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How to Harmonise – Part 1

Edit: The free ebook ‘How to Hamonize’ is now available. Click here!

This is the opening section of a new Ebook I’m writing ‘How to Harmonise’.

What Does Harmonise Mean?

The most common subject people search for on www.songwright.co.uk is ‘how to harmonise’. When I talk to people, they seem to mean two slightly different things by this: how to add chords to a melody, or how to add vocal harmonies to a melody. These are similar concepts that both contain the idea of harmony, or more than one note sounding at the same time. Both also pre-suppose the existence of a melody. The idea of vocal harmony, however, concentrates on linear movement – parallel lines of melody weaving together – wheras chords are a vertical idea – blocks of notes changing from bar to bar.

When I was studying music I was taught a hugely simplified history of how harmony developed: monks singing plainchant in medieval Europe moved from unison song, with everyone singing the same note, to two notes at a time. As music developed through the Rennaissance systems of contrapuntal music developed, with different lines of melody weaving together. As time went on this was replaced with a system that put more emphasis on vertical chords, and the whole tonal system of scales and chords came into being. Composers noticed that their interweaving lines came together to form specific groups of notes, chords, that sounded good, so rather than thinking only in terms of the horizontal melody, they could start by thinking of the chords then ‘fill in’ the appropriate notes.

I don’t doubt that this history is so simple as to be incorrect, but this book isn’t about history. The only point I want to make is that the two ideas, of vocal harmony and putting chords to a melody, are not in fact different. If you want to know how to harmonise vocals, you will need to know which chords are being used. Liewise, if you want to put chords to a melody, you will need to consider not only which chord, but how to arrange vocal melodies and other important elements (such as the bass line) to fit the chord.

Simply put, ‘harmony’ is more than one note at the same time. Usually it means combinations of notes that sound good together, but what we mean by ‘good’ can change – you might want your music to sound ‘unharmonious’ and discordant. Achieving that also requires a knowledge of harmony.

Some basics :- Intervals and Drones.

Harmonising At An Interval

Here are the first few notes of the major scale:

Ex1.

Example 1

There are lots of ways I could harmonise this. I could use octaves, the same note but at double the frequency. This is what you might hear if a male and female singer were singing the same melody:

Ex2.

Example 2

Another common harmony is in ‘thirds’. If C is the first note, E is the third along. If D is the first, F is the third. So ‘thirds’ simply means adding the note that is two ‘up’ the scale. You can find this easily by singing the correct ‘third up’ harmony note E and singing up the same melodic contour.

Ex3.

Example 3

You could also do the same by going up a fifth (ie treating C as the first and starting on G), or down a third:

Ex4.

Example 4

Ex5.

Example 5

This is a basic idea that singers might have started with when music was first developing and it forms one of the most important ideas for harmonising your songs. The important point to take away is the idea of parellel lines a slight gap apart. Harmonising with a third above is by far the most common form of vocal harmony in pop song. The concept of going up a third is also a vital one in forming chords, which we’ll come to later.

Drones

Lots of musical genres, for example Indian music, use a drone to provide a harmonic basis to a melody. The most simple version of a drone is a single note, plus its fifth, for example G and D. These could be repeatedly plucked on a string instrument or played as sustained notes. A melody can be played over the top.

Ex6. A Drone in G

Drones can be very effective for certain moods and they also illustrate a very important concept. Unlike harmonising at an interval, where we followed the contour of the melody completely, changing harmony note when the melody changed, here were have a harmonic layer underneath the melody that does not change at all.

Things To Try

1. Take a melody you know well and try harmonising at an octave, a third, a fifth and so on.
2. Get a drone going using a keyboard or sequencer, or just use the one I’ve provided in example 6. try improvising melodies over the top.

Mailing List

This post is just the first draft of the first page of the new ebook I’m writing called ‘How to Harmonise’. For regular updates (and absolutely no spam) why not sign up to the Songwright mailing list:

 

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