GUITAR 101: Harmonization

Remember “I’d like to teach the world to sing…in perfect harmony?” Roger Cook wrote that famous Coke commercial some years back. Well, I’d like to teach songwriting guitar-players more about harmonizing their melodies, which is definitely a less ambitious undertaking.Undertaking. That looks German, doesn’t it? Maybe Norwegian. But I digress.Remember “I’d like to teach the world to sing…in perfect harmony?” Roger Cook wrote that famous Coke commercial some years back. Well, I’d like to teach songwriting guitar-players more about harmonizing their melodies, which is definitely a less ambitious undertaking. Undertaking. That looks German, doesn’t it? Maybe Norwegian. But I digress.

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Jazz musicians often re-harmonize a melody. They take a known melody and play different chords behind it. Sometimes this sounds really good. James Taylor is a master at this with a pop-folk song. Listen to his versions of “Oh, Susanna” and “Handy Man” and you’ll see what I mean. You can do this with your own songs. Let’s talk about how to do that.

When you write a song, you should know what key you’re in. The first chord of the song is usually what key you’re in. For instance, if the verse to the song is G, Em, Am, D7 you know you’re in the key of G. I like to use the key of G because it’s so “guitar-friendly.” The melody of the song is made up of the notes in the G major scale, probably. Those notes are G, A B, C, D, E and F#. All of the common chords in that key (G, Am, Bm, C, D, D7 and Em) are totally made up of those and those notes only. The other chord in that key is the F#m7b5 chord (also called half-diminished), but it’s not nearly as common, and rarely used in pop music. So let’s just concentrate on those first seven chords I mentioned.

In the invaluable Number System, these chords are the 1, 2m, 3m, 4, 5, 5/7, and 6m. The only chord that has an active function in a key is the 5/7 (or its extension). In the key of G, it’s the D7. OK, now we’ve got our cast of characters, or usual suspects in that key. That’s a starting point. Many times a student will tell me “I don’t know where to go with these chords” (or melody). If you understand how chords work together, you’ll see that the huge number of options.

Now suppose the first note of your melody is G. You should be able to sing that note and find it on the guitar. OK, any chord in that key that has a G in it could be the chord that goes with that melody. Obviously, a G chord would be a good choice. However, a C (C, E, G) chord also has a G note in it. So does an Em (E, G, B) chord. One of these chords should sound better to your ear than the others. However, these aren’t your only options.

If you know your “color” chords in each key, you’ll know that instead of the G chord, you could play a Gsus2 (3×0233), a Gadd9 (3×0203), a G6 (3×2003) or even a Gmaj7 (3x443x). The Gmaj7 might be to “jazzy” for you. In addition to all the G variations, your C chord variations Cadd9, Csus2, Cmaj7, etc., all have a G note too. Or you could go further a field (but still in the key) by using a Dsus4 chord (xx0233) or a D7sus4 (xx0213). All of these chords are possible choices depending on the way you want it to sound.

In theory, the more notes in your melody, the more chords you can use to support them, or frame them. Because each of the seven notes of the scale that you’re using for your melody has several chords which contain that note. In practice, however, what usually sounds the best is either A) a relatively simple melody with more “color” and/or “motion” in the chords , or the opposite approach, B) a melody that moves around the scale a lot matches a chord progression that has less motion or “color.” Again, this is all a matter of personal taste. And if you’re writing songs in a particular genre that you wish to get recorded by artists in that genre, you need to know what kinds of melodies and chord progressions are “typical” of that genre.

This doesn’t mean you have to stick to an exact formula, but every genre of music has general parameters or guidelines. For instance, if you want to write a traditional-sounding country song or blues song, you wouldn’t use a lot of chord changes or “jazzy” sounding chords, like F#m7b5 or Gmaj7. Having said that, keep in mind what Picasso (I think) said: “You have to know the rules before you know how to break them like an artist.” There are exceptions to every rule, but how you consciously choose to break it is the crucial thing. Breaking them by accident or through ignorance usually doesn’t turn out so well. There’s a whole lot more to be said about this in my next column. I’ll have more specific examples of what I’m getting at.

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