• How to Harmonize Melodies to Create Full-Sounding Songs Part 1

    in Playing songs

    (Part one of a two week series on harmonizing melodies)
    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. This is how hymns and popular music are played.
    I’ll give you some songs in the next newsletter, but just to demonstrate my point, let’s take “Mary had a little lamb” since everyone knows this nursery rhyme (and its a lot easier to make my point clear with a simple song like this)…
    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 NEVER 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?
    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 major 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?!!!
    I’ll cover more popular (and non-nursery rhyme) songs in the next newsletter but for now, I will 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
    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).

    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 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: https://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.
    The answers will be in next week’s newsletter so make sure to have this completed so that we can move on from there.
    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!
    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)
    Look for the answers in my next newsletter.


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

    Chords to study for future online classroom lessons:

    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!

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 14 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 paul

    i’d kike to know how to play keyboard please help me


    2 Adonis

    I would like to thank very much for providing this free piano lessons. Music really is my passion and it was my long desire to learn to play piano although for the moment I use guitar in our worship service. I have to download your lessons at once and study it later since I’m using a paid internet connection and it’s not unlimited so I hope you’ll consider my downloading your materials as many as the connection allows. Once again thank you and may God bless you more for this generous work you’ve shared to us around the globe.


    3 Chris Johnson

    Keep bringing it home for us Jermaine! I’m so deep into these blogs now I just can’t stop! One thing I am going to do is open the 300 page course I bought from you just about 4 years ago.

    It will be interesting to see how much I have progressed since then…… It’s been so long since I’ve opened I don’t even remember exactly where I left off but I think it was inversions.

    Lol! I’m way past that point now. It’s all about following the bass, which leads to the melody and finally harmonization. That next breakthrough is coming. I got that feeling again!

    God Bless Jermaine and I’ll see you on the next topic… Bout to check out part 2! I should be getting some 9-5 work done but I can’t stop. :)

    See ya…


    4 Cat huy Vo

    Hi friend Griggs,

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    Thank you very much.


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