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Melody Relationship To Chords

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Active Member
Joined: 14 years ago
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Topic starter  

Hello, I am new to this forum, and have been told that the notes of a melody are created by the highest chord note.

I have had a look at this and it seems as it might work some of the time but there are exceptions.

Can someone please explain this to me, as I find it a bit overwhelming, and would really love to understand the relationship of chords to the melody.

Thanks in advance from a hot and Dry Australia,

Active Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 15

Since I don't know the answer myself and until one of our heavy-weights checks in, I'd check out this article first and then follow the discussion in the GN Lessons forum on it here. Hopefully, that'll get you start.

"Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right..." - Stewie Griffin

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

What you've been told is a good rule of thumb for creating chord melody pieces. Unless that's what you're working on, it's no wonder you find it confusing.

I'll try to do this in as few steps as possible... bear with me :)

When a melody is harmonized, not all notes need to be part of the chords (except in the simplest pieces). Your melody may have a scale run in it, say C-D-E-F-G; you could decide to harmonize it with a chord that includes all the tones (maybe C11 or Fmaj13), but that might not get you the feeling you want. And you could change chords with every note - but what if it's a sixteenth note run? The practical solution is to harmonize the important notes in the melody, and leave the others as notes outside the chord, called non-harmonic tones.

So you've got your melody, and you're trying to set chords to it. How do you decide which notes are the important ones? Since composition is an art as well as a craft, you'll find different composers work in different ways - but in general, important notes are a) long notes (two beats or more at any tempo, one beat at slow tempos), b) stressed notes (those on beat one in any piece, those on beat 3 in 4/4 time, and anything you're accenting), and those that you feel are focal points of the melody.

Now let's say you've got that C-D-E-F-G run in your composition, and the rhythm is dotted quarter-eighth-quarter-quarter-half in 4/4 time, with C starting a measure. Our important notes will be C (beat one), E (stressed beat - beat 3), and G (long and on beat one). We can take the easy way out and harmonize this entire phrase over a chord that contains all the notes: C major - or any extension, like C major 7th, or any other chord that contains all those notes, like Am7.

Now let's get a little more complicated. Music has tension and release, and you decide you want the F note to lead strongly into G. That means you want F to have tension in the chord, and G to have release. In general, chords with tension are any dominant chords (7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths), any altered tone chords (like a m7b5), and any augmented or diminished chords. Chords without tension will be any major or minor triads, any major extensions like a maj7 or maj9, and any minor extensions - m6, m7 etc.

To keep it simple, I'll consider only 7th chords for the tension and major/minor triads for the release. Your F note will be part of a 7th chord... but it can be the root (F7), the third (Db7), the fifth (Bb7) or the seventh (G7). Your G note could be the root (G major or Gm), the third (Eb major or Em), or the fifth (C or Cm). Any combination of these will give you tension on the F and release on the G - some will be strong, like G7 -> C, and some won't... but you want a mix of cadences to make a truly interesting piece, so you let your ears guide your decision.

What you've been told is actually about chord voicing strategy, and it's used to create chord melody pieces. Let's say I'm going to harmonize beats 1-3 over C, beat 4 over G7, and the G note over a C chord. Now I could play x3201x over beats 1 and 2 (maybe playing the D as a single note), x32010 over beat 3, 320001 over beat 4, and either x32013 or x35553 over the G note. My chords are still C, G7, and C - but now my soprano line (the top voice) moves from C to E to F to G, right along with the melody.

I hope that helps. And I should point out that I'm simplifying functional harmony a great deal here; you'll find that this method will work in all cases, but you'll also discover there are cases where breaking these 'rules' gives you a better result... harmony study typically takes a couple of years in college, so you can't exactly boild it all down into one post!

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Active Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 3
Topic starter  

Thank you for both responses. Much appreciated, however, I am really out of my depth here,and it shows, but I would still like to ask questions, silly as they might seem initially.

You will have to forgive my lack of knowledge of music theory, and I should just stick around and absorb what I can and ask about the things that I do understand,(which is not much). I am gaining more and more respect for people with solid and qualified, musical education and knowledge.

As a rank amateur, I am in awe of skilled musicians, but I hope to gain some small skills from here(eventually)!

Cheers from a cooler part of Australia today (some welcome RAIN!!!)

Honorable Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 549

Malleeboy13, I'm new here myself, but the forum seems like a pretty safe place to ask questions.

Here's an even simpler look at functional harmony: Melodies tend to share some notes with the chords that accompany them. If you're putting a melody over a single E-B-E "power chord," there is lots of room for the line to explore other harmonies as long as it "checks in" now and then with the fundamental E chord. In the same way, progressions of chords provide a melodic context -- the line "visits" different harmonies as it moves from chord to chord.

If this isn't helping, perhaps you can rephrase your question or give an example of exactly what you need to figure out. There are almost always practical solutions to any problem -- even in music theory. :wink:

"You can't write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream." - Frank Zappa