Looking for an easy way to discover the chords that could potentially go with a melody? It’s not a random process; it really depends mainly on what notes are happening on strong beats.
There is a bit of instinct involved, particularly with regard to how often you should change chords. You’ll notice that most songs, if you sing the melody alone, have a certain feel with regard to when chords should change. Even if you had never heard “The Times They Are A-Changin'” before, a song in 3/4 time, you’ll notice that it feels natural for most of those changes to happen every 3 beats.
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So assuming you’ve written a melody and you’ve got a sense of when chords could or should change, but you don’t really know what those chords might be, here’s a step-by-step process to help you:
- Sing your melody over and over to yourself, keeping time with your foot, or tapping your knees… anything to be sure you know exactly where the beats happen.
- Try to discover where the strong beats and weak beats are. If you can imagine a drum set being played along with your melody, remember that where you might instinctively hear a snare drum shot is typically a weak beat, not a strong beat. You want to find the strong beats, because that’s where chords usually change.
- Identify the notes of your melody that happen on strong beats, and for now ignore the notes in between the strong beats. Let’s say Paul McCartney did this process with “Let It Be”, a song in C major, he’d tap a slow ballad tempo with his foot, and he’d know that the words that happen on strong beats are: “find…”, “times…” “Mother…” “comes…” / “Speaking…”, “wisdom…” “be…”
- Now choose chords that could be happening at each strong-beat moment. On the word “find”, the melody note is G. Since the song is in C major, it’s likely that you’ll start off on a C chord. That melody note G fits nicely in a C chord. The next word, “times,” is also a melody note on G. But since we instinctively feel that the chord should change, you want to change to another chord from C major that uses a G. The G chord is a great choice, since that C-G relationship is the tonic-dominant relationship that’s so common in tonal music.
When you’ve isolated the words (and the notes) that happen on strong beats, where you hear chords potentially changing, you’d have this:
In that diagram above, you’ll notice that for some notes, like on the word “comes”, the first quick note that happens is a D, but then switches quickly to a C. Your ear will likely tell you that C is the “real” note, and that the D is actually a kind of non-chord-tone called a suspension. That happens again on the word “wisdom.”
Continue finding strong beat notes in this way through the melody. By doing this, you’ve got the notes that need to harmonize with the chords you’ll eventually choose.
As you can see, some of what you’ll choose is instinctive. If you like what your instincts have chosen for you, you don’t need a reason for selecting that chords. Use your instincts.
And some of what you’ll choose has to do with a bit of music theory. Songs in C major will usually feature that C chord as an important starting and finishing chord, and perhaps visit it quite often throughout the song.
Theory also will tell you that the dominant to tonic relationship (G or G7 to C) is another important relationship that will happen often throughout a song.
But when all is said and done, it doesn’t much matter what the melody notes between strong beats are doing. It has more to do with what’s happening on the strong beats.
If you’re not sure which notes belong to each chord, you’ll find this table from michael-thomas.com useful.
If you’re ready to really dig into the world of harmonizing melodies, you need a copy of Gary’s “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It explores the topic in greater detail than is possible in a short blog post. Complete with sound samples.