Miles Davis: Every Mis­take in Music, as in Life, Is an Oppor­tu­ni­ty

West­ern Music Moves in Three and Even Four (!) Dimen­sion­al Spaces: How the Pio­neer­ing Research of Prince­ton The­o­rist Dmitri Tymoczko Helps Us Visu­al­ize Music in Rad­i­cal, New Ways

John Coltrane Draws a Pic­ture Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­ics of Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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