Pentatonic Melodies are Usually the Easiest to Harmonize

If you’ve been trying your hand at starting the songwriting process by writing a melody, I applaud you. It may seem tricky at first to create a melody when you haven’t come up with chords first, but once you get the hang of it, you (and your fans) will appreciate the quality of your melodies.

But if you’re finding it hard to write melodies as a starting point, try this: write pentatonic melodies. They’re a lot easier to add chords to.


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A pentatonic melody is one that uses a 5-note (pentatonic) scale. Technically speaking, any scale that uses only five notes is a pentatonic scale. But in common musical usage, a pentatonic scale avoids the fourth and seventh notes, giving you this for a C pentatonic:

C-D-E-G-A

In other words, when we talk about a pentatonic scale, we’re usually talking about one where the semitones have been eliminated (F is removed, so there’s no E-F semitone, and B is removed, eliminating the B-C semitone.)

Starting and ending on C gives us a C pentatonic scale, which sounds major to our ears because of the proximity of C to E. You can choose A as your starting and endpoint, and you’ve got A minor pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G).

Here’s a little exercise you can try, just to get your writing process going:

  1. Choose a key you’re going to use for your melody. For now, let’s keep it simple and choose either C major pentatonic (using C-D-E-G-A) or A minor pentatonic (using A-C-D-E-G)
  2. Create a little melody that’s four or five notes long. Here’s one I came up with:

  3. Now start improvising a chord progression, one where each chord sounds like it works while you repeat your melody. Here are the chords I came up with to fit my melody:
    C  G  Am  F |C  Bb  C (Click the arrow below to hear it_

As you can see, almost any chord you choose will work. Even the Bb chord in my harmonization, which is not a natural chord found in the key of C major, sounds good. Once you’ve removed semitones from your melodies, chords fit a lot easier.

And just because you’re using a pentatonic scale doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a semitone once in a while. McCartney does this with the melody for “Let It Be”, which is pentatonic except for the word “words” in the line “Speaking words of wisdom…”

Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” is mainly based on the pentatonic scale, including the instrumental break after each chorus.

Other songs that use melodies based on a pentatonic scale? Many folk songs (“The Farmer In the Dell”, “Rain Rain Go Away”, “Oh Susannah”, “Auld Lang Syne”, etc.), as well as the song “Sukiyaki” by Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Chord Progressions, Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

7 Comments

  1. Hi Gary,

    On your latest blog, Pentatonic tunes, references not seen for your short tune example nor the chords sound bites. Love reading your blogs, sometimes your blogs mirror thoughts processes I’m seeing in my songs. All the best in the holiday season and in 2021.
    Cheers,

    Jim Reid

      • Hi Gary,

        Usually items you refer to are highlighted in blue. In this case, may be mine only, even the typed refered to item was not there.

        • Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, I didn’t put links for most of the songs I mentioned, that’s true. Sometimes, especially if the song is a popular, well-known tune, I figure most people have an easy way to pop the title into YouTube to hear it if they need to hear it.

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