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Adventures In Honing Harmonies

In the most general sense, "Harmony" is how we use a set of Chords, and "Accompaniment" is to play Chords underneath a Melody. Let's find out how to make a Harmony to Accompany our Melody...

Path One: From Scales To Chords

We already have an idea of how a Melody can be formed from the Notes of a Scale. By using Notes out of that same Scale, we can form Chords that will work in combination with that Melody. This process is sometimes referred to as "Harmonizing" the Scale. We have already seen how Harmonizing is done. To give a simple example, let's take a C Major Scale:

If we take every other Note (which is equivalent to moving a Third), then we get a different Chord. In this case:

The Notes C, E, and G make a C Major Chord.
The Notes D, F, and A make a D minor Chord.
...and so on.

For a few basic Chords, the process of Harmonizing a Scale is just that simple! However, there are other ways to get Chords from a Scale...

Before we continue, let's take a moment to refresh our understanding of a couple of concepts:

1. We know that the Scale Degrees are essentially Intervals. They describe the relationship of each Note within the Scale to the Tonic. For example, the Note on the 4th Scale Degree is an Interval of a Fourth away from the Tonic.

2. We know that if the Notes within a Chord are separated by an Interval of a Third, then it is Tertian.

However, we are not limited to Thirds. We can use other Intervals to form our Chords too! Each type has its own name. For example:

Chords made from stacking Notes a Second away from one another are "Secundal"
Chords made from stacking Notes a Fourth away from one another are "Quartal"
Chords made from stacking Notes a Fifth away from one another are "Quintal"
...and so on.

For now, we will only focus in on the Tertian Chords that we derived from each of the Major Scales (i.e.: the basic Triads and Seventh Chords).

Path Two: From Chords To Scales

We can go in the other direction as well. Instead of deriving Chords from a Scale, we can derive a Scale from a Chord. This is sometimes referred to as finding a "Chord-Scale". [This practice is particularly common within Jazz.]

For example, a Major Seventh Chord is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th Scale Degrees of a Major Scale. To get the other three Notes of the Scale (i.e.: the 2nd, 4th, and 6th Scale Degrees), we simply go up a certain number of Half-Steps or Whole-Steps from each of the Chord Tones.

In short, we can think of the Chord Tones within any type of Seventh Chord as four Notes out of a corresponding Scale.

Using various types of Seventh Chords and combinations of Steps, we can make a whole slew of different Scales. However, some of these Scales will fall outside of those contained within The Tonal System. We will cover some of these later, but for now, we just want to point out the existence of this possibility. [Julian Bradley of Jazz Tutorial gives a wonderful demonstration of this if you are curious.]

All Together Now!

There is a deep interconnection between Chords and Scales. As the above shows, each can be derived from the other.

This means that the "spelling" of Scales and Chords is NOT arbitrary! The use of Notes (i.e.: the letters A through G) and Accidentals (i.e.: ♯'s and ♭'s) is very specific. If we apply them haphazardly, helpful patterns become obscured, especially when it comes to the Intervals that are inside of the Scales and Chords.

Recognizing Intervals is an integral part of being able to hear, understand, and write music. For example:

We saw how the Melodic Intervals inside of the Scale that we use to write a Melody determine how the Notes within that Melody want to move. Again, this is called Tone Tendency.

Likewise, we saw how the Harmonic Intervals inside of the Chords determine how they want to move within a Chord Progression. Again, this is called Chord Function.

Instead of mashing Melodies and Chord Progressions together with the hope that they will blend nicely, we can unite them intentionally. But first, we have to find out a little more about Chords...


Each Note within a Chord is a "Voice", and how those Notes are played is the "Voicing" of that Chord.

For example, we know that Chords can be in different Positions depending upon the order of the Notes that make them up. Root Position, 1st Inversion, 2nd Inversion, etc. are all different Voicings of the same Chord. To be clear: Each Position represents the same Chord because the same Notes are used within each of them, but they are considered different Voicings because those Notes are in a different order. [This change in Note order can make them sound slightly different from one another too because the Intervals between the Notes sometimes change as well.]

There are a couple of other factors that determine Chord Voicing in addition to Position. They are:

• Repeating & Dropping Notes

We can repeat the Notes within a Chord without changing that Chord. As long as they are within the same order, then technically, they are considered the same Position!

Likewise, we can sometimes remove Notes from a Chord without changing its quality, or to produce a particular effect. These are called "Shell Voicings". For example, a "Power Chord" is a type of Shell Voicing for a regular Major Chord. It is formed by simply dropping out the middle Chord Tone leaving an Interval of a Fifth behind. In other words, just play any two Notes an Interval of a Fifth away from each other at the same time and you got a Power Chord.

• Distribution of Notes

The Notes of a Chord can be spread out or scrunched together without changing the Chord. Again, as long as they are within the same order, then technically, they are considered the same Position!

A "Closed Harmony" places the Chord Tones closer together, whereas an "Open Harmony" spreads them farther apart, across different Octaves. Each of these can be done for various reasons. For example:

An Open Harmony may be chosen for sake of clarity. The sounds often clash or "become muddy" if we cluster too many Notes within the same Octave. On the piano, our left hand will often play the Root Note of a Chord in a Lower Register (i.e.: a lower Octave), while the right hand plays the rest of the Chord Tones in an Upper Register (i.e.: a higher Octave) for this reason.

Similarly, a Closed Harmony may be chosen to produce a "thick" sound. If we make a Chord with at least three adjacent Notes of a Scale packed together, it is called a "Tone Cluster" or "Cluster Chord". These often sound dissonant when played all by themselves.

Voice Leading

The effect that is created when moving from Chord-to-Chord within a Chord Progression is called "Voice Leading".

The "rule of thumb" for Voice Leading is: The fewer leaps made between Chords, the "smoother" the sound. We can cut down on unnecessary movement by paying attention to the Notes that Chords share, and then using Inversions to keep those Notes as stationary as possible. [Rob of Musician's Inspired gives a wonderful demonstration of this on piano.]

Merging Melody With Harmony

Not only does Voice Leading make Chord Progressions easier to play and smoother to listen to, it also gives us a hint on how to merge Melody with Harmony. For example:

By changing the Voicing, we can make the top-most Note of a Chord coincide with a Note in our Melody.

Inversely, if parts of a Melody are Chord Tones, then they can mesh easily with any Chord in our Chord Progression if they use the same Notes.

Therefore, we can write a piece of music from either direction: We can start by crafting a unique Chord Progression, and then building a Melody that complements it, or vice versa.

Leaving & Arriving

We cannot emphasize these parallels between Melody and Harmony enough:

• On a Note level there are Melodic Intervals and Tone Tendencies. Melodies have Contour and Phrasing.

• On a Chord level there are Harmonic Intervals and Chord Functions. Harmonies have Voicing and Harmonic Rhythm.

In summary...

Melody: NotesMotivesTone TendenciesContourPhrasing
Harmony: ChordsChord ProgressionsChord FunctionsVoicingHarmonic Rhythm

Within music, there is a continual undercurrent of "leaving" and "arriving", the Dissonance and Consonance of various Intervals repeatedly alternating between tension and release. Again, the Melodic Intervals create Tone Tendencies and the Harmonic Intervals create Chord Functions. This same pattern occurs when both of them are combined. For example:

Whenever the Melody uses a Note that is not inside of the Chord that is being played underneath it, a sense of tension may arise. It sounds distinctly different from when the Melody shares Notes with the underlying Chord. In other words, this interplay between the use of Chord Tones and Non-Chord Tones within the Melody creates motion!

When attempting to knit together a Melody and Chord Progression, these are the types of relationships that we are focused upon.

Is This The End of Our Journey?

Hopefully, this article was helpful in giving ideas on how to combine the Chord Progressions you've generated with the Melodies you've written since our last adventure together.

Because the Notes within the Melody and the Notes within the Chords often come from the same Scale, there is bound to be some amount of overlap between them. We can use these correspondences to our advantage whenever we are Composing.

As we continue, we will tease out these relationships even more to do some other fun things within our pieces...

Thank you for reading! Happy trails! ♥