Even if you have 0 knowledge of harmony, and very little understanding of music theory, this video should give you a little insight into why composers choose what they do when adding harmonies to a melody.
Review of concepts
So before we figure out how to harmonize a melody, we have to review a couple concepts first, just to make sure we’re talking the same language.
Melody: The main line of a song (generally the part you would sing)
Harmony: Other line(s) that support the melody, adding depth to it
The other concept we need to review are intervals. Intervals are the distance between notes. So two notes beside each other, like C/D, would be a 2nd. With a space between them, like C/E, it would be a third, and so on:
C/D – 2nd
C/E – 3rd
C/F – 4th
C/G – 5th
C/A – 6th
C/B – 7th
C/C – 8th
How to harmonize a melody
So when you harmonize a melody, you’re adding more notes to the melody line to enhance it. Maybe these notes are added sparingly, or played note-for-note in line with the melody.
Immediately, whatever song you’re playing sounds fancier just by adding those notes. So how do you know what notes to add to harmonize a melody? I think it’s time for a segue into music history!
A brief history of harmony
In the Middle Ages, most western music was of a religious nature, and had different names depending on location but the one title you’re probably familiar with is Gregorian chant. It was just like it sounds like – music that sounded like chant, because there was no instrumentation (the church didn’t think they were holy).
Gregorian Chant started as just a single note sung. Next, it involved octave doubling (an interval of an 8th) – imagine that melody line sung by a man in a low register, and a boy in a high register. But later, it evolved to have actual harmony.
Example of Gregorian Chant:
this is an example of early music without any accompaniment or harmony.
4ths and 5ths as harmony
A common type of harmony that Gregorian chant used was intervals of 4ths and 5ths, moving in unison. This harmony sounds very strange in our day and age since it’s not commonly used anymore, and dare I say creepy.
Example of Gregorian Chant with intervals of 4ths and 5ths:
It creates a very grand, almost otherworldly harmony that isn’t much used in this day and age.
As a sidenote, some metal bands also like to use this kind of melodic harmony, since it’s so discordant to our modern ears.
Renaissance and beyond
Somewhere along the way, people got more adventurous with their harmonic choices and began to incorporate thirds and sixths into their harmony repertoire. These intervals both sound very pleasant to our modern ears. You’ll come across these intervals in melodies all over the place, including my arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby.
How to harmonize a melody – not with these intervals
The only intervals we haven’t talked about for harmony are 2nds and 7ths. They’re way too strange to use on their own unless you’re making really abstract music, and you won’t see this very often, unless it’s just passing through that interval on its way to another interval. Listen to examples in the video, or try them out on the piano.
In the video, I show you how to harmonize a melody with some famous and easy examples – what the tunes sound like when you add 3rds and 6ths, and 4ths and 5ths as well.
Placement of harmony
I almost always put the melody note on top, with the harmony note on the bottom, because then the melody rings through more clearly.
Hope you enjoy this video! 🙂