Adding Chords to a Melody

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Published: 01st February 2007
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In this article, I want to take a solo melody and show how to apply chords to harmonize it. Don't forget to click the links for each step so that you can see exactly what I'm describing. The principles that I describe are outlined in three of my books:


Essential Secrets of Songwriting

"Essential Chord Progressions"

"How to Harmonize a Melody"

1) Check out this melody." You'll see it's a basic melody in a folk style. What I'll do with this melody could be done to any melody in any genre.

Before discussing chord choices, let me point out some of the features of the melodic structure which you would find outlined in Chapter 5 of "The Essential Secrets of Songwriting." First, it wasn't really possible for me to construct this melody without some sense of what I wanted for chords, and I think you will find the same thing when you write your own melodies; most of the time, your melodies will be written with some sense of harmony. As stated in Melody/Lyric Principle No. 1 (p. 126), that melody will be best when constructed with the lyrics and harmonies in mind.

You'll also notice that the key note (i.e., tonic) is featured more in the chorus than in the verse, as outlined in Principle No. 3 (p. 131) And as stated in Principle No. 4 (p. 134), the notes of the chorus are generally higher than the notes of the verse.

2) Listen to the chords that I've chosen as a preliminary attempt to harmonize this melody."

They are fairly basic, and feature the I, IV and V chords, with the occasional ii-chord and vi-chord.

So how did I choose these chords? You'll notice that the melody, though it's in 4/4 time, feels like it unfolds in 2-beat units; every two beats seems to provide us with an opportunity to change chords. if we wish. The starting point, therefore, is to look at the notes of each 2-beat unit and try to see which chord is being implied.

The first two beats of bar 1 give us D and F#. And as the melody is in D major, a D major chord is the obvious choice for an opening chord. Beats 3 and 4 give us E and G. Now, these two notes exist in several possible chords: A7, Em, C#dim, etc. I chose A7, as that is a very strong way to begin this piece. (See chart on p. 84 of "The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.")

I continued to choose my chords in this manner, trying purposely to stick with either the I, IV or V chords, as these choices will give the strongest progressions. The final result is therefore quite predictable. A little too predictable for my taste, however. This harmonization is not objectionable at all, but my preference is to try to be a little more creative. But here's an important point: If you want to be more creative with your chord choices, it's important to avoid destroying the overall feel of the solo melody. For example, you could possibly harmonize the first note with an E7, but the strangeness of that choice diminishes the folk quality of the melody

3) So I modified the chord choices a little; check out the result:

the result."

You'll see that I opted for using an E minor chord as a second chord. I put that chord in first inversion, meaning that the G of the E minor chord is in the bass: I didn't like the sound of the melody note D moving to E while the bass note D was also moving to E, so I put the E minor chord in first inversion to avoid that circumstance. (See p. 17 of "Essential Chord Progressions.")

I find that the Em/G chord "softens" the harmony a little. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the A7 from my original harmonization - This is just my personal taste.

In bar 5, you'll notice that instead of having a D major chord harmonizing that entire bar, I switched to B minor for beats 3 and 4. On those beats, the melody gives us D, E and F#. The E is on the weak eighth note of that beat, so we don't have to figure that into the harmonization. So I want to come up with another chord other than D major to harmonize the D and F#. B minor is a good choice, because it's followed by an E minor chord - four notes higher. (See Harmony Principle #1 from "Essential Secrets of Songwriting," p. 81) And because the basic "harmonic rhythm" of this excerpt is the half note (i.e., the harmonies feel right if I change chords every two bars), I want to try to have two chords per bar where possible.

There are not limitless harmonic choices available to us, but there are many, so feel free to experiment. You may want to see what that melody sounds like when harmonized using pedal tones or secondary dominants (see p. 18-19 of "Essential Chord Progressions")

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