Which Chords with Which Notes? Harmonizing a Melody

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I wish more songwriters would do the melody-first method. Coming up with the melody after endless strumming of chords can often result in a tune that is directionless and uninspiring. What probably scares writers off of writing a melody first is… how do you harmonize it?

Getting a bit of understanding with regard to chord theory is always a great idea. If you can’t read music, you might feel tempted to resort to a kind of random process of applying chords to melody. But good songwriting is not usually a random process. And while through the random process you may eventually come up with chords that sort of work, it’s better to understand why certain chords harmonize certain notes, and how chords should ideally progress.

Here are some tips for adding chords to your melody:

1. Every song needs a basic harmonic rhythm. It’s the frequency of the chord changes. For many songs, chords will change every four to eight beats. Determine what it will be for your own song. This usually means identifying the time signature for your song. If your song exhibits a continuous STRONG-weak-STRONG-weak pattern, you’re probably in 4/4 time.
2. Identify the key of your melody. Sometimes the first and quite often the last notes of your melody will be the key note (tonic) of your song. Once you know the key, you’ll be able to identify the three chords that you’ll use the most: I, IV and V of that key (for example, in A major, you’ll find that A, D and E will be the chords that work best.
3. Chords will usually change on strong beats. This means that if your chords change every 8 or 4 beats, you’ll want to change chords on beat 1 — the strongest beat. For a song where the harmonic rhythm is every two beats, you’ll want to change chords on beats one and three of every bar.
4. Identify the melody note on the strong beat. Usually the note or two after it will also offer a good clue as to what the chord should be. Let’s say your melody has the notes A and C# at the beginning. These are two notes from the A chord, and it’s a safe bet to use that chord. But you’ll also find that the notes A and C# also exist in F#m, so consider that chord as well.
5. In general, your chord progressions will start on the tonic chord, then go to the IV-chord, moving on to the V-chord, then return to the I-chord. There are other chords you can use, of course, but that I – IV – V pattern will be a workhorse that will work well for you. You’ll find that for verses, starting on a vi-chord can add a nice contrast to chorus harmonies that typically start on the I-chord.
6. The faster your song, the less frequent your chord changes should be. Changing chords frequently in a fast song makes the song sound frantic, and so unless you’re looking for that effect, make chord changes less frequent in faster tempos.

If you don’t know what those Roman numerals mean, or if you want to learn the more complete story behind why some chords work better than other ones in your song, my e-books “How to Harmonize a Melody”, “Essential Chord Progressions”, “More Essential Chord Progressions” and “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” will explain it all to you in great detail, and will provide you with pages and pages of chord progressions you can use right now in your songs.

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19 Comments

  1. Wow Gary what a great post!

    You are so right.

    Traditionally i’ve seen ballads and pop songs writen in this manner.

    I have also noticed the Urban market does not (for the most part) use this technic, there is special attention to the flow first, creating a solid ground for the writer (s) instead.

    Loved your post and thank you!!

    Reply
  2. Good point about songwriters often doing the chords first and then the melody … But harmonizing under a written melody can get complicated depending on the genre etc…

    Reply
  3. Mikel

     /  April 11, 2009

    This “process” or “formula” can work well for the beginning songwriter, but the formula provided in this article (I refer mostly to the types of chords used) may produce a functional and familiar pop sound, but is also a very unoriginal sound. Though a beginner may find these tips useful, they may also find their song will sound almost exactly the same as every other pop song out there, dating as far back as the 70s, depending on the genre.

    I say nothing beats having a strong theory background or knowledge. I agree coming up with the melody can be a strong way to start, I only propose the suggesting the I-IV-V-I chord progression as the “work horse” may not be very apropos for someone looking to create something original.

    I’m new to songwriting, but my background is in music composition; that being said, my suggestion would be to decide the melody, and when considering your chords, do whatever makes the melody sound interesting to the ear (for instance, non-chord tones, which were never mentioned in the article). Just be sure that, however you choose your chords, your chords are functional (which functional rules also depend on the genre/style).

    Reply
    • you are absolutely right about a strong theory/harmony background. your local community college should have classes in theory, piano and sightreading/ear training…working out of the Ottman book you can eventually learn to harmonize/reharmonize working only from a linear melody…anyone who is too lazy to learn thoeory or ‘doesn’t need it’ is probably either a poor songwriter or a stone genius…

      Reply
      • Serj Santy

         /  August 26, 2012

        Many famous artists dont use theory and they are awesome at their craft. Two that come to mind right away, Marty Friedman and Nobuo Uematsu. Marty friedman writes many non conventional melodies. He has said he didn’t learn theory, just experimented using all kinds of notes including out of key notes(chromatic, japanese influenced, etc) with different chords until he found what notes he liked. then he wrote 1000s of original phrases and memorized them.

  4. Mikel: I quite agree with most points in your post. I didn’t mention non-chord-tones in this article because in most cases, before a songwriter ever gets to NCTs, the basic errors in harmony involve improper use of chords, and a misunderstanding of chord function.

    I’ve always been a believer in the knowledge of music theory as the main way to open one’s eyes to the creative possibilities in songwriting. My advice in this particular posting was to those struggling with getting songs to work in the first place. And for those songwriters, originality of harmonic expression may not (perhaps should not) be the first concern. Getting melodies to click with harmonies at a fundamental level should be a priority. Originality should follow that.

    I appreciate your comments.

    Reply
  5. Amazing Article , I thought it was special

    I look ahead to more similar postings like this one. Does your website have a RSS I can subscribe to for anymore information from you?

    Reply
  6. The RSS feed for my blog is:
    feed://garyewer.wordpress.com/feed/rss/

    Glad you enjoyed the article!
    -Gary

    Reply
  7. Michael Grove

     /  May 14, 2010

    Well in part I agree with you when you say that using the chord-first method generally results in bland and/or meaningless melodies. In fact, most of my most loved songs obviously were written in the melody first method. Incidentally, I believe I am cursed. Although I lack any decent knowledge of music theory, I have a very good musical ear, seeing as I’ve been listening to my father play Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc, on his booming Grande Piano ever since I could breath. Why do I think I’m cursed? I absolutely fail at doing the melody-first method, and yet I am astoundingly good at creating in depth and inspiring chord progressions. All my friends are in awe when I play these chord progressions, and yet when it comes to writing melodies, my mind is completely blank. I don’t know what to do. Learning music theory is certainly a step in the right direction, but I don’t have the time or money.

    Reply
  8. Michael:

    There are many that find the melody-first method difficult. And while I say that melody-first allows you to concentrate on the melody above all else, there’s something to be said for starting with that thing that you do well. If your chord progressions are good, you may not need much of a melody to partner with it.

    For now, you may want to try writing melodies with no accompanying harmonies, simply as an exercise. Try writing simple, short melodies, and save them in a notepad. You’ll probably find that your skill in this regard simply needs to be practiced, where chords come quite naturally.

    -Gary

    Reply
  9. Peter Jenkins

     /  August 9, 2010

    Great Article Gary All very valid, The Beatles according to Paul were very much into working from a set of chords, but would improve and replace as the song took shape.

    “Substitution By Function” was something they learned
    very early in their writing. I.E. a Tonic for a Tonic a Dominant for a Dominant and a Sub dominant for a Sub Dominant

    Pauls Song “The Long And Winding Road” is a wonderfull example of delayed resolution, and the clever use of Bass Inversions. plus of course Sustitution by Function

    I think it’s a choice of what suits the writer’s, and working from a set of chords does not always lead to a song that
    sounds generic or one that has a “Been Done Before’ feel ,.a mix of the two methods and being free to alter and re write, is the choice all writers have.

    As always your articles or very helpful. to both new writers
    and even established ones.

    Peter Jenkins P.J.Xanadu Music Publishing U.K.

    Reply
    • Hi Peter:

      Thanks for your comments. Your example of “The Long and Winding Road” is a good one, especially for chord inversions. Another writer with a good grasp of chord inversions and how to properly use them is Elton John.

      Thanks again!
      -Gary

      Reply
    • ..as a fairly proficient writer and arranger myself, i certain don’t work according to a set formula for every tune…some songs come from a melody, some all at once, some from ripping off a good chord progression or riff, some from random screwing around with chords, etc …i dont believe that any book or method can teach a person to write music…you have to follow your own muse

      Reply
  10. Top stuff! Your post perfectly covers the building blocks of songwriting; without this knowledge we’d all be left high and dry. I’ve recently posted on a subject very similar to this, I’d love for you to have a look:

    http://pianoplonker.wordpress.com/

    Reply
  11. Evangelist David

     /  November 15, 2011

    i luv dis site becos am bless.

    Reply
  12. Evangelist David

     /  November 15, 2011

    I know dat i wil become a gud singer daddy in thy lord.

    Reply
  13. Dear,

    Would you please teach to make one example, (song: “Let it be me” in the original melody version). Then teach step by step how to make the chord progression with it. This will more actualize your teaching, I guess.

    Thank you in advance of your willingness.

    Reply
  1. Cool Site – Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog | Fitzternet
  2. Making Song Melodies Better With the Right Chord Progression « The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

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