Check out this funny little picture I made using “The Simpsomaker“:
Although the character in the foreground is the same in every panel, the backgrounds change, evoking different stories in our minds.
We can do the same thing in music through a process called reharmonization. We leave our melody intact (like the dude in the above picture) and change the chords that are played behind it. This will let us hear the melody within a new context and give the song an entirely different mood. A bright melody can become darker, a down-to-earth song can become mysterious. It all depends on your imagination and intent.
Let’s take a simple melody and work with it to see how we can change its mood through reharm:
If you’ve never tried to put chords behind a melody before, now may be a good time to give a shot at it. Download this melody (download links are at the end of this post), loop it in your favorite audio software, and try to come up with some chords for it. It’s a flexible melody that will work with many different chord combinations, so it shouldn’t take too long. I’ll make some coffee and wait here while you give it a shot.
O.K., if this were to become a pop or rock song, the chords we would use behind this melody would be somewhere along these lines:
Now let’s see why this works: First, the chords I used are all triads. Triads are three-note chords that generally sound full, simple and to the point. The three notes that make up a triad are:
- The root (which gives the chord its name),
- The third (which gives the chord its character, i.e. major/minor)
- The fifth (which gives the chord its body or fullness).
The chords I used in the above example work because I picked chords that contain the notes in our melody. For example, the chord in the first measure, G Major, is made up of these notes: G, B and D. It works in this measure because, for the most part, the melody uses the note B, which is the 3rd of G Major. In the second measure, the melody settles on the note D, and guess which chord we have in the background? D minor! So the note in the melody is the root of the chord in the harmony. If you examine Figure 2 you’ll find that chords are chosen by consistently following this simple logic (the relationship of a note to the chord playing behind it is indicated below each note).
By using triads and making sure that the chords agree with the notes in the melody, we achieved a very full, down-to-earth sound, which would fit perfectly within a rock or pop setting. This is because of the fact that the agreement between the melody and harmony results in a very consonant combination, which can be very powerful.
But what if we wanted to give this melody a mysterious, unsettling mood? What if we wanted to make it sound a little dissonant? A little… Ok I’ll say it… jazzy?
There is a common misconception among beginner students of harmony that, since jazz arrangements rely heavily on 7th chords and tensions, we can spice up the harmonic structure of a song simply by adding 7’s and tensions to the existing chords. If we wanted to “jazzify” the chords in figure 2 by adding 7’s and 9’s to them, we would find that they sound pretty lame. That’s because 7th chords do not really play well if their root note is prominently featured in the melody. They sound much better when the melody dances on their weaker elements, like the 3rd, the 7th, or even the tensions.
So for the jazzy version we will need to come up with chords with different roots and probably different qualities. Here is one possibility:
Now let’s see why this one works: As before, the relationship of each note to the chord playing behind it is indicated below the staff. We start with a CMaj7 chord, which is made up of the notes C, E, G, B. The B in the melody is the 7th of that chord; which puts the melody in a dreamy setting right from the start. You’ll see after examining Figure 3 that for the rest of the melody, significant notes are either 3rd or 7th of whatever chord is played at a given moment.
What I particularly like about this chord progression is the stepwise root motion, meaning that the roots of the chords go down a half step (C, B, Bb, A). This sounds very smooth and presents interesting opportunities for voice leading (we’ll talk about this some other time). If we were playing with an actual bass player this would also give him/her a chance to try out some very interesting musical ideas.
You may have noticed that the B note in measure 3 sounds funny; that’s because it clashes with the Bb in the root of the chord. When two notes at an interval of a minor second are played simultaneously they clash or create dissonance, which I talked about in this post. Dissonance can be a good thing, depending on what we want. Here in this example it sounds weird and out of place, but I left it there because that B is just a passing note and resolves before it gets too disturbing. If we are allowed to change the melody during this reharm process, we could change that B to Bb and it would fit like a glove.
Let’s finish with an example that really takes our melody beyond a meat-and-potatoes harmonic perspective:
This is the territory of non-functional harmony, and I’ve used quartal voicing for the chords. This is somewhat beyond the scope of this post, so for the moment let’s just focus on how different our melody sounds from the first example, although in reality it’s exactly the same melody.
I hope this has inspired you to try out different ideas when working on your melodies. If you’ve read this far, please share your comments or questions. Thanks for joining!
Questions for thought:
- We play three notes to play a power chord on the guitar, so, does that mean that a power chord is some kind of a triad?
- In Figure 2, what key is our melody in? How about in Figure 3?
Download links to above sound examples: