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If you’ve written a melody, or if you’ve got melodic ideas you want to work into your next song, your job is to invent harmonies that present that melody in the best possible light. The task may seem daunting, but there are really only two things that most chord progressions need to do: establish key, and harmonize notes. The process is actually not as tricky as you might think.
Let’s say you’ve written this melody: C-G F-E-D-F-E-C-D-C, where each note gets a beat, and the last two notes are held longer. How do we go about harmonizing this melody?
Let’s assume that we’ve chosen the half note (2-beat note) as the duration of each chord. If our melody above is made up of notes that are a beat long, that means we’ll have two notes for every chord choice. But how do we know that we’ve chosen chords that really work?
You’ll want to create progressions that do two things: 1) They make your chosen key feel like the “home” key; and 2) They properly harmonize the notes of the melody. It does no good to say, “I’m going to use the circle of fifths progression” if your melody doesn’t fit those chords.
When I create chord progressions, I concern myself first with the start of the progression: I want it to feel like C major (in this case) is “home”. And I concern myself with the end of the progression: I also want this to make C major feel like I’ve arrived back home. So I create the start in a strong kind of way, and I finish up as well with strong progressions. Then I fill in from both ends to create something that works.
I mentioned earlier that I had decided to change chords every two beats, harmonizing two melody notes with each chord. So look at each pair of notes in your melody, and choose a chord that both harmonizes the notes properly and makes C major feel like home. Most of the time you’ll want to be sure at least one of the notes of the pair fits your chosen chord, preferably (but not always) the first one.
Here are the note pairs:
[C-G] [F-E] [D-F] [E-C] D – C (notice that the last two notes don’t get paired because they are each 2-beat notes).
Given those note pairings, I’ve put a “bad” progression below, and then a good one. Each chord below harmonizes each successive pair of melody notes, with the last two chords harmonizing the final D-C of the melody:
BAD: C Em Dm C Dm C
GOOD: C F Dm C/G G7 C
The so-called “bad progression” doesn’t work well because even though each chord does the job of harmonizing the given notes, they fall down on the job when it comes to making C major feel like the home key.
The “good progression” makes C feel more like the home key because of the use of strong chord movement. The chord C moving to F is strong because those roots are a 4th apart. The Dm moving to C/G has the bass again moving a 4th, which is great, and G moving to C at the end makes C sound like the home chord.
There is so much more to be said about chords, but the basic rule, no matter how long your progressions or melodies are, is this: Your progressions should properly support the melody, and should make one chord stand out as feeling like “home.”
For even more help and examples to show you how to harmonize a melody, download Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books.