Zero Inversion Harmony – by Mike Overly

August 21, 2014

Zero Inversion Interval ClockIn 1722, Jean-Philippe Rameau defined harmony as “…the gathering together of several sounds which are agreeable to the ear.”  This traditional definition of harmony is still true today – but needs a little modern updating.

Let us begin by stating that harmony begins with one sound, and this first sound of harmony is symbolized by a letter and a number. The harmony letter may be one of 21 letters, <> but, the harmony number can be only one number, tone 1. Tone 1 is also known as the root, tonic or scale degree 1.
Harmony then proceeds to gather more sounds by adding letters and tone numbers in a numerical order. The progressive harmonies that result are then given harmony names. For example, two sounds with the same letter name, or with two different letter names is called an interval. Three sounds with three different letter names is a triad. And four sounds with four different letter names is known as a tetrad. Theoretically, harmony continues extending until it includes all 12 sounds with 21 different letter names. Thank goodness dodecaphonic harmony can’t be played on a six string guitar! However, harmony can be played on the guitar in two different ways: melodic and harmonic. Simply stated, melodic is defined as one at a time and harmonic is at the same time.

When harmony of three or more different letters and tone numbers are played melodically, one at a time, it is called an arpeggio. And when harmony of three or more different letters and tone numbers are played harmonically, at the same time, it a known as a chord. Intervals of two sounds may be played both melodically and harmonically, but, are not considered or called arpeggios or chords.A traditional harmony symbol, such as Cm (C minor) is almost always referred to as a chord symbol. However, this would not be true if the Cm harmony was played as an arpeggio. In that case, the Cm harmony symbol would have to be called an arpeggio symbol, and that sounds weird.

So, to avoid naming harmony by the way it is played, simply use the term harmony symbol. That way, you are free to play the harmony however you wish, either as an arpeggio or as a chord.Harmony is grouped into types based upon the 3rd and 5th intervals. The 3rds intervals are: natural three major (3), flat three minor (b3), and sharp three suspended (#3). In traditional harmony, #3 is called 4 but as we will see in later lessons, this creates a lot of unnecessary confusion: think dominant 11.

The 5ths intervals are: natural five perfect (5), flat five diminished (b5), and sharp five augmented (#5).By combining the above six interval types, nine triads result: major 1 3 5, major flat five 1 3 b5, major sharp five 1 3 #5, minor 1 b3 5, minor flat five 1 b3 b5, minor sharp five 1 b3 #5, and suspended 1 #3 5, suspended flat five 1 #3  b5, and suspended sharp five 1 #3 b5.By adding the remaining major scale tones: 6 7 9 11 and 13 (plus their chromatic flats and sharps) to these nine triads, a virtually infinite number of harmonies is created.

A harmony progression is when an arpeggio or chord harmony moves forward to another harmony of any type. The definition of progress is to move forward. Therefore, by combining these virtually infinite number of harmonies with an equally virtually infinite number of harmony orders, the result is more harmony progressions than anyone on Earth has time to play!

’til next time, have some Zero Inversion harmony fun and don’t forget to progress!

P.S. If you liked this lesson, or even if you didn’t, please leave a comment and tell me so. Image by

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