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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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2. Harmony (Keyboard Reconstruction)

Harmony in the Keyboard Reconstruction Question Grade 8

Decide how often the harmony seems to change. The harmony should change often enough to sustain interest, but not so much that it becomes frantic and confusing. Usually this will mean changing the chord around twice per bar, although sometimes once per bar, or once per beat, will be appropriate.

In this piano piece by Mendelssohn (Op.72 no.1), notice how frequently the harmony changes. At the most, it is on each beat of the bar. At the least, it is every bar. The harmony does not change on the quaver (eighth note) or semiquaver (16th note) subdivisions.

mendelssohn piano reconstruction example


Look at the notes which fall on the beat (check the time signature to know how many beats per bar there are!) The notes which fall on the beat are the ones which should closely coincide with the harmony. Notes which fall between the beats are more likely to be dissonant with the harmony. It’s important to have clear cut chords falling on the beat, in order to make the harmony coherent for the listener.

Choose chords so that:

  • They fit the notes in the supplied material (but think about accented passing notes too)
  • The harmony changes at least once a bar
  • The harmony is not anticipated (repeated from a weak beat to a stronger beat)
  • The harmony is varied and not overly repetitive or motionless
  • The harmonic progressions are conventionally acceptable
  • Cadences are conventional
  • Modulations are conventional
  • The inversion of the chord is acceptable (look at the bass note/lowest note to determine the inversion)

By “conventional” I mean “done in the normal way” according to the traditions of Romantic era harmony.

Common Chord Progressions

In most cases it will be possible to work out a fairly traditional harmonic structure. We will expect to use the most common diatonic harmonies:

I, ii, IV, V, vi, vii° in major keys (iii is rarely used)

i, ii°, III, iv, V, VI, vii° and VII in minor keys. (III and VII are the tonic and dominant in the relative major key, and are derived from the melodic minor scale. III+ (augmented) is not used)

Pieces of music usually begin with the primary chords (I, V and less often IV), to establish the key, and then more colourful chords are introduced for variety. Towards the end of any phrase, we expect a cadence, which again will use primary chords (imperfect, plagal or perfect cadences).

The most commonly seen progressions belong to the progression of 5ths. If you can fit the music to a part of the progression of 5ths, it will automatically sound logical. In the progression of 5ths, the chords move back to the tonic chord in steps of a 5th.

The most commonly used section of this progression is VI-II-V-I.

ii7 is also normally followed by V, or Ic (see below).

When working out the likely harmony, the melody note which sounds simultaneously with the bass note may or may not be part of the chord. When the melody note is NOT a triad note, it will be a suspension, appoggiatura or accented passing note (they are much the same in reality), or it will belong to a chromatic chord (e.g. Neapolitan 6th) or added chord (e.g. V9).

A suspension/appoggiatura/accented passing note will fall by step to the next note, which WILL be a chord note. In the following example, which chords would make a good progression?

accented passing note possibility


The minim (half note) suggests we have come to the end of a phrase (longer note value), and as the key is C major, we would expect a perfect cadence (V-I) here. The most commonly used chord before V at a cadence is ii. Do these chords fit? At first glance, you might say no, since E is not in the chord of D minor, and C is not in G major. However, you can treat both the E and C as accented passing notes. By doing this, the D fits with D minor (ii), and the B with G major (V), making a good progression. You could write this in the left hand:

accented passing note harmonized


Instead of always asking yourself “which chords fit this note?”, turn it on its head to “can I make this note fit a common harmonic progression?”


Chromatic Chords

A chromatic chord could be a diminished 7th, an augmented 6th (French, Italian or German), a Neapolitan 6th, or a flattened chord VI, for example.

Diminished 7ths contain strong semitone pulls – make sure they are followed by a chord which contains the right resolutions. If the dissonances are not resolved by step, they should be continued (rather than moving to another note which is not a resolution).

Here, vii°b7 in C major resolves to I. There are three semitones which resolve by step: Ab-G, F-E and B-C. Alternatively, you could follow it with V7, which only resolves the diminished 7th. V7 contains its own dissonance, which should be resolved in the next chord (I).

diminished 7th chord

The augmented 6th chords are described in detail in the score-reading section of this course. Augmented 6th chords are often followed by the dominant chord.

The Neapolitan 6th or flattened supertonic chord (e.g. a chord Db major in the key of C major) is most often followed by the dominant.

The flattened 6th chord (bVI, e.g. an Ab major chord in C major), and minor subdominant (iv, e.g. Fm in C major) are also sometimes seen.

With all chromatic chords, the easiest way to progress to the next chord will generally be by small movements or repetition. Move by semitone steps, repeat notes which are common to both chords, and use small leaps only if necessary. For example, iv moves smoothly to V7: two notes move by a semitone, one note is common to both chords (F), and the other movement is a third.

minor subdominant

In this extract from Mozart’s 6th piano sonata, which chord would fit in the first blank bar? (The prevailing key is D major). Try to work it out for yourself first, then read on!

german 6th mozart


The bass clef stave gives us the chord notes Bb-D-F. These make up a Bb major chord which is bVI in the key of D major, so bVI would work. Alternatively, we could add G# into the mix, making the German 6th chord. Mozart in fact, uses the German 6th here. This is what he wrote:

german 6th mozart actual



Modulations are normally brought about by the use of V(7)-I in the new key, most often preceded by a pivot chord (a chord which exists in both keys). 

The diminished 7th chord is also a powerful modulation tool. There are only three different diminished 7th chords (if you spell them enharmonically):

  1. C-Eb-Gb-Bbb
  2. C#-E-G-Bb
  3. D-F-Ab-Cb

The diminished 7th chord starting on D# is enharmonically the same as no.1 here, which contains Eb, (D#-F#-A-C is the enharmonic spelling), and so on. So, you can easily move in quite unexpected directions, by re-spelling a diminished 7th.

For example, in the key of C major a typical chord progression could be I – vii°b7 (Bdim7) (B-D-F-Ab). The Bdim7 chord could be re-spelled as Ddim7 (D-F-Ab-Cb) which is vii°b7 in Eb major.

This would allow a quick, but smooth modulation to the relatively distant key of Eb major (or minor).

diminished 7th modulation

Notice that the natural resolution of the diminished 7th chord creates a chord with a doubled third.


The inversion of the chord is created by the bass line (lowest sounding notes). You should follow the normal conventions. You should try to avoid second inversion chords except at the places where they are acceptable i.e.:

  • cadential 6-4s (Ic-Va at a cadence, 6-4 falls on a strong beat)
  • passing 6-4s (bass moves by step, and the 6-4 chord falls on the middle weak beat)
  • pedal 6-4s (the 6-4 chord arises because of an ongoing pedal)
  • arpeggio 6-4s (the 6-4 chord is played in an arpeggio fashion)

In this extract, chord IVc is used – can you work out for which of the above reasons it’s acceptable?

ivc as pedal


In this case, it’s a pedal 6-4. The repeated tonic G pedal starts in bar 8 and continues for several bars, while the harmony changes above it.

If pedals are used in the given material, attempt to use them in your own part of the composition too.

An arpeggio 6-4 is shown here, from Mozart’s piano sonata no.16:

arpeggio 6 4

The broken chord pattern is very typical in keyboard style music.


Chord Ic has an unusual property. Although it contains the notes of the tonic chord, it actually sounds more like an unstable dominant chord, because of its doubled dominant note.

For this reason, Ic works after chords like ii7 or the augmented 6th chords, which are normally followed by V. However, it’s not normally simply used instead of chord V – but as well as. So the following progressions are quite common:

  • ii(7) – Ic – Va
  • Germ/It/Fr 6th – Ic – V


Avoid consecutive perfect 5ths and octaves, (unless they have already been used in the given material and contribute to the overall style).

A perfect 5th can be followed by a diminished 5th, but the effect is not pleasant the other way round.

This is because the diminished interval is a dissonance, which needs to resolve inwards by step. If the F moves to G here, the dissonance is not resolved satisfactorily.

diminished 5th perfect 5th


Voice Leading

Pay attention to the voice leading. Although you are writing for piano, try to see where individual parts lie. Within a single part, the voice should move smoothly and the relationship between the leading note and tonic should be maintained - a leading note should be followed by the tonic in the same register – not one in the next octave.

In this extract from Mozart’s 19th piano sonata, notice how smoothly each individual line flows. Whenever there is a leading note (E), it resolves upwards by a semitone to the nearest tonic, and elsewhere the vast majority of melodic movement is by step (semitones or tones). Although this is a keyboard piece, look at it as a piece of 3 and 4-part harmony, to see how the voice-leading of the individual parts is handled.

voice leading


Doubling and Omissions

Follow the normal conventions regarding doubling or omitting chord notes. For example, avoid doubling the leading note or 7th, and aim to include the root and third as a minimum of any chord.



For the most part, strong dissonances should be prepared. In the Romantic era, the dominant and diminished 7th chords were commonly used without preparation, but other dissonances, including suspensions, are normally prepared in the preceding chord. Dissonances should generally resolve by step.

Suspensions should not be anticipated. This means that the resolution note should not be sounded in another part (apart from the bass) before the “real” resolution takes place.



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