Songwriter - piano player

How Melody Notes and Chords Cooperate

I often get emails asking me some variation on the following: How can chords, which contain only 3 or 4 notes, be used to accompany melodies that contain so many notes?

The question relates to the fact that you might strum a chord for two full bars (8 beats) or even more, and in those bars your melody might use 10 or more notes. Not all of those notes belong to the chord you’re strumming. Some of the notes you sing will be chord tones, and the others will be non-chord tones.

If you want a specific example of what the question is referring to, think of the song “Penny Lane“, in which the melody moves up and down visiting 10 pitches, all happening over a B chord. Why do all the non-chord notes in the melody sound OK?

The answer is that we naturally hear music organized to be alternating strong beats and weak beats. That’s at least true of more than 90% of songs:

Penny Lane - Strong beats and weak beats

We instinctively like to hear chord tones happening on the strong beats, and we’re OK with either non-chord tones or chord tones happening on the weak beats. Here’s a look at that first phrase of “Penny Lane”, showing the melody notes. Chord tones are green in colour, and non-chord tones are red:

Penny Lane - Melody and chords

As you can see, every strong beat has a green note underneath, and that’s something we find to be quite natural. The weak beats will at times have chord tones, but will often easily accommodate non-chord tones as well. Technically, a non-chord tone is a kind of dissonance, a jarring note that on its own won’t seem to work very well. But we are completely fine with non-chord tones on weak beats.

This is simply an explanation – it’s not something you need to overly worry about, because it’s a natural phenomenon. It feels natural to want chord tones on strong beats and non-chord tones on weak beats. And you’re probably already doing it.

When trying to add chords to a melody you’ve created, keep the following 3 points in mind:

  1. Establish a harmonic rhythm. A song’s harmonic rhythm is a basic plan for how frequently you plan to change notes. In “Penny Lane”, it’s generally every bar (every 4 beats). It doesn’t need to stay the same, but you’ll find that making those changes more or less according to a set pattern works very well.
  2. Find your melody’s key. If this isn’t something you know how to do, read this article. Once you have the key, you know the chords that are likely to form the bulk of your chord progression.
  3. Change chords mainly on strong beats. You’ll find that this is also quite natural. You’ll want to identify the strong beats of your melody not just to know which moments should have chord tones, but also so that you can know where to change chords.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary,

    Nice article, but I’d argue that the notes you call “non-chord tones” are excellent chord tones – they are just tones of more complex chords than simple triads. Over the B we have C# (the 9th), A# (the major 7th), and G# (the 6th). All these are very nice colors for either a I or IV chord in a progression.

    Great site and thanks for sharing your insights!

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