It may surprise you to know that if you go back enough in time — the Medieval era, for example — most music was all about the melody, and that harmony definitely played a secondary role: harmonies were incidentally created as several melodies were played together.
While today, most music is a melody with chords underneath it to make the tune sound good, music from 800 hundred years ago (the 1200s, let’s say), was almost always about the melody. You might hear music that involved three vocal parts being sung together. And while there were important rules about the intervals those three voices created together, it really was three simultaneous melodies, as you can hear in this recording of a 13th century motet.
But music gradually evolved. By the time you reached the 1600s, it started to resemble what we know today: songs where the top line acted like a primary melody, the middle parts acting like harmony, and the lower part acting like a bass line, all accompanied by chording instruments (lute, harpsichord, organ, etc.). And where the 13th century motet sounds a bit strange to our 21st century ears, the 17th century song sounds familiar and “normal,” like this song by Alessandro Scarlatti.
For today’s songwriters, there’s not a lot of difference between how chords and melody work today, and how they worked back in Scarlatti’s day: a melody on top (the lead singer), with chords in the middle (guitars, keyboards), and a baseline (electric or keyboard bass).
And there’s also not a big difference in the way those chords work today when you compare them to how they worked in Scarlatti’s time – the late seventeenth century. Music is still usually “in a key”, with chord progressions that make the tonic note (the note representing that key) and tonic chord sound like the most important one. Scarlatti wouldn’t have much trouble understanding the theory behind today’s music, even though the actual sound of it might startle (trouble?) him!
So we have the same challenge today that all composers of a time since 1600 have: create a melody, and then add chords to it in such a way that supports that melody.
Sometimes you might do it the other way around: create a chord progression, and then add a melody to that. And to be sure, that’s a favourite way of working for many songwriters. But I think there’s true musical value in creating the melody first, which is that you put your attention on that one aspect of music that everyone remembers and hums. (No one hums chord progressions.)
And if adding chords to your melody is the stage of songwriting that gets you frustrated, here are five tips to keep in mind:
- Consider the tonic chord: The tonic chord is the chord that represents the key of your song. Most of the time, the melody you’ve come up with will work with the tonic chord; it’s just how our musical minds tend to work. There’s no rule that says you must start that way, but you might be surprised by how common that is.
- Focus on the primary chords: The primary chords are the I, IV, and V chords of your key. In other words, if you’ve discovered that your song appears to be in the key of G major, where G seems to work well as the first and the last chord, the primary chords will be: G, C and D. Most of your melody will work with those three chords. However…
- Think about creating some harmonic tension: Harmonic tension refers to chords that aren’t necessarily in your chosen key. In most cases, creative chords will happen in the verse and bridge sections, with the chorus using chord progressions that are stronger, shorter, and more focused on the tonic chord. But for your verse and bridge, you might look to find ways to make the vi, ii and iii chords happen more often, as a way to add harmonic interest to your music.
- Try inverting chords as another way to add harmonic interest: A chord inversion (also called a slash chord), is one where the letter name of the chord is not the lowest-sounding note. So for example, C/E means that you’d play a C chord, but use E as the lowest-sounding note in that chord. Using inversions is a great way to make an otherwise mundane progression suddenly sound much more interesting. (If you don’t feel confident yet creating chord inversions, read this blog article: “Getting Creative with Chord Inversions.”)
- Always support the melody: The melody of your song will be the guide to creating chord progressions. The chords you choose need to support the melody. So when you’re done, you should be able to play or sing the melody without chords and have it sound good, but also you should be able to play the chord progression without the melody and notice that it works well on its own.
If you’re wanting to focus on this important aspect of songwriting — adding chords to melodies — I’ve written an ebook that is designed to help you. “How to Harmonize a Melody” is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas. Get the free deal!