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Basic Harmony

Basic Harmony

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Welcome back! Today we will be following up last week’s article on melodies by taking a look at how to create simple harmonies. The main thing to remember with harmony is the harmony’s role is to SUPPORT the melody, not overpower it. We will be focusing on choosing the right notes, supporting the melody and complex (3 or 4 part) harmony. Let’s begin!

Choosing the right notes

The first thing we need to do when creating a harmony is figure out the key of the song. The reason this is so important is there are certain notes that are automatically stronger than others in the scale, and these will be the basis for creating our harmony. Lets take a look at the key of C Major (C D E F G A B C). In the key of C, the root note is C, the major third is E, and the dominant note (or the perfect 5th) is G. An easy way to start off harmonies is to pair these notes together in a combination that blends well with the lead notes in the melody. For example, if our melody is C E G G E G C, we can see that all of these notes are the strong, base notes of our scale. Because of this, we know we will be safe pairing any of these notes together with the melody without having to worry about conflict between the two. For this melody we could create a harmony that simply stays one note behind in the sequence. This would look something like this:

Melody: C  E  G  G  E  G  C

Harmony: G  C  E  E  C  E  G

This way, we are using parallel motion to mimic the melody with our harmony, and ensuring the two will work well with each other. What do we do when the melody is more complex and employs the use of the strongest notes as well as the transitional notes in between? A general rule of thumb that will keep you safe is to stay within a 3rd of the note in the melody. Lets take a look at another melody, and this time we’ll make it slightly more complex. With a melody of C  E  G  F  E  F  C, you’ll notice we have added the 4th note of the scale, F, and we can play it safe by staying a 3rd below the note in the melody by using the 2nd note, D. For this melody, the harmony would look like this:

Melody: C  E  G  F  E  F  C

Harmony: G  C  E  D C  D G

Here we can see whenever we hit a transitional note, we can use a note within a 3rd of that note in order to create a harmony that works well with the melody without butting up against it. Of course this is not a rule that is set in stone by any means, but merely one simple way to ensure the harmony will not conflict with the melody. Now that we have discovered how to choose the right notes for our harmony, lets take a look how to support our melody without overpowering it.

Supporting the melody

Whenever you approach a harmony, you must make sure your goal is to support the melody. There is a MAJOR difference between a melody-harmony combination and a duet… a harmony helps to accentuate the melody and is always subservient in nature. This is critical because you do not want to confuse the listener to the point where they do not know which is the melody and which is the harmony. As a general rule, a melody should be able to stand on its own, and a harmony should not.

The best way to do this is to establish a melody around a home base note (refer to last week’s article on melody) and create a harmony that compliments the melody without interfering. Creating harmonies can be tricky, but as long as your goal is to bolster the melody and not compete with it you will be just fine. Once you have established an initial harmony, the next step is to create complex harmonies by creating chords that move together.

Complex Harmony

With a melody and an initial harmony in place, the next step in the process is establishing chords within your song, and deciding where you want to lead the listener. You will remember from our articles on chords (check the article vault!) that simple chords are comprised of 3 notes working together, essentially creating a 3-part harmony. Once you have developed a melody and a harmony, you already have 2 of the 3 notes in place! From here, you need to decide which chord you would like to form. Lets look at another example in the key of C major. With the notes of C being C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C, we have already established a melody with the root note, C, and an initial harmony with the major 3rd, E. Now, we have a decision to make. We can either add the perfect 5th, G, and complete the C major chord, or we could choose the 6th  note, A, and create a new chord entirely by employing the use of A minor! You’ll notice in this example we end up with a choice between a major chord, which sounds happier, and a minor chord, which sounds more melancholic. This is why choosing the 3rd note in a complex harmony is important, because it will dictate the mood of the chord.

I highly recommend digging into our archives for more information, as we have a series on 3-part chords, chord substitutions and major vs. minor chords that will help you construct meaningful harmonies that move your listener and carry the melody. Let us know what you’d like to learn, and it may be the topic of our next article!

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