Tip: Harmonizing a Melody

Putting chords to a melody is one of the most rewarding aspects of making music, no matter what instrument you play. Even if you can’t play chords on your guitar, you still can play “broken” chords – arpeggios. Playing arpeggios can also help singers hear the chord changes they’re singing over.

Here’s an online resource that simplifies the process of harmonizing a melody.

This page gives you a clear procedure for putting chords to a melody. The author is Ken Rumery, who is Professor of Music, Theory and Composition at Northern Arizona University.

I’ve outlined the page here for your musical digestion.

How to choose chords for a melody:

Plan the overall feel of the tune. This includes simplifying the melody. I would say look for the chord tones used. Look also for melodic and rhythmic patterns. Listen for the key center or centers in the piece.

Sketch out the chords based on the results of the planning step. Use simple, diatonic chords, and simple progressions. This involves moving up by fourths, generally. Design a rhythm that complements the melodic rhythm.

Test the chords using your favorite chordal instrument. Choose a piano or guitar for this, or whatever you can get your hands on. I would also add that you can imagine what the chords would sound like if you had a chordal instrument nearby. In other words, if you don’t have access to a chordal instrument right now, use your head and good old-fashioned gut feeling to play the chords you’ve created.

Even better than this is singing the arpeggios of the chords you’ve chosen. Or, sing the melody and hear, in your inner ear, the root of the chord you’ve chosen. Then, switch sides and sing the chord root while your mind’s ear plays the melody. This is composing, and it may not be easy at first, but it’s incredibly engaging and rewarding, and you can do it anywhere.

Polish the chosen set of chords. When you do get access to a guitar, piano or computer with music software, flesh out the piece and make it flow.

Add variety, including using chord substitutions, harmonic sequences, and other patterns suggested in the melody.

The author emphasizes K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sam) here, and he provides a wonderfully simple summary of what effects each type of chord movement produces. To summarize that summary, move up a fourth to emphasize tonality, move by thirds to add color, move by seconds to give momentum to the melody.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2010 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – October 2, 2008 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.