So, how does one learn to harmonize? Below I will share some tips for how I teach my students this skill. I will focus on diatonic harmonization (tell your students to remember that term and impress their friends!) which means using only chords that can be created from your given key signature. Since most pop and folk tunes use only diatonic harmonies, this is a great place to start.
Ready? Let's harmonize!
- Step 1: Know your key signature. If you know what key your melody is in, you can greatly narrow down the number of chords you have to choose from when you are harmonizing. Out of 24 possible major and minor chords, a given key only contain 7 chords--and many folk and pop songs use only 3 or 4 of those! For example, if your melody is in the key of C major, you can determine your 7 diatonic chords by building a chord on each step of the C major scale. This gives us: C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. (The diminished chord is use very rarely.)
- Step 2: Look at your melody note. Now that you have narrowed down your chord selection, look at the first melody note in your measure. Most of the time, your harmony will contain your melody note. So, if your melody starts on a C, the most likely harmonies would be C major, F major, or A minor--all of which contain a C.
- Step 3: Know when to add spice. Sometimes, you will find that your melody note will "clash" with your harmony. Composers do this on purpose, to add a bit of spice to a piece of music. When this happens, your melody will almost always go next to a note that is in your chord, creating a feeling of tension and resolution. This can be a useful tool when you are harmonizing--just remember to use it sparingly, or else these clashing harmonies will lose their punch.
- Step 4: Experiment! Now that you know the basics, have fun with harmonizing! Take a simple melody like "Jingle Bells" (you can use the one found in the "Free Stuff" section of my website here if you like). Can you figure out what harmonies are traditionally used in each measure? Now, try choosing different harmonies that still fit the "rules" found above. (This is something arrangers do all the time--they call it chord substitution!) How does it make the song sound different?
Any tips you use with your students when teaching harmonization? Please share in the comments below!