“Harmony” is one of my favourite words.
In its simplest understanding it means to get along. It describes a consistent, orderly arrangement of parts that work together to create a cohesive whole. In music it generally refers to notes arranged in chords, but it’s worth looking deeper into the etymology to fully understand the richness of this unassuming word.
Harmonia is a term found in both Latin and Greek. It evolved from the Greek root harmos which was used in building to describe the joints between ship planks or the shoulder of a door, and can be traced back even further to haro, or “to lift up.” The poetic notion of joining together in an uplifting way transitioned across to a musical context where the term harmonie was first defined in Old French in the 14th Century as “a combination of tones pleasing to the ear.” By the 16th Century the term became more explicitly synonymous with music theory and the rules of modern tonality, or the way different notes work together in chords to either meet or subvert the expectations of the listener.
The pertinent point in all these meanings is that harmony is not about everything being the same; it’s about combining different elements to create something more beautiful and complex than the individual parts could ever achieve. It’s about fitting the gaps and pegs of a joint together to build something to lift us all up. In a cultural sense, this means coming together and celebrating the weird and wonderful differences we all embody to make our society so flexible and strong. It’s about recognising that if somebody looks different to you, acts different to you, and even thinks different to you, they still add value to your life when you welcome them to sit with you as they are. In music, homogeneity has its place (think of the simple power of a single melody sung by multiple voices at the same time), but gosh it would be boring if that were all we had!
Imagine a society were everybody thought the same, dressed the same, acted the same, and ate the same. How dull would that be? Every time we meet somebody who interacts with the world differently to the way we do we are enriched by the experience. Even if that interaction tells us “Wow! I totally disagree with that opinion!” we learn something new about ourselves.
This is one thing I love about teaching, and especially working with people who aren’t “neurotypical”. Every individual I work with will always surprise me with new ways to approach an instrument or new ways to explain an idea, and my own musicality is enriched with every encounter.
So for this Harmony Week, please: keep singing to your own tune and dancing to your own rhythm! It may sound like a cacophony at first, but when you sit with it and listen closely long enough you will hear harmonies that will take your breath away.