A person could go crazy trying to explain harmony – and even crazier trying to understand the explanation. What follows is an attempt to explain the inexplicable. It’s worth remembering that the first known text on the subject was ‘Traité de l’harmonie’ by Rameau; that was published in 1722, was thought at the time to be a touch ambiguous, and has not seemed clearer in the following 243 years.

Pegleg FerretTo understand harmony, it is probably necessary to understand counterpoint. If counterpoint is a relationship between voices that work together but are independent both in rhythm and in the way they are used (and it is), then harmony is the way those voices negotiate in sound a sort of conjunction with each other. Clear? No? Then think of an orchestra as being in counterpoint to the voices it accompanies, and harmony as being the overall feeling generated by the voices.

Okay, that’s a sort of working definition of harmony; Pegleg Ferret was/is a three-part harmony band, which means it is/was a group of three people singing together in a way that provides a particular kind of harmony. An attractive harmony, according to fans of Pegleg Ferret (they probably would not be fans, otherwise).

Just as it is the victors who write history, so it is the dominant West that writes musical theory textbooks. That’s why harmony is seen as a western thing and many commentators will say that Asian music, for example, (and, even more so, Middle Eastern music) does not use harmony. It is true that three-part harmony is not much heard in Asian music and not heard at all in the Middle Eastern version, but that is because that particular combination of three voices singing together is unknown in the Middle East and rarely seen as one travels further down the Silk Road. Nevertheless, there is harmony in Asian music; it’s just a kind of harmony that isn’t particularly observed or valued by the Western ear.

It;s hard to imagine what a Bangkok audience would make of Pegleg Ferret.