The relationship between melody and chords

Melodies and chords are closely related. Understanding this relationship is very helpful as an ocarina player for a few reasons:

  • It enhances your understanding of the music you are playing.
  • It allows you to harmonise a melody if you don't know the chords.
  • It opens up the possibility of improvisation, and writing your own music.

The basis of this relationship is something called an arpeggio. An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played in sequence instead of at the same time.

X: 1
R: jig
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: Cmaj
"F Chord" [F4 A4 c4] | "F Arpeggio" F A c2

Arpeggios are the core of the relationship between melody and chords, as you will very frequently find melodies arpeggiating, or otherwise emphasising the notes of the underlying chords.

This relationship becomes more obvious if you consider all occurrences of a chord's notes within the instrument's range. For the sake of diversity we will be considering the notes within the range of an alto G ocarina, and the same principles apply to ocarinas in C, or any other key.

Start by drawing a line, and writing on it the notes of the relevant scale which fit within the range of your instrument. For simplicity, we will be using the range of a 10 hole alto G ocarina.

The notes of the G major scale in the range of a G ocarina are G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, and C.

The first triad in the scale is G Major, which includes the notes G B D. The first 2 notes, G and B are repeated at the top of the range.

The notes of a G major triad which are playable on a G ocarina, G B D G B

A Minor similarly repeats its first 2 notes at the top end.

The notes of an A minor triad which are playable on a G ocarina, A C E A

B Minor repeats 1 note at the top.

The notes of a B minor triad which are playable on a G ocarina, B D F sharp B

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

The notes of a C major triad which are playable on a G ocarina, G C E G C

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

The notes of a D major triad which are playable on a G ocarina, A D F sharp A

E Minor duplicates 2 of its notes below its root.

The notes of an E minor triad which are playable on a G ocarina, G B E G B

With the final triad, F♯ Diminished, 2 notes go into the second octave. These same 2 are also duplicated at the bottom.

The notes of an F sharp diminished triad which are playable on a G ocarina, A C F sharp A C

Chord symbols

Chord symbols or chord letters are where the letter of the chord is written above the sheet music. 'G' for example indicates an G Major triad and 'Am' represents A Minor. These are written above the note where the chord starts, and continue until the next chord symbol.

Such symbols are used by guitarists or pianists as a guide for what harmony they should play.

X: 1
M: 4/4
L: 1/4
K: Gmaj
"G" G4 | "C" c4 | "D" d4 | "G" G4

These are a great way of studying how the chords in a piece of music relate to the melody. What you want to do is learn where the notes of each chord are within the range of your instrument. Then when you are viewing the sheet music of a melody, highlight the notes of the current chords in your mind's eye.

By doing so, you can easily see which melody notes fall within the chord and which don't. Below this is demonstrated using the chords of D and G within a G scale, within the range of a single chamber G ocarina.

Over time, you may make diagrams like these for all of the chords within the range of your ocarina. Starting simple is fine.

A graphic showing the notes of a D major chord which are playable on a single chamber soprano G ocarina in sheet music notation

A graphic showing the notes of a G major chord which are playable on a single chamber soprano G ocarina in sheet music notation

The ways chords show up in melodies

Melodies based on an arpeggio

It is very common to find melodies where the notes of a melody literally arpeggiate the notes of the underlying chord. The second part of the tune Athol Highlanders is a good example as it's composed almost entirely of arpeggios.

  • The first bar traces the notes of an A Major chord.
  • The second bar traces the notes of an D major chord.
  • The rest of the tune is similarly rigid.

X: 1
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:|

Melody centred around a single note of the chord

Sometimes a melody will centre 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 centred around it's fifth, the note E.

X: 2
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. They only differ in one note: G major contains a D while E minor contains an E. Because of these common notes, it is often possible to harmonise 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 bar is harmonised with G Major and the third bar with E Minor.

X: 1
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 2 of the following example is harmonised 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 centred around the seventh of the chord

Just as the notes of the triad where found by stacking 2 thirds above the root note, this pattern can be continued. If you begin from a root note and stack 3 thirds, you get something called a seventh chord: root, third, 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
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 harmonised using a D chord while the melody of both centres 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 seventh 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. Find the chords, and observe how the melody notes relate to them. Do they follow any of the patterns described here or do something different?

Another great exercise once you start to develop a feel for this is to try to harmonise a piece of music that you do not have chords for. One way of doing so is to:

  • Record the melody and play it in a loop.
  • As it repeats, play different chords from the tune's key, holding them over the whole melody.
  • As you do this, you will notice some places where they sound good, and others where they sound bad.

If you make a list of which chords sound good and where, you will be left with a list of possible chords for each part of the melody.

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