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How to play from a Christmas songbook, part 2

In the last video, we discussed:

  • How to find the melody line
  • How to read the chord symbols
  • How to use the given chord symbols while following the bassline idea

Definitely check it out if you haven’t already, because today’s video is going to build on the same ideas.

This week, well be looking at how to embellish the right hand and add voicing, so you’re not just playing a single melody note the whole time.

Let’s get started!

Why add voicing to the melody?

Harmony notes add so much depth and richness to your playing, and it can be quite easy to add them if you have a few general rules in mind.

If you’ve ever heard a piano player in church, or any setting where vocalists are following the piano, the piano part often plays the melody (for people to follow), but also plays fairly constant chords in the left AND right hand to make the sound thicker and richer.

Here are the rules (really more like guidelines) to keep in mind, and then we’ll talk about them in full:

  • The melody must always be on top
  • Harmony notes are either chord tones, AND/OR,
  • Harmony notes follow the shape of the melody
  • You don’t add harmony to every single note – often the strongest beats will suffice

1)     The melody must always be on top

Going back to our Silent Night example from the previous video, the melody needs to be the top note in the right hand – especially if people are trying to sing along with your playing (which is often the case with Christmas music). Even if you’re doing a non-vocal, piano-solo version of a Christmas tune, the melody needs to be easily heard, and you accomplish that by making sure the melody is the top note.

Always add harmony notes under the upper melody notes!

2)     Harmony notes are chord tones

If I’m playing a Bb chord in the left hand, then notes from a Bb chord are going to sound best as harmony tones in the right hand. If I’m playing, say, a Bb chord in my left hand and C chord harmony tones in my right, it’s going to sound very off. If you’re just getting started, simply add tones from the chord you’re playing in the left. You could stop there and it’ll sound great.

3)     Harmony notes follow the shape of the melody

If you want to get fancier, you can add in some passing tones. Passing tones are NOT in the chord, and can sound ugly if used in properly.

In the melody of Silent Night, we’re singing “F-G-F D”. F and D are both tones in a Bb chord. But G is not! You’ll notice the melody “G” is sandwiched in-between some chord tones. We call this a “passing tone” because we pass through it on our way to another chord tone. We don’t linger on that non-chord tone (otherwise it would be quite discordant). We just walk on by.

Harmony tones can do the same thing. If the melody is playing a passing tone, chances are, the harmony note can also be a passing tone, following the same shape as the right hand.

So our harmony can go “D-E-D”. The “E and G” clash with the Bb chord, but it sounds nice because we’re just passing on through, and it follows a pleasing, step-wise shape.

Harmony notes are worth experimenting with – they often sound great when using chord tones, but there are definitely situations to use a non-chord tone to add a little somethin’-somethin’. In Silent Night, the only time the editor uses non-chord tones in the harmony are in that V-shaped pattern – otherwise, the harmony notes are all chord tones.

4)     You don’t add harmony to every single note – often the strongest beats will suffice

It can quickly get overwhelming if you add a harmony note to every single melody note – often it’s just too much, and if it’s too much, it won’t sound good.

Start by adding a harmony note on the strong beats. Since Silent night is in 6/8, that would mean on beat 1 and 4.

If you’re satisfied with this, you can add in some more harmony notes – typically you want to avoid playing harmony on quick-moving passages. Not only is it more awkward to play, but it generally doesn’t sound very nice. But harmony notes on slower parts tend to work quite well.

Conclusion

Adding voicing is an art, not a science. And it’s not prescriptive! Start with these ideas, but remember to play around with it and experiment. Use your ear as a guide for when something works, or not.

Most importantly, have fun!

-Allysia

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