Harmonizing a Tune - FIDDLY DETAILS - Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell

Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica-The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds - John Powell (2016)


C. Harmonizing a Tune

As I mentioned in chapter eleven, much of music’s emotional impact comes not from the melody itself but from the way it is harmonized with other notes. A change in harmony can completely change the emotional power of a tune.

If you play a carefully chosen sequence of chords along with a tune, not only do you give the music a fuller sound, but you can enhance the melody by supporting the more important notes in it. The harmony can also be used to build up sequences of tension and relaxation.

A full discussion of how we harmonize tunes would take up a whole book (or three), but I think it is important that we discuss a few basic points here. We’ll start with how we use chords to support the most important notes in the tune with a standard, relaxed harmony.

If you play “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” on the piano in the key of C (using only the white notes), starting on middle C (which is also known as C4), you need to play this sequence of notes to get the tune:

C4,C4,G4,G4, A4,B4,C5,A4,G4, F4,F4,E4,E4, D4,D4,C4

Matching the notes to the words:


As you can see, the C we use for the “an” in “an-y” is an octave above the one we use for “Baa, baa” and “full.”

Fair enough. But what about the chords?

A chord is any combination of three or more different notes played at the same time.* There is no limit to how many notes you can have in your chord. You could, with the help of a few friends, press all the keys on a piano at the same time to produce a (horrible-sounding) eighty-eight-note chord. But most simple chords have only three or four different notes in them.

To get a simple three-note chord from a scale, you choose any note in that scale, then, going up the scale, skip a note and add the next one you come to, then do the same thing again. Like this:

C2, D2, E2, F2, G2, A2, B2, C3, D3, E3, F3, G3, A3, B3


Simple chords like this have names based on the lowest note of the three. In our example we have G, B, and D, which is called G major. For this part of our discussion we’ll focus on the three major chords that can be created by any particular major key. In the case of the key of C major these are:

C, E, G—which is the chord of C major

F, A, C—which is the chord of F major


G, B, D—which is the chord of G major

These three chords are the cornerstone of most Western music in the key of C major.*

And good old “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” gives us a typical example of how they can be used.

The first phrase:


would be accompanied by the chord of C major. The tune involves only the notes C and G, and the chord uses the notes C, E, and G, so the tune and the chord have a lot in common. The chord therefore supports the tune.

If you were playing this on a piano, you wouldn’t necessarily want to use exactly the same C and G for your chord and your tune. So you might play C3, E3, and G3 with your left hand to make the C major chord, and the C4melody note with your right thumb. (A pianist would have all her fingers hovering, ready for the next notes, but I’ve tucked most of my fingers out of the way in the photo so you can clearly see which notes are being played.)


Playing a C major chord with your left hand and a C melody note with your right.

Moving on to the second phrase:


Accompanying this collection of notes with another C major chord would be a mistake. This is because notes that are next to each other in the scale sound harsh and dissonant if they are played at the same time. In this case the A in the tune would clash with the G in the chord and the B in the tune would clash with the C.

You might have noticed that the C on “an-y” would be supported by a C major chord—and this brings us to the point about how we choose harmonies that support the important notes in a melody. Melodies often use sequences of small steps between notes (like the A-B-C we have in this example), so whatever chords you use will probably clash with some of the notes involved and support others. Because of this, the general rule is that the chords which sound best are those that favor the notes that are emphasized by the rhythm.

In this case the rhythmically emphasized note is on the word “have.” (Try singing the song while exaggerating the emphasis and you’ll see what I mean.) Of our three major chords, the best one to suit a melody that goes “A, B, C, A” with the emphasis on the first “A” is F major (F, A, C).

The next note is a long, emphasized G for “wool.” This would clash with both the F and the A in the chord of F major, so we need another chord change. We could use either C major (C, E, G) or G major (G, B, D), but C major wins the day as it provides better finality to the end of the phrase. (The keynote chord in any key gives a sense of homecoming and ending—which is why it’s often the final chord of a song.)

We can now rewrite the notes for the song with the relevant chords underneath:


The same logic is used throughout the rest of the song, and the chord of G major (G, B, D) gets its chance to appear accompanying the repeated D in the melody for the words “three bags.”

This is the basic principle of harmonizing in nearly all Western music, from Vivaldi to Madonna. The harmony chords usually include some of the notes of the melody they are accompanying, concentrating on the “important” notes that are rhythmically emphasized. Jazz musicians and modern classical composers sometimes deliberately avoid this cliché—but don’t forget: clichés become clichés because they are popular and effective.

Inverted chords

The more eagle-eyed of you readers may have noticed that, although I have put numbers next to the note names for the tune, I have not done so for the chords. This is because of the octave equivalence described in chapter nine. As far as the harmony is concerned, the letters of the notes that make up the chord are far more important than the numbers. Keeping our tune where it is (starting on C4), you could arrange it so that the chord is lower than the tune, e.g., C2, E2, G2, or higher—C6, E6, G6. You would clearly hear the difference between these two versions, but in both cases the harmony would successfully be doing its job of supporting and emphasizing certain notes and giving more depth to the sound. So the two versions would sound different, but they would both sound pleasant.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, there is no need for the notes to be in the order they are—with the C as the lowest note, the E next, and the G at the top. For that first chord C, E, G, we could use it in a standard form—e.g., C6, E6, G6—or we could leave the E and the G where they are and make the C the highest note: E6, G6, C7. If you wanted an extreme case, you could use G1, C3, and E7 and the harmony would still work. This collection of notes is just another version of the chord of C major because it has the C major letters in it.

Chords like this, where the lowest note isn’t the standard one for that particular collection of notes, are called inversions (or inverted chords) because the chord is sort of upside down.* Inversions are very important when it comes to creating smooth-moving, sophisticated harmonies.

Once again, let’s look at our old friend “Baa, Baa” to see how this works:

Using the standard chords we might start with:

G2....................... C3.......................

E2....................... A2.......................

C2....................... F2.......................


There are circles drawn on the notes that make up a standard C major chord (C, E, G) and exes on the notes of the standard F major chord (F, A, C).

This chord change requires you to put your left hand down on the piano keyboard for the first chord and then move your hand about three inches to the right for the second chord. No subtlety at all in the movement or the sound, and this harmonization would therefore sound rather abrupt. Now see how the whole thing becomes less clunky if you simply move the C2 in the first chord up an octave to C3:

C3....................... C3.....................

G2....................... A2.....................

E2....................... F2.....................


The circles are now on the notes for an alternative (inverted) type of C major chord (E, G, C). The exes are, as in the previous illustration, on the notes of a standard F major chord (F, A, C).

Much smoother. Now the top note stays the same even though the chord changes, and the other two notes move only one note up in each case, the G2 up to A2 and the E2 up to F2. This is a far more subtle treatment of the harmony, but the chords are basically the same. Hurrah for octave equivalence! (And that’s not a sentence you come across very often.)

Techniques like this make it possible to arrange and harmonize even the simplest of tunes in thousands of ways, depending on whether you want subtle gliding from chord to chord, abrupt changes, or a mixture of both.

Making chords more interesting

Playing all the notes of a chord simultaneously is the simplest way to produce a harmony, but you can put a bit more complexity and subtlety into the music by providing the notes of a chord one at a time in a repeating pattern, rather than all together. Chords that have been split up into individual notes like this are called arpeggios (meaning harp-like), although guitarists and banjo players often call them “rolls.” A lot of bluegrass banjo music consists of a tune interwoven throughout a continuous stream of high-speed arpeggios, and one of the most distinctive uses of arpeggios in pop music is the 1960s hit “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.

Our favorite tune, arranged with arpeggios, could be organized like this:


Our brain is quite used to this method of receiving a harmony as a sequence of individual notes,* which we subconsciously weave back together into their constituent chords.

Chords with more than three notes in them

The accompanying chords to a song are often written like this:


Whenever you see songs written down in this way, it’s assumed that you know the tune. The letters above certain words mean “start playing this chord at the beginning of this word.” In this case we start with a C major chord repeated a few times before the singing starts.* The C major chord is repeated until the singer gets to the beginning of the word “Smokey,” when the instrumentalist changes to an F major chord. The F major chord is repeated until the beginning of the word “snow,” at which point we switch back to a C major chord… and so on. That little seven next to the G means that an extra note has been added to the G major chord. The additional note is an F, which is the seventh one you come to if you count up from G.

So the G7 (G seventh) chord includes these notes:

G, B, D, and F

The addition of the F has a slightly unsettling effect on the G major chord, and this adds to the feeling of relaxation and homecoming we experience when the music changes to the final C major chord.

The song works fine with the chords C major, F major, and G seventh as long as you start on the note C for the words “On top.” If you do this, you will later find yourself singing the C an octave above that first note when you sing the “Smo-” in “Smokey.” But what happens if that upper C is uncomfortably high for you?

Well, no problem. You can start singing on a lower note. The tune sounds just as good whichever note you start on, as long as you make the correct leaps in pitch as you go along. But if you change your starting note, you’ll have to change the chords as well. If you started the tune on G, for example, the correct chords would be G major, C major, and D7. If you started on E, they would be E major, A major, and B7.

As I said earlier, harmonization is a huge subject, and the past few pages show only some of the basics of harmonizing a simple melody. Obviously you can create a three-note chord based on each of the seven notes in a major key, and any of these chords could be added occasionally into our three-chord basic mix, but some are far more common than others. A lot of pop/rock songs include a particular chord in a standard progression that (in the key of C major)* goes C major, G major, A minor, and F major. In their very funny YouTube video “4 chord song” the Australian comedy-rock band Axis of Awesome have demonstrated the pop song ubiquity of this chord progression by repeating it over and over again as the accompaniment to a continuous medley of more than thirty songs (from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”).

Harmony that uses only a small number of standard three-note chords (with the occasional four-note G7) fills out the sound of the music but doesn’t usually add a lot of emotional interest. The tune is the icing on a standard cake mix. Complexity, subtlety, and tension can be introduced by altering one or two of the original three notes, or by adding different notes of a standard chord to the three that form the basis of your chord.

I’m not talking here about adding notes that are simply an octave above or below one of the original three. It’s quite common to fill out the sound of a chord by having some or all of the notes appear in your chord several times in different octaves. On a guitar, for example, the chords fill out the music better if you play all six strings—so the standard guitar chord of E major (E, G sharp, B) involves three E’s, two B’s, and one G sharp. This duplication of notes an octave above or an octave below doesn’t count as adding extra notes to the original group as far as the harmony goes. But if, for example, you change one of the E’s to an F sharp, then you have added a new note, and created a more complex chord.

Even in straightforward pop songs, four-or five-note chords are pretty common. The extra notes are often considerably less stable team members than the original three, making the chord sound tense and in need of resolution—which will often be provided by the next chord. This tension not only adds musical interest but also tends to drive the music forward as you anticipate the resolution in the same way you look forward to the punch line of a joke.