Harmonizing Melodies

While there are no set rules for harmonizing melodies, there are important guidelines to keep in mind. Pick notes from the chords you’re using, avoid too many leaps, favor consonant intervals like thirds and sixths rather than dissonant ones like seconds and sevenths, and have the harmony follow the path of the melody.

Harmonizing a melody with additional vocals can seem like a simple task – you just listen to the main vocal melody and sing a little bit higher or lower, and with a little tweaking, everything falls into place.

Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t work out so easily, and you’re left with a harmony vocal that doesn’t sound quite right. Sometimes, the solution might be to only sing harmony on certain words and in unison for the rest, or to only sing harmony for half of a line. Portions of melodies that contain lots of leaps, that include adventurous uses of nonchord tones, or that are particularly rhythmically active, might not be the best to harmonize.

Sometimes, though, it can help to do a reality check to make sure what you’re doing makes theoretical sense, then adjust accordingly. And if things get tricky, you can always plan out what you’re doing using these principles for writing for two or more voices.

1. In general, choose notes from within the chords you’re using.

This is pretty basic, but it’s worth thinking about carefully if you’re not already doing so. For example, let’s say you want to harmonize this simple melody.

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Here it is with two additional voices. Both only sing notes from the chords that underpin them, creating a clean-sounding harmony.

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2. Avoid too many leaps in your harmonization.

Sometimes, leaps in your harmony part are unavoidable, either because the melody itself leaps or because leaping in your harmony part better allows you to sing notes from the chords. But lots of leaps in your harmony part risk sounding confusing and distracting from your melody.

3. Thirds and sixths usually sound good.

Most harmonizations are built around sixths and especially thirds. Thirds are the building blocks of triads, and using them frequently in your harmonies allows the melody and the harmonizing voice or voices to stay close to one another. Sixths are sort of like thirds in reverse — a G up to a B is a third, while a B up to a G is a sixth. So sixths will often sound good in your harmonization as well.

4. Seconds, sevenths and tritones frequently sound dissonant.

Seconds and sevenths — and especially minor seconds and major sevenths — frequently sound unpleasant, at least initially. This does not mean you should never use them. A major second harmony might sound great as part of a sus2 chord that resolves to a major chord, for example. A minor seventh or a tritone, meanwhile, might sound good as part of a multi-part harmonization of a seventh chord. But you should be aware of seconds, sevenths and tritones if you use them — in exposed contexts, they might sound harsh.

5. Perfect fifths and perfect fourths might or might not sound good, depending on the context.

Major and minor chords contain lots of perfect fifths, and might contain plenty of perfect fourths too, depending on how they’re voiced. (For example, a voicing of a G major chord might contain a perfect fifth between G and D, or a perfect fourth between D and the next highest G.) Three-part harmonies will naturally contain plenty of fourths and fifths. Two-part harmonies, however, might use them sparingly.

With all that in mind, let’s look at an example.

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Note that trying to harmonize this melody wouldn’t make much sense without a clear idea of what the chords are. We’ll use the notes of the chords to write a harmony line below the melody.

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Note the number of sixths here. The harmony line walks nearly in lockstep with the melody. (This would be bad form if we were working on a Bach chorale, but it should work perfectly in a pop song.) Note that we’ve harmonized the second note of the melody, E, with a G, even though we’ll be playing a D chord along with it. This is fine, because it doesn’t happen on an important beat, and the E and G move quietly to chord tones (F# and A). Effectively, the E and G are passing tones that happen simultaneously.

Note, also, that the E and D on the first beat of the second measure form a minor seventh. Normally, we would want to beware of a dissonance like this, especially if it happened repeatedly, but this one should sound quite good, since the E and D are both part of the Asus4 chord, and the D immediately resolves down a half step to an C#, forming a major sixth against the E.

We can achieve a three-part harmony mostly by layering more chord tones alongside our existing two parts. Notice that there are some seconds here, like on the second chord of the first measure and the third chord of the second measure. With three parts, it won’t matter so much if two voices form a dissonance if a third voice gives those dissonances a context.

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This third voice is in the middle and mostly sticks with the chord tones not present in the other two parts. Note that the middle voice stays on A throughout the second measure, leaving the other two voices to navigate the resolution of Asus4 to A. We’ve also moved the bottom harmony up from E to F# on the second beat of the third measure. I had a hard time finding a third part that sounded good with the E and C# we had on that beat before.

Now we’ll add some piano to play the chords.

Here’s another important guideline for harmonization, and it’s one that can occasionally come into conflict with point (1), about choosing harmonies that outline the underlying chords.

6. In general, have your harmonies follow the path of the melody.

Listen to the chorus of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s “Landslide” (1:13).

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We have a fairly straightforward I – V – vi – IV – I – ii – V progression in the key of Bb major. In this version, Nicks sings without vocal harmonies.

Sometimes, however, she sings the song with them. Here’s a version of “Landslide” featuring some lovely harmonies.

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I found it extremely difficult to pick out each individual vocal part from a multi-part texture, so there might be subtle differences between my transcription of the first line and the actual performance. (For example, it sounds like the line begins and ends with only one vocal harmony but features two in the middle, but I’m not positive this is true.) This is pretty close, however.

It appears this harmonization is intended to accomplish two things. First, it attempts to match, or at least not clash too much with, the underlying chords. Especially on most of the longer notes, the harmonies roughly match the chords, as we see on the syllables “been,” “built” and “round,” as well as the end of the word “life.”

There are, however, a number of harmonies that don’t match the chords very closely. Nicks’ own melody clashes somewhat with the underlying chords. The Bb on the syllable “of,” in particular, clashes with the chord beneath it. Instead of attempting to smooth over these dissonances, the background vocals attempt to preserve the trajectory of Nicks’ melody, sometimes resulting in more dissonance. On “of,” for example, the background singers seem to sing a D and an F, completing a Bb major chord against the F/A chord in the guitar.

It’s possible these seemingly clashing harmonies weren’t an intentional strategy on anyone’s part. Either way, they sound terrific. The differences between what’s going on in the guitar part and what’s going on in the vocal harmonies shows that if something sounds good, you shouldn’t fix it. Achieving the right blend in your vocal harmonies can be as much about following the trajectory of the melody as it is about following the chords.

Having the melody and harmony follow the same trajectory isn’t the only possible strategy, however. The All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret” uses another.

Here’s the vocal melody for one line of the chorus.

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Adding a vocal harmony that followed the trajectory of the melody probably would have worked. Instead, though, the All-American Rejects went with something like this.

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Look at the first measure. Rather than tracing the melody, the harmony simply sits on F for the first several notes. This harmonization produces a major second on “night.” Normally, the second sounds dissonant and is an interval we’d avoid. Here, though, it sounds great — the dissonance is temporary and is quickly resolved with the minor third on “you’ll.” And the overall effect is that the vocal harmony acts in tandem not with the vocal melody, but with the instrumental accompaniment, which repeats the same chord eight times per measure, in typical punk style.

In other words, there are no absolutes when it comes to harmonizations, and there could be a variety of reasonable ways to harmonize the same melody. Hopefully, though, this chapter has given you a sense of the options available.

Next Chapter: Secondary Dominants