The relationship between melody, chords and accompaniment

If you've only played melody instruments it is quite easy to play the notes of a melody, oblivious to how they relate to the underlying harmony. While they may be considered separately melodies and chords are inter-related. The notes of a melody tend to mirror those of the chords. Understanding this relationship will help you to create improvisations within a tune. It also helps you to harmonize a tune if you don't know the chords.

To develop an intuitive feel for this you really need to play with chords and harmony for yourself. As ocarinas are monophonic you will need a different instrument to do so. There are programs including LMMS that allow you to play notes using a computer keyboard. There are also many virtual piano apps for IOS and Andriod.

In my opinion a better option is a MIDI keyboard. They are cheap, plug into a computer and use software to generate sound. The big advantage of the keyboard is that chords and melodies are played using the same set of keys. It's easy to see how the two relate to each other.

You want one with at least 3 octaves to let you play chords, and see how melody notes sound in relation to them. Keyboard is not difficult to adapt to, you can learn a lot by playing a chord and observing how notes sound relative to it. You do not have to play an instrument well in order to learn from it.

Side Note

The first part of this page quickly discusses where chords come from. If you are already aware of this feel free to skip ahaid.

Finding the chords of a scale

Each of the 7 notes of any scale has an associated 3 note triad. Chords are formed from them by stacking an interval called a third. A 3rd is the distance between any 3 sequential notes of a diatonic scale. For example in G major, starting on G take a step forward to A, then again to B. B is a 3rd above G.

The simplest form of chord is from a stack of two thirds, which is known as a triad. Tri like triangle. To complete the G triad you just move forward another third from B. Thus you get the notes G, B and D.

By following the same pattern from the other notes of the scale there chords may be found. The triads for D, E and F sharp ascend into the following octave.

Triad types

If you play these notes you'll notice that some of them sound different. It is easiest to understand these differences by looking at them within the chromatic scale.

Major triads

If you take the first chord, the one built from G and count the number of semitones between the root and 3rd you'll find there are 4. If you then begin from the 3rd and count forward you'll find that there are 3 semitones. Above both of these where called a third so what's going on?

There are actually two kinds of third, the major third and the minor third. The major third is an interval of 4 semitones, the minor 3rd is an interval of 3. When thirds of different types are combined different triads result. A chord formed from a major third followed by a minor third is called a major triad. There are two other major triads within the key of G: C, and D.

Minor triads

If you examine the intervals of the second chord of the scale, A, C, E you will find that the intervals are swapped around. The first interval is a minor 3rd while the second is a major 3rd. This is called a minor triad. There are 3 minor triads in this scale. A, B and E.

Diminished triads

These covers every triad found in the scale except for one. If you examine the intervals of the B triad you will find that they follow a pattern of minor 3rd, minor 3rd. This is called a diminished triad.

Side Note

You may have realized that there is one last combination of thirds, namely a stack of two major thirds. This is called an augmented triad. I'm only mentioning this for the sake of completeness as you don't need to understand them for basic harmony.

Considering all chord tones

The relationship between chords and melody becomes more obvious if you consider all occurrences of a chords notes. Within the sounding range of a single chambered ocarina in G, the G triad has the notes G B D. the first two notes, G and B are repeated at the top of the range.

A C E similarly repeats it's first two notes at the top end.

B D F♯ repeats one note at the top

C major is a little different, in addition to the high C, there is also a low C. A black dot has been added over the starting note of the triad.

D major is the same, the A exists at the bottom.

E duplicates two of it's notes below it's root.

With the final triad two notes go into the second octave. These same two are also duplicated at the bottom.

Finding chords in a melody

When viewing a piece of music it helps if you highlight the notes of the active chord in your minds eye. Mentally highlight these rows like this:

Melody as an arpeggiated chord

When the notes of a chord are played sequentially rather than together they are called an arpeggio. It is common to find parts of a melody which perfectly follow the notes of an underlying chord. The second part of the tune Athol Highlanders is a good example as it's composed almost entirely of arpeggios.

X: 1
T: The Atholl Highlanders (B part)
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Amaj
"A" Ace Ace| "D" Adf Adf| "A" Ace Ace| "E" Bcd "A" c2B|
"A" Ace Ace| "D" Adf Adf| "A" eae "D" fed| "E" cdB "A" A3:|

The first part traces the notes of an A major triad. The second bar traces the notes of an D major triad however they are out of order. This is called an inversion.

You may have noticed that when the notes are reorganized the intervals change. There is an interval of 5 semitones between the A and D. This is called a perfect fourth. It is perfect as there is no 'major' and 'minor' version of the interval. When this fourth appears at the bottom like in the tune above it is called the second inversion. The first inversion is where the gap appears at the top. If you want more information on inversions a quick Google search will turn up a lot of results.

Melody centered around a single note of the chord

Sometimes a melody will center around a single note of a chord, the second to last bar of the hymn "Gwahoddiad" does this. The chord is A major and the melody is centered around it's fifth, the note E.

X: 2
T: Gwahoddiad - fragment 
M: 3/4
K: D
"D" d3 cBA | BAF2D2 | "A" ( E3 DFE ) | "D" D6 |

Multiple chords harmonizing the same fragment

Many chords contain common notes. For example G major and E minor both contain G and B. G major contains a D while E minor contains an E. Because of these common notes it is often possible to harmonize the same melody using different chords. The following arrangement of the welsh tune "Hoyd y frwynen" does this. Bars 1 and 3 are identical yet the first is harmonized with G major, the 3rd with E minor.

X: 1
T: Hyd y Frwynen - B part
M: 4/4
K: Emin
"G" B2 Bc d2 cB  | "D" A2 AB c2 BA | "Em"  B2 Bc d2 cB | "C" ABAG "B" F4 ||

Melody that does not begin on a chord note

Melodies can be written where the first note accompanied by a given chord is not in the chord. For instance bar two of the following example, it is harmonized with E minor yet begins on D. Beginning in this way creates a sense of tension which resolves into a chord note. It drives the music forward.

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: Dmaj
"D" A2F2E4 | "Em" D4 E4 | "A" B2 A4E2 | "D" EF G2 D4 |

Melody centered around the seventh of the chord

Just as the notes of the triad where found by stacking two thirds above the root note, this pattern can be continued. If you begin from a root note and stack 3 3rds, you get something called a seventh chord, root, 3rd, fifth and seventh.

The full details of seventh chords are beyond the scope of this page yet it is worth being aware of them. The seventh chord formed from the fifth of any scale is called a 'dominant seventh'. It is quite common to run across melodies which harmonise on the seventh of this chord, for example:

X: 3
T: Y Delyn Newydd (The new harp - A part)
M: 4/4
K: G
"G" BAGA B2 d2 | "D" d2 c2 c4 | "D" cBABc2 e2 | "G" e2 d2 d4 |
"G" BAGA B2 d2 | "D" d2 c2 c4 | "D" cBA2 cBA2 | "G" B2 G2 G4 :|

Bar 2 and 3 are harmonized using a D chord while the melody of both centers around C, the seventh of D. In G major D is the dominant chord. The seventh is provided by the melody in this instance, however a D7 chord also works as a harmony. Bar 7 leads from the 7nth down to the fifth.

Going forward

A good way of developing a feel for harmony is to pay attention to the harmonies of the tunes you play regularly. Try playing them on a keyboard and observe how the melody notes relate to the chords. Do they follow any of the patterns described above or do something different?

Another great exercise is to try to harmonize a piece of music that you do not have chords for. A good way to do this is to record the melody and play it in a loop, it's best to do this on the keyboard so that you know it's in tune.

Find the key of the tune and make a list of the chords. Using a sustaining instrument on your keyboard play each one of these chords over the entire piece of music. Take note of the places where it sounds good and those where it does not. As long as the music does not modulate (Google it), you will be left with a list of possible chords for each part of the melody.

Over time you will also discover chord patterns that show up in many pieces of music. To give one example, a lot of pieces in a major key end with a 5 chord to 1 chord transition. This is called an Authentic cadence.

Thoughts on...

Article Headings