Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly http://healthsavy.com

Harmonising a melody – Beyond the Primary Chords

This morning I had a comment on my previous post on how to harmonise with primary chords..

Emelia asked why I couldn’t harmonise ‘Oh When the Saints’ with a D minor chord.

Now fitting chords and melodies together is a big subject, and there’s lots to say on the matter. The point I want to make here is: there is always more than one possibility, when choosing chords.

Here’s the first half of the melody:

Oh when the saints, go marching in


Oh when the saints go marching in


Using primary chords (ie the chords on the first, fourth and fifth step of the scale, in this case C F and G) I harmonised it something like this:

C                                 C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

C                                  G
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in
C                      F
I want to be In that number
C              G             C
Oh When the Saints, Go marching in

Here’s what that sounds like:

Oh When The Saints

But Emelia has spotted that whenever I’ve use a G chord, the melody use a D. So couldn’t I use any chord with a d note in it?

Yes, Emelia, I could you’re right. The reason we start off with primary chords is to make sure people understand the principles, because with those three chords any melody that doesn’t change key can be harmonised. That doesn’t mean using the primary chords is always the best way.

In this situation for example, I could do replace the G chords with D minor. That would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with a Dm chord.

I could replace the C chords with A minor as well, that would sound like this:

Oh When The Saints with Am and Dm chords.

The chords we use are very often a creative choice. Change the chords and you change the character, so it all depends on what mood you want things to have. The best way to find the correct mood is to improvise, experiment with other chords until you find what you think sounds best.

Personally, my favourite harmonisation of Oh When the Saints is during the later, darker verses, where I’ve heard it transposed into a minor key:
Oh When The Saints Minor.

Well known folk songs and hymns constantly change and evolve as people find new ways to harmonise them. There are always different choices, and once you’re sure of the basics, the best way to find the right chords for your melody is to explore all the possibilities.

I’m currently writing a new ebook about harmonisation. Why not join my no-spam mailing list so you can get a free copy when I’m finished. There’s another free ebook available as well, and you can leave the mailing list any time you choose.

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