Matching harmony with melody (Part 1)

I was recently at an event where lots of people were presenting songs and someone presented a song that sort of blew people away. It stood out in certain ways that made people sit up and take notice. In my opinion, there was one huge factor that made it stand out and I want to discuss that today.

The factor I am referring to is the marriage of the harmony with the melody. What I am about to say is not going to be along the beaten path of how writers view harmony. Let me give you some common ways writers look at harmonic selections.

  1. On a very novice level, writers look for the basic chords (I, IV, and V) that contain the melody note as the root, third, fifth or possibly seventh. For example, in the key of C, if the melody note is F, a novice writer will choose an F chord because it contains an F (as the root). A second choice might be G7 which contains an F as the 7th.
  2. As a step up, writers begin to substitute diatonic chords for I, IV and V. In the last example, rather than choosing an F chord, a writer might use ii (Dm) which contains a F as the third. These kinds of substitutions are very widely used. This is the first step towards more sophisticated harmony and sadly, probably the last step for most writers.
  3. Eventually, writers start using more interesting chords (extended diatonic chords and non-diatonic chords). Perhaps that F chord is converted to FM7 or G7 is converted to Db7 (a tritone substitution).
  4. Experienced writers will at some point gravitate away from the idea of chord substitutions completely and start thinking in terms of chord progressions. Chords are chosen based not only on whether they work with the melody but also how they relate to each other. What that in effect means is that basically any chord can substitute for another assuming certain functional harmony rules are followed.

Growing through these different steps is valuable and important. My course on reharmonization is designed to help you do that. However, there is another important consideration and that is the factor that made that song I mentioned stand out so much. I am referring to a general guideline about matching harmony and melody.

Here is the rule: the further from root the melody note is, the more sophisticated the sound is going to be.

Let’s take a C chord and number the notes.

  • C: root
  • E: third
  • G: fifth
  • B or Bb: 7th
  • D: 9th
  • F: 11th
  • A: 13th

My rule states that when using a C chord, a melody note of B is going to sound more sophisticated than E and D is going to sound more sophisticated than G. Note that when we determine the distance from the root, we are doing it by number rather than physical proximity. In other words, D is “further” from C than E because D is the 9th and E is the 3rd.

Now, here is an important caveat. You can’t always get away with those 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths on all chords. You also have to know that there are variations of the extensions. For example, 9ths come in three variations: b9, #9 and just 9. You can use a 9 on any chord but you can’t add a b9 to a major 7th. You can use the natural 11th on a minor chord but have to use a #11 on a major chord.

Once you know those rules however, there are lots and lots of possibilities that become available to you when choosing chords. I am going to take another post to go through that but to close this one, I want to give you some basic examples to illustrate my point. Play these pairs of the same chord with different melody notes and you will see how the relationship between the chord and the melody note affects the sophistication of the sound.