Harmonizing a Melody in Two Ways: First Major, Then Minor

Harmonizing a melody in minor if the original key is major helps breathe new life into a song.

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Part of starting the songwriting process is choosing a key for your song. The main factor you’ll consider, of course, is your own vocal range. Not a lot of thought needs to happen with regard to whether or not your song will be in a major or minor key; that part often comes naturally. But if you choose major, it’s definitely worth the time experimenting with harmonizing your melody using minor chords. All major key melodies will harmonize successfully in minor, and there’s absolutely no reason to not use both in the same song.

As you know if you read this blog regularly, I often mention that the things that happen in Classical music eventually make their way into pop music; not much has changed except for performance style in the past few centuries. But switching from major to minor, or vice versa, which was a common feature of Classical music, hasn’t happened as much in pop music, and I think that’s a shame.

The reason that it was done a lot in Classical music was because changing key was one of the more interesting compositional challenges composers would undertake. They had to think about how to transition to that new key, and then how to transition back. And since Classical pieces tend to be longer than pop songs, they had the time to do it. And as I say, changing key smoothly and successfully was one of the more compelling musical tasks composers would tackle.

But put thoughts of how to transition from one key to another out of your mind. I’m only talking about taking a melody, harmonizing it in a major key, and then harmonizing it using minor.

There’s a particular kind of melody where switching to minor harmonies after using major ones really works, and it’s when the second phrase of a 2-phrase melody sounds almost identical to the first phrase.

Here’s a quick example I did up in MIDI just show what I mean. As you’ll hear, it’s a melody comprised of two phrases that are identical except for the very ends of the phrases; the first phrase ends on a V-chord, and the second ends on a I-chord:

Play Sample 1 (Opens in a new browser window)

As you can hear, the progression is “strong”, in the sense that it sits solidly in D major, and the way the chords progress make that very clear: D G A D | D G A…

Now listen to this harmonization:

Play Sample 2

As you can hear, the second phrase now goes into the minor side of D major: B minor, and the chord progression is now: Bm  Em7  F#7  Bm  |Bm  Em7  A  D.

B minor is the likely choice for switching to minor, because it’s the relative minor key of D major (i.e., uses the same key signature). The melody lends itself well to this switch, because its first note is F#, which exists in a B minor chord.

Not only do I switch the first chord, but I change the second chord to Em7. That strengthens the progression by allowing the bass to move from B to E. And as we know, when roots of chords move by 4ths and 5ths, the progression strengthens.

Then I switch back to D major right at the very end. This is because I didn’t want the diversion into B minor to last forever. I just wanted to add a bit of variety.

Using the relative major-minor key relationship is a very easy one to make work, as you can hear. But try experimenting with this, and see if you can use other key relationships. The only “rule” is that the chords you choose need to properly harmonize the notes of your melody.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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2 Comments

  1. Mr.Ewer I just wanted to let you know that you have wowed me your extensive and easily applicable techniques and knowledge of functional theory. I will be purchasing the 37$ dollar e-book set in the future.
    My question is one that I don’t see many great answers for. My genre of choice at this period in my life is metal on a 7 string baritone guitar with 28″ scale. The guitar is tuned a half step down d standard G# C# F# B E G# C#. How can I create a powerful and epic climax ending to my songs. My favorite band Tool did this on a song called “Vicarious”. The ending was a metaphorical earthquake release of tension and energy with tribal drums speeding up and counterpoint melodies going on. I want to learn how build this type of energy. Any pointers?
    Thanks so much for your valuable time.
    (P.s a link to a baritone cover of the song climax begin to build in my opinion at 4:00 min).

    • It seems to be a building complexity in the basic rhythms used. In this song, it does seem that rhythmic syncopation and a general increase in rhythmic activity seem to be the main elements used in building energy. So if you’re writing a song that’s needing a “metaphorical earthquake”, I’d recommend focusing on rhythmic activity, and just generally allow things to get busier as they go.

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