It may feel natural to some to consider that once you’ve created a melody that you really like, your job is to set about finding chords to harmonize it. But in reality, most good melodies already imply the chords that make that melody work. Another way of saying this is: good melodic structure strongly hints at the chords that will best accompany it. It’s hard, if not impossible, for us to hear melodies without also imagining harmonies, and if you aren’t getting a sense of harmony from your melody, there’s probably something wrong with the melody.
Harmonizing a melody should be an intuitive process. If you find that you need to “force” your melody and chords together, something’s wrong with one of them, and I’d look immediately at the melodic structure as the culprit.
Here’s a bit more of what I mean. Just as chord progressions amount to a harmonic journey that leaves from, and returns to, the tonic chord, many melodies wind up being a melodic journey that leave from, and return to, the tonic note.
Not all good melodies need to start and/or end on the tonic note, but many will. Melodies ending on the tonic note are particularly common, and (to a lesser degree) often start on the tonic note.
The point here is that melodic shape and melodic direction work hand in hand with chord progression. They are not independent of each other; as a matter of fact, good melodies usually come with chords implied.
But there can be a problem with simply coming up with chords that seem to be obviously implied by melodies: too much predictability can cause listener boredom.
But the good news is that predictable, even boring, chord progressions can be improved by using chord substitutions. A chord substitution simply means replacing a chord with a different one of the same function.
Chord substitution has been the subject of several blog postings I’ve made over the past couple of years, and here’s a quick list you can use as a guideline:
- A I-chord (C) can often be replaced with vi, iii, or IV
- A ii-chord (Dm) can often be replaced with IV
- A iii-chord (Em) can often be replaced with a V or I
- A IV-chord (F) can often be replaced with a ii, iv or I
- A V-chord (G) can often be replaced with a iii or I
- A vi-chord (Am) can often be replaced with a I, iii, or IV
- A vii-chord (Bdim) can often be replaced with a V7
To harmonize a melody, the best procedure, therefore, is to find the simplest harmonic journey – the most predictable chords – as a starting point, and then start replacing chords with sensible substitutes in order to spice things up. Working in that fashion means that you’ll have a melody that has a great progression that really accompanies your melody well, where both melody and chords feel like they are making the musical journey together.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is one of a set of 6 songwriting e-books that will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.
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