Chords and Songwriting: What To Do When Some Notes Don't Fit

You’ll be pleased to know that the chords you choose need not support every melody note.


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Zedd - ClarityHere’s a problem that many songwriters face when adding chords to melodies: what do you do about the notes that don’t fit the chord?

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you’ve got a melody that moves mostly by step, with very few leaps, like Zedd’s “Clarity“. We obviously don’t want to change chords every time a new note happens, because that would result in four to eight chords per bar of music! The norm is one chord for every bar, and sometimes one for every two bars.

When you add chords to a melody, the chords you choose don’t need to harmonize properly with every single note. Here’s a list of tips that should help:

  1. Most songs are in 4/4 time, meaning that it is a succession of strong beats alternating with weak beats. Your song is most likely to happen in the following pattern: S-w-s-w, S-w-s-w, etc., where the first strong beat is the strongest, and then alternating ones after that. In 4/4 time, beats 1 and 3 are strong beats, but 1 is stronger than beat 3.
  2. Chords will typically change on strong beats, and usually on beat 1. Chords with a faster “harmonic rhythm,” as they call it, will change on beats 1 and 3.
  3. Assuming that you want to change chords on every beat 1 (i.e., one chord per bar), choose a chord that harmonizes properly with the first note of a bar, and as many as possible of the other notes in that bar. Ideally, it helps if the melody note on the second strong beat in the bar also works with the chord you’ve chosen.
  4. Choose your next chord by doing what you did in step 3 above, but also consider that it needs to support the key of your melody.
  5. Keep choosing chords that create progressions that support the key but also works with the first melody note of each bar, and as many notes in that bar as possible.

With most melodies, it is normal to have several (or even many) notes that don’t actually belong to the chord that is accompanying it at the moment. Step 4 above is the tricky part. You need to choose chords that support the key. This means that good chord progressions are going to have many instances of root movements of 4ths and 5ths.

So if your song is in G major, and your first melody note is B, you’ll likely want to try to make the chord G work, because that supports the key of G major the best. Then, let’s say that the melody in your second bar of music starts with the note C. You have a choice of using the chord C, but also Am, or perhaps D7. All three of those chords support the key of G major well.

Keep in mind that it is normal that all notes will not fit the chord of the moment. But it’s important to try to have at least the first note fit, and then as many as possible of the other notes. Your ear should tell you if it’s working for you.

You’ll likely know the song “Groovy Kind of Love” if you were a teenager or young adult in the 60s listening to The Mindbenders, or in the 80s listening to the Phil Collins remake. The melody moves almost entirely by step, meaning that chords that are chosen work mainly with the first note of each bar. All the other notes act as “passing tones”, with some that fit the chord while others don’t. It all works because passing tones have a way of sounding OK as your musical brain searches for the next strong beat.

You’ll notice if you listen to both those renditions that Collins chose different chords than The Mindbenders did, showing you that one melody can be harmonized in a number of different ways.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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