Adding chords to a melody has as much to do with time signatures and beats as it does about notes. Here’s how it all connects.
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Creating chord progressions that fit that melody that’s been rolling around in your mind has as much to do with where chords should be placed as to what those chords actually are. For every possible key, the list of chords that are usually used is not that large. There are 7 chords that are native to a key, but of those, 3 or 4 of them are the common ones, with the other chords being less often used. Getting chord progressions right requires you to understand a bit about harmonic rhythm and time signatures. You need to know how to choose chords, and then where to place them.
After years of emails from people on this subject, here’s a summary of the kind of confusion people have about harmonizing a melody: “My melody has lots of notes… which notes get harmonized, and which ones don’t?”
In other words, all of those 3-chord songs you know (“Hound Dog,” for example) use lots of different notes in the melody, but may only 3 chords. (C F7 G7, in the case of “Hound Dog”) So how do you know where the chords go, and which notes get harmonized?
It has to do with the time signature. Most pop songs, and in fact most songs from jazz, country, folk, etc., use a time signature of 4/4. This means that we get a sense of alternating strong and weak beats when we listen to the song: STRONG – weak – STRONG – weak
In general, you’ll want to change chords on strong beats. This means that you’ll change chords mostly on every other beat (i.e., the chord is held for 2 beats), like “Let it Be,” or every 4 beats, like “Hey Jude”. If you want the time between chord changes to be longer than that, it’s every 8 beats, like “Hound Dog.” Longer than 8 beats, it’ll be 16 beats, like the verse of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
That kind of relationship between time signature beats and chord changes is called the harmonic rhythm. While you’re going to obviously choose to change up the pattern once in a while in a song, the regularity of when chords change is something that helps establish the song’s groove, and it’s really important.
So how do you choose the chords? If you choose a harmonic rhythm where the chords change on every other beat, look at the melody note on beats 1 and 2. If you can choose a chord that includes both those notes, great. (And if it’s the beginning of the song, choosing a I-chord is common). If the second note doesn’t fit in the I-chord, it’s usually not a problem; since listeners can sense that the second note is on a “weak” beat, there’s no particular need for that note to fit in with the chord.
Let’s say for example that your melody is the first 5 notes of a C major scale, and you want to change chords every 2 beats. You’ll likely choose a C chord as your first harmony. The ‘D’ of the melody won’t fit a C chord, but that D happens on the weak beat, so that’s OK. The next note is an ‘E’, so perhaps you’ll choose an Am to harmonize it. The ‘F’ note following doesn’t fit an Am chord, but again, that’s OK: it’s a weak beat note.
And so you’ll continue, trying to change chords every 2 beats. From time to time, you’ll probably change that up, and hold a chord for 4 beats. But generally, changing every 2nd beat will be the basic harmonic rhythm for the song. Just try to be that the note that gets the chord is in the chord.
And how did I know that an Am would follow a C major chord nicely? There are many standard progressions that work nicely, and with experience you’ll get to know them. (Or if you need help, “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions” will give you hundreds of them.)
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