Choosing Chords to Fit Your Song Melody

Chords need to do 2 things: 1- Support the melody, and 2- establish and reinforce the key.

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Guitar and PianoThis is a bit of a follow-up to a previous post, “Making Chord Progressions By Categorizing Them.” In that article, I gave a few examples of progressions that demonstrate three standard categories of chords. But knowing how to categorize chords doesn’t necessarily tell you how to create a chord progression that fits your melody. So what do you need to know to properly harmonize a song melody?

If you’ve got a song melody, but you don’t know how to back it up with chords, try the following steps:

  1. Sing your melody over and over, and establish the key. That may seem too obvious to be a step, but it’s very important. As you sing that melody, you’ll find that most melodies already imply the chords that make the most sense. For example, if your melody starts with the notes C and E, it’s an easy choice to strum a C chord as your harmony. Other chords would work with those two melody notes: Am, Fmaj7, or even Dm9. Familiarity with the melody is a vital step. Often, identifying the final note of your melody will give you the key.
  2. Determine a harmonic rhythm that works. The harmonic rhythm is simply a term that refers to how many beats you’ll strum a chord before moving on to the next one. There’s no particular right answer to this, but as you sing your melody, you’ll get a sense of when chords might change. For example, if your melody starts with C moving to E, then D moving to F, you know that C and E easily belong in the same chord, while D and F imply a new chord choice. Many songs change chords every 4 beats, but some will change after 2, 8 or even 16. The harmonic rhythm doesn’t need to stay the same – it can fluctuate throughout a song, but should keep coming back to a clearly established pattern.
  3. Once you’ve chosen a basic harmonic rhythm, find a chord that fits most of the notes within that number of beats. Let’s say it feels right to change chords every 4 beats. Find a chord that works with most of the notes of the first 4 beats, keeping in mind that your chord choice should emphasize the key of your song. If the first 4 beats of your melody use these 4 notes — C E G F, you’ll find that it makes sense to choose C, even if the F note is the “odd man out”. But as we know, verse harmonies can be a bit more obscure, so don’t be afraid to experiment with something more creative: Am7 perhaps, or Fmaj9.
  4. Move on to the next 4 beats, and choose a chord that 1- fits the melody, and 2- makes sense in your chosen key. As I’ve mentioned in many blog postings before, chord progressions feel strong if the roots of adjacent chords move by 4ths or 5ths.

Remember, when you harmonize a melody, you’re trying to do 2 things. You’re choosing chords that support the melody, but perhaps more importantly, you’re trying to emphasize the key of your song.

Chord progressions can be adventurous, but remember that the more creative you become, the more difficult it may be for the key of your song to come forward. Don’t be afraid to be predictable with your chord choices. It’s the one element of a song where predictability will not usually hurt your music.

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

  1. woke up with an idea for a song.
    tried many chords. figured out the notes in the melody which started with a.
    tried chords in A. tried chords in C.
    read your theory that the last note is the key.
    last note was a d. picked up guitar and played 4 chords starting d and ending d.
    perfect fit to the melody. good trick.

  2. Thanks for sharing your tips! For me, this was the simplest way I used to learn how to compose or play a song by ear on piano. Google search for lead sheets to songs and look for the commonly used note intervals between the melodic notes played on (or sometimes immediately after) the main down beats and the bass note – usually at 1, 3, or 5 intervals below the melodic note. The chord is typically the notes at 1,3, and 5 intervals above each bass note. After examining just four or five songs, I think you’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll learn to find the right chords to play with and improvise off a melody.

  3. I’m just getting back into music and wanted to try my hand at creating some original guitar arrangements. Your article is very well written and encourages me greatly! I’m surprised at the small number of comments. Thanks so much!

    • Hi Eve:

      Thanks for writing in, and I’m very pleased that you found the post to be helpful. All the best with your guitar arrangements!

      -Gary

      • Thank you so very much for this article. I was having a hard time figuring things out. Now it’s all sorted all thanks to you!!

    • Hi Jesse:

      Thanks for writing, and I hope you have great success with your product. I took a look at your video, and Bandades looks like a really fine tool for up-and-coming guitarists. Congrats for some very good work, and all the best.

      -Gary

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