Adding Chords to a Melody: the 3 Easy Steps

Fine-tune Your Songwriting Skills

Guitar ChordsComing up with a chord progression that works is not rocket science, but if you don’t get things quite right, you’ll wind up with a song that just feels wrong. Many songwriters will start the songwriting process by coming up with a set of chords that work before they even deal with the melody. But what if you’ve got a melody that you like, how do you add chords to it?

Adding harmonies to an existing melody requires three steps:

  1. Identify the time signature;
  2. choose the song’s key;
  3. choose chords based mainly on melody notes that occur on strong beats.

So let’s look at each step.

1. Your song’s time signature shouldn’t be too difficult to determine. Sing your melody, and you should notice that your toe starts tapping quite naturally. You’ll probably even notice that some of the beats feel stronger while others feel less so.

Identifying the pattern of strong and weak beats is an important part of this step. If you feel that your melody falls into a “STRONG – weak – STRONG – weak” kind of pattern, your song is likely in 4/4 time. Less commonly, you might find that it conforms to a “STRONG – weak – weak” pattern (like Billy Vera’s “At This Moment”, or the old favourite “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”).

Identifying the time signature is important because you’ll want most, if not all of, your chord changes to happen on strong beats. So in a 4/4 time signature, you’ll either change chords every 4 beats, or every 8 (less commonly, every 2 beats). This is called the harmonic rhythm. [CONTINUED BELOW..]


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2. Your song’s key is important because the chords you eventually choose will need to come from that key, and need to reinforce one particular note as the tonic (key) note, and one particular chord as the tonic chord. Most (though not all) melodies will end on the key note, and some will even begin on the tonic note.

And when you sing your melody through, it should become obvious that when sections of the melody come to a rest, its often or usually resting on the tonic note.

Once you know the key, you’ve now got the 7 chords that will naturally exist in that key. For example, if your song is in A major, the chords that naturally exist in that key are: A Bm C#m D E F#m G#dim. Of those ones, the I, IV and V chords (A, D and E) will be the most commonly-used ones, with ii (Bm) and vi (F#m) coming in as next most commonly used.

3. You might want to start the actual harmonizing process by keeping things simple. Decide on a harmonic rhythm (i.e., how frequently you want to change chords), and then stick to I, IV and V as your chord choices. Let’s say that you’ve chosen to change chords every two beats; take a look at the first two beats of your song. If your song uses quarter notes (i.e., mainly changes notes on every beat) you’ll want to look at the first two notes. Find a chord that uses both these notes.

And that’s the procedure you’ll use for the entire melody. If you change chords every four beats, take a look at all the notes that occur within those four beats, and choose a chord that properly harmonizes them. You’ll likely not find one chord that incorporates all the notes, but finding one that accommodates at least the ones that sit right on or near the strong beat will work. The other notes that don’t necessarily fit the chord will be heard as “non chord tones”.

And that’s pretty much it. Once you’ve harmonized your song in I, IV and V chords, you may want to start doing some chord substitutions. That’s a whole other topic, so give this article a read.

The advantage to writing the melody first and then harmonizing it is that it places an important emphasis on the structure of the melody, and you’ve got a better chance of coming up with one that’s more memorable, and has better melodic contour.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Follow Gary on Twitter

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


  1. Try playing by sight as opposed to playing by ear and do it on the piano. For example, find the “basic” chord to go with the next melodic note that you are about to play on the upcoming down beat by playing the root note of the chord at note interval 1, 3 or 5 BELOW (+1 octave) the melodic note. So you have a 1 in 3 chance of picking the correct root note for your next chord. Know that almost every song ends with the root note being the same as the final melodic note at note interval 1 (+1 or more octaves).

    ​Improve you ability to spontaneously pick the correct root note out of these three options (at note interval 1, 3 or 5 below the melodic note) by “hearing” the song in your head (your memory of the song recordings you’ve heard in the past). You may be able to tell if the root and melodic note on the next downbeat are or are not the same notes at note interval 1. If you can tell in your head that they are different, then you have narrowed the next root note down to just the root note at note intervals 3 or 5 BELOW the melodic note, giving you a 50/50 chance of correctly identifying the right root note/chord.

    ​This method (“playing by sight” as opposed to “playing by ear”) of visually identifying which melodic note is coming up on the next down beat (by watching your right hand play the melody on the piano) and mirroring the root note to follow the melodic notes on the down beats (at note intervals 1, 3, or 5 below the melodic note) enables one to spontaneously add basic chords to any song while playing a song in any key (and without having to know or figure out what key you are playing the song).

    ​Add basic chords by playing the root note with your left hand pinky, and while you hold your left hand in a fixed claw-like position, you can spontaneously play or roll the notes at note intervals 5, 8 and 10 above the root note to add basic chords to the song melody.

  2. “Let’s say that you’ve chosen to change chords every two beats; take a look at the first two beats of your song. If your song uses quarter notes (i.e., mainly changes notes on every beat) you’ll want to look at the first two notes. Find a chord that uses both these notes.”

    And If I don’t find a chord that has the two notes in it? For example C-D ? Should I then also use the strong beat?

    • I don’t think I wrote that paragraph very well… It’s from 10 years ago, and a more up-to-date (and better) version of this might be found in this article: “Fitting Melodies to Chords, and Vice Versa“, as well as “7 Quick Tips for Adding Chords to a Melody

      In any case, if you find that the melody has two different notes, it’s quite likely that it’s the first note that will be the one that should be included in the chord you’re trying to choose. So if you have a melody that starts C-D… the chords you might consider are C, Am, F, and so on. Part of knowing which chord to choose will depend on the key of your song.

      Hope this helps!

  3. I love how you’ve made everything so easy to understand! I haven’t learnt music at all, so this really helped, thank you! 🙂

  4. Great post. I use this technique all the time, plucking out the melody notes and finding the chords that support them best.

    To me, The Beatles were the absolute masters at this, which is why their songs are often hard to figure out. You can get close, but it never feels quite right, and the reason is their innovative chord choices. In fact, to anyone out there interested in writing songs on guitar, I would wholeheartedly recommend The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook, available here:

    A friend bought it for me and it is a constant revelation.

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