GUITAR 101: Harmonization, Part II
OK, we’re back. Hope you had a good summer. Last issue we started talking about how chords and melody work together and here we go again. We’re writing a song that we’ve established is in the key of G, “guitar friendliest” of all keys. That means the melody is selected from the seven notes in the G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E and F#. The common chords in G are: G, Am, Bm, C, D, D7 and Em. Those chords are completely made up of those seven notes. That’s why they fit together so well. We already talked about what chords could possibly go with the first note of your melody, which we’ve decided is G. Let’s decide G is also the first chord we play.
Now we’re going to move the melody to another note. The important thing to know here is that you don’t have to change the chord just because the melody moves around. You can keep playing a G chord and move the melody to any note in the G major scale. Some notes are more “consonant” with the G chord. Those would be G, B and D, because they are the three notes (triad) that make up the G chord. They will always fit. The other notes in that scale A, C, E and F# are less consonant, but not quite dissonant, like a note not in the key of G. D# for example, would pretty much suck. Most songwriters do this instinctively, by ear. What I’m doing here is using “music theory” to explain what’s going on when we hear certain sounds. Using music theory sometimes gives us other options that our ear hasn’t yet accustomed us to. Sometimes we don’t realize how many harmonic options that are available, and write melodies and chord progressions that can be somewhat boring, repetitive and mundane.
Now, another factor comes in which is very important when matching chords to a melody: how long you stay on one note? Did you ever hear the song “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim? It’s a brilliant example of harmonization. In the verse, the melody stays on the same note, but the chords move on every bar. It works because each chord contains that note. So, on the one hand, you can stay on one chord and move the melody around within the key you’re in, and on the other (Jobim) hand, stay on the same melody note and let the chords do the moving. But what you cannot do (without dissonance) is linger on a melody note that’s not contained in the chord being played behind it.
Let’s decide the range of our melody is from an E (D string, 2nd fret) to a G (little e string, 3rd fret). That’s a male vocal range. So, if you’re in the key of G, your notes are one of these, from low to high note: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F# and G again. That’s 10 notes, because the vocal range of song is usually not limited to one octave. OK, let’s say we’ve got a melody that moves to a C note. Well, if you don’t stay on that note too long, you can still stay on the G chord, but if you linger on a C note against a G chord, your ear perceives something not quite “consonant.” If you play a Gsus4 chord behind that C melody note, it becomes totally right to your ear, because the Gsus4 chord has a C note in it. Voila! Now it matches. Of course, you could change the chord to a C or an Am or a D7 because all of those chords contain a C note also.
So, as a general guideline ( I avoid saying rule when talking about music) your melody note needs to be in the chord that’s being played behind it, unless it keeps moving within that scale quickly enough so that your ear doesn’t have time to perceive any “clash”(dissonance). I hope that doesn’t sound too complicated. It’s a lot easier to hear than it is to explain, as you’ve probably already discovered.
So when someone says “I don’t know where to go with these chords, or this melody”, I ask “What key are you in?” “Do you know-by ear-the notes in that key?” “Do you know your common chords-1, 2m, 3m, 4, 5, 5seven, and 6m-in that key? “Do you know your “color” chords-sus4,add9,etc.-and “connector” chords-1/3 and 5/7-In that key?” I usually get “No” for an answer to one or more of those questions, which explains why they don’t see all the options they have. I could write another whole article on this, but probably won’t.
Next time: TUNING BY EAR