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  • How to Instantly Figure Out Chords to Simple Melodies

    by Jermaine Griggs · 20 comments

    in Chords & Progressions,Gospel music,Theory

    Before I teach you the secrets to instant harmonization of melodies, check out these 2-minute audio examples I created back in December 2003 before the release of my GospelKeys 101 course. These demonstrations will give you a good understanding of the 3 steps and what you’ll be trying to accomplish after reading this newsletter.

    Harmonizing melodies is different than laying chords beneath a melody.

    You may have heard of fake books and chord charts where you are given chords to play under various melodies. Jazz standards are usually notated this way.

    For example, the chord chart may display a “Cmaj7″ over a particular bar with a melody line beneath it. To some extent, you have to know how to read sheet music (at least to read the melody line).

    Harmonizing melodies, to me, is much easier. In fact, I honestly believe it can be mastered in a matter of weeks, if not days, or even hours. Once you know the system, you’ll never forget it and you’ll be able to apply these same techniques to dozens of songs! This is how hymns and popular music are played.

    I’ll give you a lot more songs when I revisit this topic in future newsletters, but just to demonstrate my point, let’s take “Mary had a little lamb” since everyone knows this nursery rhyme (…little Jadyn loves this tune).

    With this method, if you can sit at your piano and pick out the one-note melody, then you’re 30 seconds from playing it as a full-sounding song.

    Because the chords that harmonize notes hardly ever change — only the notes themselves.

    So if there are 8 notes in a major scale (really only 7 unique notes but the octave note makes 8) — and you know the “matching” chord for each one of those notes, then you have what it takes to play full-sounding chords in place of your one-note melodies.

    Let me explain…

    Say, after 10 minutes at the piano, you’ve managed to learn “Mary had a little lamb” (and believe me, it’s not that hard to pick out a melody — small children do it if you leave them at the piano long enough).

    It’s not rocket science.

    I believe everyone has the ear to sit down and pick out a melody (especially if you know your major scales because most melodies come directly from the scales). So if a major scale has eight notes and most melodies are formed with a combination of passing tones, upper and lower neighboring tones, and chord tones, then it shouldn’t take hours to learn melodies of popular songs.

    Passing tones…? Upper neighboring tones…?

    Lower neighboring tones? Chord tones? What?

    You’re probably wondering what these are.

    I discuss these things in detail in chapter 17 of my 300-pg course, but for now, I’ll explain them briefly:

    Passing Tones

    Melodies include tones that are not a part of the chord used for the harmony. These non-chord tones are called non-harmonic tones. When a melody passes from one chord tone to a different chord tone with a non-harmonic tone (a half or whole step) between, the non-harmonic tone is called a passing tone (pg 252, “The Secrets to Playing Piano by Ear”).

    What does this mean?

    Simply put, if you were playing the beginning of “Mary had a little lamb” (E – D – C – D – E – E – E) over a Cmaj chord, the ‘D’ notes in this sequence would be passing tones because they are not a part of the C major chord (C + E + G). Notice the ‘E’ and “C’ notes are a part of the C major chord so they are not called passing tones — they are called chord tones.

    Neighboring Tones

    When a melody passes from one chord tone back to the same chord tone with a non-harmonic tone (a half or whole step) between, the non-harmonic tone is called a neighboring tone.

    What does this mean?

    Basically, passing and neighboring tones function similarly but have one minor difference — the next note. If the melody is going to a different note and just “passing by” a non-harmonic note (again… simply a note that ISN’T a part of the chord being used with the melody), then it’s called a passing tone. As simple as that.

    If the melody is moving from one chord tone to a next door neighbor tone, then immediately back to the original chord tone, the “in-between” tone is called a neighboring tone. If you don’t get this, it’s better illustrated with pictures. I strongly recommend my course if you think this is interesting and want to learn more.

    Whether you call them upper or lowering neighboring tones depends on which way the melody is going.

    It is an upper neighboring tone when it is above the chord tone and a lower neighboring tone when it is below the chord tone.

    Let’s see how well you understand this:

    ________________________________________________________

    Is this an example of a passing tone or neighboring tone?

    Chord: C maj (C+E+G)

    Melody: C D C

    Answer: This is an example of a neighboring tone relationship because the “D” is not a part of the notes of the chord AND because the melody is going from the “D” back to the original “C” chord tone. Whenever the melody uses a note to return back to a previous chord tone, then a neighboring tone relationship exists.

    The “D” is specifically an upper neighboring tone because it is higher than the original “C” chord tone.

    _________________________________________________________

    Is this an example of a passing tone or neighboring tone?

    Chord: D min (D+F+A)

    Melody: D E F

    Answer: This is an example of a passing tone relationship because the E is not a part of the Dmin chord (so it’s non-harmonic) AND because the melody is moving forward to a different chord tone (“F”). For example, if the melody was D E D, then a neighboring tone relationship would have been the correct answer. However, since the “E” is used to move forward to “F”, another chord tone, this creates a passing tone relationship between the “E” and the other chord tones.

    How does knowing this information help you to determine melodies?

    For starters, it helps you to understand that melodies aren’t just randomly played notes that you have to figure out… they generally use notes that are right next to each other.

    Let’s analyze “Mary had a little lamb” to see what I’m talking about:

    E D C D E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb)

    D D D (lit-tle lamb)

    E G G (lit-tle lamb)

    E D C D E E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb, her)

    D D E D C (fleece was white as snow)

    Now… ask yourself a few questions?

    Are these notes randomly spread out or do you see patterns here?

    Do you see a bunch of passing and neighboring tones like I do?

    Are the notes generally right next to each other (and not more than one note a part when there is a jump like from the E to G in the third line)?

    Let’s analyze another easy nursery rhyme / lullaby:

    “Are you sleeping”

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    So how do I harmonize these melodies … already?!!!

    This is where I want to introduce the “harmonization” chart. But first, here are some rules to keep in mind:

    1. Every note in a major scale has its own harmonizing chord. Usually this chord features the note of the scale as its highest tone (will discuss more below).

    2. Whenever a note is played, simply replace it with its harmonizing chord.

    3. When all one-note melodies have been replaced with harmonizing chords, you have a full-sounding basic song.

    Let’s take the C major scale (but keep in mind that every major scale has its own harmonizing chords). Try to take my patterns and learn them in the other 11 major keys and you’ll do yourself a great service!

     

    When melody note is: Simply play this chord:
    C E + G + C (played all at the same time)
    D F + A + D
    E G + C + E
    F A + C + F
    G C + E + G
    A C + F + A
    B D + G + B
    C E + G + C

    Do you notice anything unique about the harmonizing chords?

    If you noticed that the highest note of the chord always matches the melody note, then you are absolutely correct.

    In essence, since you are replacing a melody note with a chord, in most cases, you’ll still want to preserve the melody (… you’ll want to hear the melody clearly) so by playing these particular chords, the highest note of each chord IS ALMOST ALWAYS THE MELODY.

    (This may all seem strange because I don’t have lots of room to explain myself with pictures and illustrations. Of course, some people will grasp on right away).

    If you’re serious about learning harmonization, visit: http://www.hearandplay.com/special?harmonycourse to check out my course.

    So, all you have to do is take the melodies above and replace them with the appropriate chords. I’ll copy the melodies to “Mary had a little lamb” and “Are you sleeping” so that you can try it on your own below.

    I’ll also post the answers below to make sure you fully understand this harmonization process.

    Mary had a little lamb

    I’ll do the first one for you.

    E D C D E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    G+C+E (Ma)

    F+A+D (ry)

    E+G+C (had)

    F+A+D (a)

    G+C+E (lit)

    G+C+E (tle)

    G+C+E (lamb)

    Notice that the original melody note is still on top! That’s the whole point of using the harmonizing chart I’ve created for you above. The song still sounds like “Mary had a little lamb”, the melody is still obvious, but with the addition of full-sounding harmony!

    Note: You might find it awkward to play a chord for every single melody note, especially if a particular melody note goes by very fast. It is not necessary to always harmonize every single note. Sometimes, you can play a harmonizing chord — then play the next “single note” of the melody right after it —- then follow up with the next harmonizing chord.

    For example, you can play {G+C+E} for the first part of Mary ["Ma"] but only play the single note, “D,” for the second half of Mary ["ry"]. Then, of course, you can proceed to the {E+G+C} chord for the melody note that goes with “had.” The ultimate secret is to rely on your ear to find out what sounds right. If it sounds right, then it works!

     

    Your turn…

     

     

    D D D (lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    ________ (lit)

    ________ (tle)

    ________ (lamb)

    E G G (lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    ________ (lit)

    ________ (tle)

    ________ (lamb)

    E D C D E E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb, her)

    ______________________________________

    ________ (Ma)

    ________ (ry)

    ________ (had)

    ________ (a)

    ________ (lit)

    ________ (tle)

    ________ (lamb)

    ________ (her)

    D D E D C (fleece was white as snow)

    ______________________________________

    ________ (fleece)

    ________ (was)

    ________ (white)

    ________ (as)

    ________ (snow)

    If you’ve chosen the right harmonizing chords, then you should have a nice full-sounding arrangement of Mary had a little lamb above. If not, just try it again until it works.

    Lastly, try taking “Are you sleeping” and do the same thing you did above. This time, I won’t provide you with a template. You’ll have to do it all on your own:

    “Are you sleeping”

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    Answers to both songs:

     

     

     

    “Mary had a little lamb”

    E D C D E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    G+C+E (Ma)

    F+A+D (ry)

    E+G+C (had)

    F+A+D (a)

    G+C+E (lit)

    G+C+E (tle)

    G+C+E (lamb)

    D D D (lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    F+A+D (lit)

    F+A+D (tle)

    F+A+D (lamb)

    E G G (lit-tle lamb)

    _____________________________________

    G+C+E (lit)

    C+E+G (tle)

    C+E+G (lamb)

    E D C D E E E E (Ma-ry had a lit-tle lamb, her)

    _____________________________________

    G+C+E (Ma)

    F+A+D (ry)

    E+G+C (had)

    F+A+D (a)

    G+C+E (lit)

    G+C+E (tle)

    G+C+E (lamb)

    G+C+E (her)

    D D E D C (fleece was white as snow)

    ______________________________________

    F+A+D (fleece)

    F+A+D (was)

    G+C+E (white)

    F+A+D (as)

    E+G+C (snow)

    “Are you sleeping”

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    ______________________________________

    E+G+C (Are)

    F+A+D (you)

    G+C+E (sleep)

    E+G+C (ing)

    C D E C (Are you sleep-ing)

    ______________________________________

    E+G+C (Are)

    F+A+D (you)

    G+C+E (sleep)

    E+G+C (ing)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    ______________________________________

    G+C+E (Bro)

    A+C+F (ther)

    C+E+G (John)

    E F G (Bro-ther John)

    ______________________________________

    G+C+E (Bro)

    A+C+F (ther)

    C+E+G (John)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    ______________________________________

    C+E+G (Morn)

    C+F+A (ing)

    C+E+G (bells)

    A+C+F (are)

    G+C+E (ring)

    E+G+C (ing)

    G A G F E C (Morn-ing bells are ring-ing)

    ______________________________________

    C+E+G (Morn)

    C+F+A (ing)

    C+E+G (bells)

    A+C+F (are)

    G+C+E (ring)

    E+G+C (ing)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    ______________________________________

    E+G+C (Ding)

    B+D+G (dong) — use different harmonization type

    E+G+C (ding)

    C G C (Ding dong ding)

    ______________________________________

    E+G+C (Ding)

    B+D+G (dong) — use different harmonization type

    E+G+C (ding)

     


    Recap time…

    You now have a formula:

    A) Determine a melody to any song

    B) Replace the melody notes with harmonizing chords making sure to keep the melody note as the highest tone of each chord (see chart above)

    C) Add bass (or left hand) — We’ll cover this in another newsletter or you can just get my courses to explore this since I’m running out of space here.

    There you have it. I hope you’ve benefited from this lesson. Let me know on my message board.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

    Related posts:

    1. How to Harmonize Melodies to Create Full-Sounding Songs Part 1
    2. How to Harmonize Melodies to Create Full-Sounding Songs Part 2
    3. Harmonizing Melodies
    4. Using Amazingly Simple Patterns to Learn Contemporary Worship Songs
    5. The second step to playing songs by ear
    6. Conversation With Students #3 (Melody & Harmony)
    7. The first step to playing songs by ear



    { 20 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Mayorzity

    this is more than wonderful, tooooooooooo muuuuchhhhhhhhhhhhhh

    Reply

    2 DAVID WOLFE

    THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THE JASON WHITE VIDEO MUSIC CLIPS,HE REALLY TEASED ME,BUT I FOUND IT TO BE VERY USEFUL AND HELPFUL WITH MY PRACTICING.I NEED THE THE WHOLE SERIES FROM THE APPETIZERS,TO THE ENTREES’ AS WELL AS THE DESSERT TO FINISH OFF WITH! ONCE AGAIN THANK YOU & GOD BLESS!

    Reply

    3 Kwame

    I WOULD PLAESE LIKE TO KNOW THE MAIN PROCESS TOWARD THE HARMONISATION OF A PARTICULAR SONG THAT ONE HAS NOT HEARD BEFORE.

    IF POSSIBLE, I WOUYLD THEN PREFER MORE EXPLANATION IN THE TOPIC OF THE PASSING AND THE NEIGHBOURING TONES AND HOW TO EASILY IDENMTIFY THEM ON THE KEYBOARD…………………………

    THANKS
    jude

    Reply

    4 Jermaine

    @Kwame:

    If you haven’t heard the song, it’s a little more difficult. One thing you have to do is rely on the melody. At least you need to hear the melody (or else, what are you “playing by ear”… nothing if you don’t at least have the melody to work with… whether someone sings it for you, etc).

    Once you have the melody, you’re good to go. The same harmonization techniques of GospelKeys 101 (and soon to be GospelKeys 102) apply.

    Now for neighboring tones… That just means when the melody goes up or down a scale tone and back. You can easily hear those. When the melody sounds very close together and “STANDARD,” usually they’re using neighboring tones. It’s when you take a tone that is not a part of the previous chord and play it right after and then immediately come back to a tone that is part of the chord.

    Just listen to the sound C to D to C makes… (any relationship like that actually… D to E to D again… F to G to F). These are examples of upper neighboring tones, assuming that the first and last notes are a part of a chord in that measure).

    Like the song “Pass me not.”

    Pass me not o gen-tle sa-vior
    E—-D–C—D—C—A-G—-C

    Here, the “D” under “o” is a neighboring tone. It is used in between the SAME C (it is important to note that the C’s are from a C major chord, otherwise the “D” wouldn’t be a neighboring tones).

    A passing tone is a little different. It’s when a non-chord tone is used in between different chord tones. For example, E and C are notes from the same chord (C major). They are chord tones. In this case the “D” under “me” is a passing tone, not a neighboring tone.

    Neighboring tones go from one chord tone through a non-chord tone back to the same chord tone.

    Passing tones go from one chord tone through a non-chord tone TO A DIFFERENT CHORD TONE.

    Play that melody of “pass me not” several times and point out the key differences between the “D’s.” They have different functions and once it clicks, you’ll see!

    Reply

    5 Nandy

    Nicely done !! Good Starting Grounds to learn how to play a song

    Reply

    6 Ktgreat

    Thank You! Jermaine Griggs

    Reply

    7 Doc Blakely

    I’m a fiddle player. I play some rhythm guitar and would like to play more. Your recent post on figuring chords on the Circle of Fourths (or Fifths) for the piano was great but I don’t play piano. I’d like to buy your $17 two hour explanation on developing chords but wondered if you had that available for guitar? Or could I get just as much good out of it even if I didn’t play piano? Could you drop me an answer please. Thanks.

    Reply

    8 SHAQUANDRA

    HEAR AND PLA IS REALLY HELPING ME LEARN. SO I JUST LOVE IT

    Reply

    9 Owen

    I play the guitar a bit and i am interested in learning melodies and i find your program very helpful.I will try this out on a keyboard i have.Thanks very much.

    Reply

    10 De'vaughn

    hello im a beginner piano player/keyboard/organ player i just want to ask you can you send me an email showing me the notes and stuff and how to play pass me not o gentle saviour? Thanks and may god continue to richly bless u brother!

    Reply

    11 Catherine

    Why do you have to keep the melody note as the highest tone of each chord ?
    Can you just make sure that the chord contains the melody note and is a chord for the correct key? I have experimented with changing the order of the notes in chords and it sounds fine just a slight different feel/flavour . I have discovered that there are often 3 alternative chords for a melody note and sometimes guitar chords use adjacent chords but don’t know how that fits the theory
    But apart from that it all makes sense with what I have been working out recently

    Reply

    12 Geoffrey Hawson

    Sounds great but I do not play piano, only Tenor Ukulele. (don’t laugh) is there a way to use the system for me. I like to play melody, but adding some chords is great. My music teacher has written some out for me , but I am not sure how he does it.

    Reply

    13 walik

    you are a great help to me and have been for the last 4 or five years thank you much brother!
    Walik

    Reply

    14 kogu

    Nice one…thank you alot..

    Reply

    15 Corazon

    You are not just teaching – you are a GURU !!!

    Reply

    16 king solomon

    dear sir, thank you very much, i have understood the melody pattern, may god bless you, keep it up. congrats

    Reply

    17 Moshe Friedman

    What about harmonizing melodies on Minor scales?
    May I use the same rules like Major scales?

    Reply

    18 James

    Hi :)

    I notice that some of the chords in your chart aren’t in stacked 3rds. Can you please tell me the thinking behind this? I really like this post. Just want to understand the theory better. Thanks

    Reply

    19 uditha

    thank you so much. fantastic lesson for the beginner

    Reply

    20 Philip McHugh

    Found this site by fortuitous accident. You have clearly explained something which I did not know. My musical education has taken a leap, thank you ever so much.

    Reply

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