How to Harmonize a Melody – Music Theory

– Hi. One of the things that many people get in touch with me about is how to go about harmonising a melody. So either they’ve got a melody that’s given to them in some kind of theory exercise or in terms of trying to write something in the style of a particular composer, maybe part of musical studies, or they’ve written a melody, which they’re really pleased about, but they’re not quite sure how to put chords to it. So, we’re just going to have a little look at a sort of window of a melody, if you like, to see how we might tackle the task. So what we’ve got on the board, then, is a four bar melody, and it’s in the key of E-flat major, so here’s E-flat major.

This is what this melody sounds like. So it doesn’t really matter about the style of it, it’s obviously fairly kind of traditional in style, isn’t it? But what we’re talking about is, how do we go about finding the chords that go with that? Well, if we’re in E-flat major, we need to think, “What are the chords “in the key of E-flat major?” That may be something, if you’ve got some experience, you can do quite readily in your head. If that’s something that doesn’t quite come so naturally at the moment, then this is what you need to do. You give yourself a scale of E-flat major, and then you work out what the chords are. So here’s a scale of E-flat major. I don’t need to put the eighth note on the top, because it’s going to throw up the same chord as the first one, but above each of these notes, a third, a fifth, a third, a fifth, a third, a fifth, and so on.

And you notice that you either end up with three successive spaces or three successive lines. If you haven’t got that, something’s gone wrong. And then we can just label them I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. Or, if you’re coming from a slightly different tradition, you’re going to call this E-flat, F minor, G minor, A-flat, B-flat, and then C minor, and then D diminished. And in case you’re looking at that wondering why some of them are major chords and some of them are minor chords. In any major key, chords I, IV, and V are major chords, what we call the primary chords. II, III, and VI are always minor chords, and VII is a diminished chord. Different in minor keys, but that’s the pattern for major keys.

Now, every time we’ve got a note in the melody, we’ve got to think, “Is this a harmony note,” in other words, a note that belongs to the chord, “Or is it one of these things called inessential notes?” So that could be things like passing notes, when you’re just passing by step between a couple of notes that belong to a chord. It could be an auxiliary note, where you’re using a note that belongs to a chord and you’re hopping up one and coming back again, or starting on a note that belongs to a chord, hopping down one, coming back again. Passing notes, auxiliary notes, always need to be by step. Maybe you’ve got an anticipatory note, a note that just anticipates a note that belongs to another chord. That’s fine as well. So, all notes are harmony notes or inessential notes. So, for example, you could look at the first bar of this and you could say, “I think I’ll just have one chord “for the first bar.” But I’m going to treat the F as a passing note, okay? So, in other words, G would be harmony, F would be passing, E-flat would be harmony. So you’d need to find a chord that’s got G and E-flat in it. So, as soon as you see this, you could think, well actually, G and E-flat belong to chord I. G and E-flat also belong to chord VI. So if I wanted to treat the F as a passing note, I could start this with a chord I or a chord VI. In effect, you’d probably start with a chord I if it’s the beginning of the piece, because we want to kind of hear as the listener that we’re in the key of E-flat major. If we start with chord VI, well, we might think we’re in the key of C minor, it might be a little bit confusing. So you could put down a chord of E-flat major and your melody could just float over the top of it. So harmony, passing, harmony. And of course, you could make it more interesting than that. By just doing a little bit of something with opening up the chord and a bit of rhythm and so on. But, equally, you could say, “Well, I don’t want to treat the first bar as one chord.” You might say, “I’ll have the F as a passing note, “but I’m going to have a different chord here,” so you could start on chord I, have the F as a passing note, and then you could say, “You know what? “I’ll have that chord VI because E-flat’s in chord VI, “and I’ll have that at the end of the bar.” So you might on the chord I, passing, VI. You could do that. Or, you might think, “I’ll have three different chords in the first bar.” So you could start on chord I, then you could say, “Well, which of the chords “have F in them?” Well it could be a chord II, it could be a chord V, it could be a chord VII. VII is a tricky chord, if you have a diminished chord, be a little bit careful how you use that. If you’re going to use it at all, use it in first inversion rather than in root position. It will sound better, as a rule. But it’s not the most obvious chord, V is quite an obvious chord, actually, isn’t it? II is definitely another possibility, but you could, for example, go I, V, I. And have three chords. Or you could go I, V, VI. So, you see, it’s not just that only one possibility exists. You’ve got to decide, “How do I want this to go?” Do I want the chords to move quite slowly, so maybe I get a sense of chords moving kind of one to a bar, some of the time, anyway? Or do I want the chords to move quite quickly? What’s the speed of the piece? Because if it’s going really fast, the chord change probably needs to be a bit more widely spaced. If it’s going really slowly, the chord change probably needs to be a bit more frequent to compensate for that, so these are all things to bear in mind. So, you see that we’ve got possibilities in the first bar. When I go to the second bar, well, again, I could say, “I just have one chord in that bar.” And I could say, “Well, I need a chord that’s got F in it, “I then need a chord that’s got B-flat in it, “so is there a chord that’s got F and B-flat in it? “But I’ll treat the A-flat as a passing note “because it’s passing by step between B-flat and G.” Well, which is the chord that’s got an F and a B-flat in it? Well, there’s only one, it’s chord V. Sometimes you find you’ve got two notes that will belong to this chord and belong to that chord. Sometimes, if you’ve just got the bottom and the top note, there’s only one chord that fits. So I could decide that the whole of bar two is going to be harmonised with a chord V. And maybe onto a new chord in the next bar. So I could do that, couldn’t I? Or I could think, “Well actually, “I want two chords in that bar.” F happens to belong to chord II, for example, so I could start with a chord II, and then go to a chord V. Probably, what I’m not going to do is change chord between the B-flat and the A-flat, because that would be a bit of a rush, wouldn’t it? If I did something like, you see, suddenly all the chords are moving along a bit quickly. So I might enjoy the quaver rhythm as a kind of something that belongs to the melody without having a jolt in the chords because they’re moving so quickly. So, you could have one chord for the whole bar, or you could maybe have one chord here, another chord at the end of the bar, but I’d probably treat the A-flat as a passing note because it’s moving a little bit quickly. So you’re getting the idea. You know, we could have chord I for the whole of the first bar. And then chord V for the second bar. Do you see, it’s quite a sort of calm impact. Or I could think I’ll have the harmony moving a bit faster, a faster harmonic rhythm, as we call it. So I could go I, V, VI, II, and then maybe move on to a V. So, do you see, that would give me more chord change, faster harmonic rhythm. Decide what the mood is that you’re trying to create. I come into bar three and I’m thinking, well, I could have one chord for each of these, G, for example, belongs to chord VI. I mean, it’s also around, isn’t it, elsewhere, it’s in III, it’s in I. You know, I’ve had a fair bit of I, I suppose, at the beginning, and maybe I’m going to come back to I at the end, that often happens, so maybe it’s a good time to use VI. So from the end of the previous bar, you go V, VI. That might be quite nice. I could also then say, “Well, do you know what? “C is also in VI”, so I could just have VI for those two notes before I move on, so I have VI, and then I change chords there. Or I could say, “Well, I’ll have one chord here, “I’ll have a new chord there.” Well, apart from VI, C is also in IV and II. So I could be going from my VI to a II. Or I could be going from my VI to a IV. You might think, “Hmm, do I prefer one of those “over the other?” I think I quite prefer IV there, actually, but that’s just a personal thing. So IV, then IV, maybe. And then, the last two moves often need to be something called a cadence. So if you go V-I, that’s a perfect cadence. If you go IV-I, that’s a plagal cadence So V-I, perfect cadence, IV-I, plagal cadence. If you go something to V, that’s in imperfect cadence. It’s normally I to V, IV to V, or II to V. If you go V to VI, that’s an interrupted cadence. And really, the imperfect cadence sounds a bit more like a musical comma, if you like. The interrupted sounds a bit more like a musical question mark, if you like. The things that finish on chord I, the perfect and the plagal cadences, tend to sound like full stops, which, maybe, is what we’re looking for here. So, can we find a cadence formula? Well, I would fit here, wouldn’t it, in the last chord, because G is in chord I. V would fit there, so this could be a perfect cadence that is going V to I. So you probably want to go for one of those cadence formulas. So there we are. It’s kind of, what’s the mood you’re trying to create? How quickly do you want the chords to change? How are you going to make decisions about is every note a harmony note, belongs to a chord, or have we got options that we could treat it as a harmony note, or we could say that’s a passing note, or an auxiliary note. And it will affect the flow of the piece. That will also be affected by the tempo and different approaches will create different moods. What’s the progression of one chord to the next? You know, this is where you need to experiment and think, “I like that progression “a bit more than I like this progression.” There’s nothing wrong with either, but one just happens to sound better. But I’m hoping that what I’m doing here is kind of explaining the process of how you would begin with a melody in whatever style you’re writing and work out what the chords might be. And if ever you want to follow this up on a one-to-one basis, you can get in touch via the website and we can organise a one-to-one session on Skype for you. Anyway, there we are. That’s how you go about the process.

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