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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