How to Harmonize a Tune

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There are a series of rules around harmony and how to harmonize a tune, which we will explore in this little piece of music. It is a very simple melody in the key of C Major: a kind of stately little waltz.

We are going to analyse the melody and work out how to set up an interesting series of parts for several voices to sing along to the tune.

We will touch a little bit on making it sound interesting but the main focus is on picking out the harmonies to give a pleasant-sounding piece that we can work with quite quickly.

Our technology here is MuseScore – a piece of free music creation software that you should easily be able to download and install. However, of course, what we are describing is relevant for any type of music production – even a barbershop quartet singing in your local coffee shop!

Simple melody

Let’s start with the melody:

It is in 3/4 time and has a few doted crotchets to space things out even more, exaggerating the lift and bounce. No melodic pyrotechnics, no big intervals: just simplicity. 2 phrases of 4 bars each. We have a slightly different sequence of note lengths in the second phrase to add variety. Starting on a high C and drifting down to finish on Middle C.

Bass Notes of chord

With a piece as simple as this, it is easy to pick out the chords from the family of C Major that underpin the melody. Therefore, we will show that on the piano’s bass line. Even by adding the simple device of holding a bass note for the duration of each bar, we are starting to hear the harmony coming through.

Arpeggio Bass Line

We are looking here for something interesting for our bass voice to sing. We could simply take the root chord notes that we had on the piano bass line and ask them to sing that. But instead we’ll turn the bass line into a series of arpeggios – simple 3 note groups that allow a deep voce to sing some nice bum-bum-bums as we are going along. But we want our piece to end with a nice held chord in the final bar, so we’ll leave the root note there.

We also want a sense of finality for our piece so we will have a falling interval from the penultimate bar down to the final note. We will exaggerate that by amending the piano’s bass line slightly as well.

In the fourth bar, the melody holds, but we will keep our bass line moving along as a subtle way of giving continuity and leading in to the second half of the tune.

First Backing Vocal

The aim of this backing line is to fill out our harmony with some rich major 3rds. We have the chords in place. They are C F G G F C F C.

Therefore, we will start this melody line on E (the 3rd note in a C Major chord). We will use this as a starting point.  Our aim for this line is to focus on the major 3rds to give some rich warmth to the piece, but two things stand out. Firstly, our 3rd and 4th bar have the same chord – we don’t want this melody to simply repeat its note, so we’ll use the 3rd in bar 3 and the 5th on bar 4. Secondly, we want to add some movement to our melody yet we do not want simply to ape the rhythm of the melody line, so we are introducing a slightly different rhythm. This means we need to find a second note in each bar. We are simply adding a little passing fill-in note to ease the jumps between the main notes of the chord.

Second Vocal

Our aims for this vocal line are: fill in the triad by singing the fifth note of each chord; re-inforce the lilting rhythm that we set up on our first line of backing vocal.

Therefore, we are going to use the same note durations as we did for the previous line, bring in the 5th at the start of each chord. Don’t forget we need to be careful of not repeating notes in bars 3 and 4, so will pull the same switcheroo that we did for Back Vox 1 – only on this occasion, we’ll use the 5th in bar 3 and the 3rd in bar 4.

Pulling things together

Let’s give a line for our lead vocalist to sing. We are simply using the melody that we put in to the first line of music that we wrote.

Therefore, take away the piano lines, focus on our voices and we get complete work.

Summary

There are some impressive musicians out there who can pull awesome harmonies out of the air with no thought for why or how they do it.  They may not be aware of it, but their brains are wired to go through the same kind of processes we walked through in pulling this piece together. There is a natural science to the art of harmony. Once you have some basic principles to follow, you can build musical pieces that allow different voices and instruments to fit sweetly together.

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