Coming 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:
- Identify the time signature;
- choose the song’s key;
- 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.