How is your song-writing progressing? If you’ve been following along with the Songwriter’s Secrets series so far then at this point you have probably mastered how to write lyrics and a good melody. You have been practicing your songwriting exercises, listening skills, and musicianship and are now ready to tackle another important aspect of songwriting: Harmony.
What is Harmony?
In general, when you are singing a single line it is considered a melody. When more than one note is being sung, like a duet, then there is harmony. In songwriting, harmony typically refers to using chords. A chord progression in Western style harmony moves the song towards a satisfying musical conclusion, usually I or the Tonic Chord (e.g. The C Major chord in the key of C Major).
Find out more about different chords and chord progressions used in writing popular songs in this video tutorial:
While there is a lot of music theory that goes behind why a particular progression may sound better than another one, for these purposes it is better to just understand that in commercial music, most chord progressions will revolve around two chords: I and V. In the key of C the I chord is the C Major Chord and the V chord is the G Major Chord.
This fun parody explores how four chords make up the bulk of many of our most popular tunes:
As you write your song, you will most likely revolve around these two chords in your chord progression, even if you experiment with in minor keys, diminished chords, or contemporary harmony.
Want to find out more about these important chords? Check out these articles:
Harmonies to Fit Your Musical Style
Your choice of chord progression will depend heavily on your chosen musical style. For example, if you are writing a jazz or blues tune, your chord progressions will most likely involve a combination of 7th chords, blues scales, 9th chords, and many other more complex harmonies that are not usually used in a simple pop tune. By contrast, styles of music like dance or pop do not experiment as much harmonically speaking. Other genres, like a folk duet, may involve complex harmonies between two voices. In classical music, complex tonalities that explore extended technique, global harmonies, polytonality, atonality, and more are acceptable.
The example below, Elton’s Journey, from the Musical U training module Classic Chords uses a simple I–V–vi–IV progression, which is a popular progression in many hit pop tunes:
Below are some other popular chord progressions:
These are just some chord progressions to start you out on your harmonic journey. If you want to explore harmonic progressions, you might want to check out full chord progression ear training at Musical U.
Learning good harmony is easier if you play the guitar or piano, or another instrument which can play chords. If you don’t, then it’s best to team up with a good friend who does, to work on harmonies for your tune. Or you can use a program like Garageband or Logic, which have preset chord progressions for you. The one drawback to that? You don’t want to end up morphing your melody to fit a standard harmonic progression. Your harmony should be supporting your melody, not the other way round.
Finding the Right Key
Notice that we have been writing the chords using Roman Numerals. This is because a song can be written in any key, and the key may change depending on the performer. A female singer will need a different key than a male singer, or you might find out that that cold you had last week has lingered and affected your range. Music educators also often have to experiment with keys, as adults tend to sing lower than children.
There are a few tricks to finding the most suitable key for your song. In many cases the first and last note of a tune can determine the key. If you start and end on F, then most likely you are in the key of F Major or F minor. If your voice is not comfortable in the key of F, you may need to transpose (meaning change keys) to a more comfortable key. Some keys are more comfortable for certain instruments and if you find that your sheet music looks like it’s been bombarded by sharps or flats, then most likely you need to consider that you should be in a different key.
Exercise: Harmonizing Practice
Before you start working on your harmonic progressions, warm up your ears with some easy aural practice. These chord progression exercises help you practice recognising simple I–IV–V progressions in different keys. You can also check out this tutorial on how to harmonize a song. Then you can start to explore the harmonic options for your songs more fully.
In this exercise you are going to harmonize a lyric step-by-step. Don’t skip any steps! If you find that there is an area that you are not familiar with, then check out some of the resources recommended to find out more about harmony. Learning to write good harmonies is an advanced musical skill, and it might take you a little bit of time to get used to writing effective harmonies for your tunes.
1. Record yourself singing your melody
Use your smartphone or computer to record your melody. At this point, try to keep the melody simple and avoid any improvisations or embellishments. Right now you want to focus on finding a suitable harmony for the basic melody. Once you have established your harmonies, you can start experimenting with the details of the melody based on the harmony.
2. Using your listening skills, write down the melody notes
You can do this by either writing the note letters (ex. A#) above the lyrics or writing it fully out in music notation. Use a piano to help you “pluck out” the melody notes if needed.
3. Analyze the melody
Look at the melody. If you see patterns that suggest chord progressions (e.g. moving from using notes from a C Major chord to notes from the F Major or G Major chord), sketch in those chords. You will not want to change chords on every word, but usually 1-4 times per line, depending on the length of the lyric, tempo and the style.
Using your sketched chord transitions start deciding the full chord progressions for your melody. If you are great at playing by ear, you might find that you will easily fill in additional chords. Guitarists and pianists often excel at harmonizing because they have already practiced chords for most of their life.
Other musicians like singers or drummers may have to work a little harder to come up with good harmonic progressions. If that is the case, you might need to experiment and learn by trial-and-error plucking notes on a piano until you find a good harmonic progression. That’s okay! Songwriting takes practice. If you start working on harmonizing now, you will find that it will get easier!
5. Revise. Revise. Revise.
Does your harmonic progression make sense? Does the chorus build? Is the ending satisfying for the listener? Are there any notes that sound out-of-tune? Record a demo version and let someone else listen to your harmonies. After a while spent working on a song you tend to tire out your ears. Sometimes you will need to come back to the tune later to get a fresh perspective.
6. … and revise some more.
Once you are comfortable with your basic chord progression, experiment with developing more complex chords. You might want to invert chords, change keys, make a major key minor or vice versa, experiment with other scales (like blues or whole tone), or work more on the melodic structure. You want your build-up to make sense, the bridge to transition smoothly, and the ending to be memorable and satisfying for the listener. Check out the Listen Close series to discover more about what makes a song really work well.
If you are writing songs for a band where two singers are harmonizing, sometimes working on the two vocal parts first will help you determine where you need to go with your harmonic progression. You would follow the same steps as above, but use the vocal melodies together as a guide to figure out harmonic progressions.
Remember that in most popular music styles the progressions move around the same handful of chords: I, V, IV, vi. While this is not true for all songs, keep this in mind if you start to get stumped. If you are writing a classical song, jazz, blues, or experimental music, even some styles of rock, you will find that you will need to explore other chords like 7th chords, diminished chords, and more to give your tune the right feel.
When you first start out, harmonisation can seem like a very complex and advanced part of song-writing. However, as the exercises above show, you can start out with some basic tried-and-true progressions and explore more advanced possibilities gradually as you become more comfortable. So don’t hold back! Take that song you’ve only figured out words and melody for and give a try to adding some chords. Regular practice and experimentation will soon help you develop fantastic harmonies quickly and easily.