Adding Chords to Melodies: Look for the Strong Beats

Not every note of your melody will fit the chord of the moment. So here’s what to do about that.

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Electric guitarYou’ve probably realized that one melody can have several different possible chord progressions to accompany it. But why is that? If we figure out the chords based on the notes that appear in the melody, how can there be several possibilities?

It’s because many basic chords use many of the same pitches. For example, in most cases, a C chord can be replaced by an Am. That’s because the notes of a C chord are: C-E-G, and the notes of an Am are: A-C-E. As you see, the notes C and E are in common between those two chords.

And that’s a good thing, because it gives us many options for applying chords to melodies.

When trying to decide which chord works with your melody, it really comes down to what’s happening on the strong beats. I’ve written about this from several different angles over the past few years on this blog. The most important first step is to get a sense of where the strong beats happen in your song, because that will determine if your music is in 4/4 time (alternating strong beats and weak beats) or 3/4 time (one strong beat followed by two weak beats).

The vast majority of music in the popular genres of pop, rock, country and folk is in 4/4 time. The general rule about finding chords can be summed up in two steps:

  1. The notes that occur on strong beats should be one that is found in the chord you’re considering.
  2. The most likely chord choice will be one that accommodates most notes between strong beats.

That second step simply means that it’s not usually possible for every note of your melody to be included in your chord. That’s especially true if your melody has a scale-like structure, where it moves from one note, to the next one, alphabetically (like “Groovy Kind of Love”).

So doing those two steps will give you many possible chord progressions. The final choice is yours to make, and the best choices will be the ones that sound most like a successful musical journey.

What do we mean by a “successful musical journey?” Just because the chords you choose fit the melody doesn’t mean that the progression is a good one. The best progressions in tonal music (i.e., music that is in a key) are ones that make the tonic chord (the I-chord) sound musically important, like a musical target. If that is confusing you, try reading this blog entry I made on chord progressions a while back. That will help you understand how to categorize chords and make them work sensibly together.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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