Finding the Right Chords, Part 2

From “The Essential Secrets of Songwritingwebsite:


Any melody you come up with will be able to be harmonized in a variety of different ways. And that’s a good thing. It would be a very boring exercise if there was only one possibility for matching chords with melody notes. In the previous article we came up with a set of chords that would work in the key of D major. That’s certainly not to say that other chords aren’t possible. But those seven chords give us a useful starting point.


I’ve created a short folk-style melody that I’ll harmonize for the purposes of this article. Your favourite style may not be folk, but you’ll see that many different genres use the same chords; it’s performance and accompanimental style that will change. I’ll be referring to songwriting principles mainly from my e-book “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” in my descriptions below.


So click here to listen to the melody. When you’ve finished, simply close the window to return to this article.


You’ll notice that the melody is quite basic, with no notes coming from outside the key of D-major. In keeping with one of the major principles of good melodic construction, you’ll notice that the key note (i.e., tonic) is featured more in the chorus than in the verse. (This principle is explained on page 131 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting“.)


Now click here to listen to the chords that I’ve chosen as a preliminary attempt to harmonize this melody. They are fairly basic, and feature the I (D), IV (G) and V (A) chords, with the occasional ii-chord (Em) and vi-chord (Bm).


How did I choose those chords? I noticed that the shape of the melody makes it feel that chord changes should happen every two beats; this is called the harmonic rhythm. That means that I’ll look at the notes that occur within those 2-beat segments. The first two beats of bar 1 give us D and F#. And as the melody is in D major, a D major chord is the obvious choice for an opening chord. Beats 3 and 4 give us E and G. Now, these two notes exist in several possible chords: A7, Em, C#dim, etc. I chose A7, as that is a very strong way to begin this piece.  (See chart on p. 84 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.”)


You should not try to get too creative in your harmonizing of a simple melody. Using lots of I, IV and V chords works really well. At the same time, using those same chords all the time can get a bit predictable, and thus a bit boring.


So I tried modifying the chord choices. Click here to hear an alternate harmonization. You’ll see that I opted for using an E minor chord as a second chord. I put that chord in first inversion, meaning that the G of the E minor chord is in the bass: I didn’t like the sound of the melody note D moving to E while the bass note D was also moving to E, so I put the E minor chord in first inversion to avoid that circumstance. (See p. 17 of “Essential Chord Progressions.”) And I made other minimal changes along the way.


There are not limitless harmonic choices available to us, but there are many, so feel free to experiment. You may want to see what that melody sounds like when harmonized using pedal tones or secondary dominants (see p. 18-19 of “Essential Chord Progressions”)


Please take the time to listen to the samples above. If you have any questions or would like to comment, please click on “Post a Comment” below. I’d love to hear from you.


-Gary Ewer

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , .


  1. Dear Gary,

    I’m a self coach musician student.
    I wonder how to provide the best chords for a song with
    a lead sheet in hand. I am puzzled how the guitar melody
    is arrived as it usually is not the same as vocal notes.

    Is my question all about the HARMONY theory. Do I need to learn that
    in order to make a good song? Or I need a good book?

    Thank you.


  2. I’ve always been amazed by how a good set of chords can bring a blase melody to life. Thanks for taking the time to explain how you go about this process

Comments are closed.