How Harmony and Melody Work Together
Twinkle, Twinkle Harmonized and Reharmonized
Before we begin I offer two oversimplified definitions:
Melody: the part you sing. - Harmony: the chords.
While there is a significant body of music that consists of melody without harmony, for example early church music or a saxophonist busking solo, most Western music will inevitably find a harmonic compliment. This harmony will initially be determined by the composer but all songwriters; classical, pop, metal, etc. have an almost endless number of chord choices for any melody. It is arguable that there is one (perhaps two) “correct”, obvious choice, a preference that is naturally pleasing to the ear, but that does not discount the fact that any note can played against any chord.
Though my melodic example, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, may seem corny I chose it due to its familiarity and to show, by example 5, just how far out you can take your harmonies. Once you understand the concept you should take this technique and apply it to any your own compositions or any other songs of your own choosing.
Example 1 shows the melody and chord progression for “Twinkle, Twinkle” with its traditional harmony (in all the examples the melody is the top [highest] note of every chord). Example 2 on the other hand offers a variation using the relative minor chords (note: for every major chord there is a sibling minor chord that shares two of the same notes, C = Am, F = Dm, G = Em). And just in case it isn’t obvious you can use a combination of both (with a few neighbor key chords also thrown in), Ex. 3.
By the way this kind of playing, chords and melody at the same time, if often referred to as “Chord Melody” in jazz but there are countless examples of it in country music (Wildwood Flower), contemporary fingerstyle (Tommy Emmanuel, et al.) and rock (Hendrix’s Little Wing). That said the two final examples have heavy jazz leanings.
Example 4 uses common jazz chords to harmonize our melody but I will be honest my choice of chords was complete arbitrary and random. There are plenty of books available that give detailed instruction regarding “correct” functional harmony, with voice leading devices and rules of counterpoint but I chose to ignore all those formulas and just go with chords I liked. Example 5 on the other hand does have a secret blueprint. Perhaps you know that the melody for “Twinkle, Twinkle” is also the one we use for “The Alphabet Song” (if you did not know this do not be embarrassed, once a month or so I blow someone’s mind with this exquisite tidbit of information), with this is mind the bass line follows the lyrics to that song, as far as musical language will allow me, and then descends using the leftover, accidental, notes.
On a final note I am not suggesting that you have to use all of these very “outside” harmonies in your everyday playing. The unambiguous triad alternatives in Ex. 3 can enliven a tune just as easily as the radical examples in 4 & 5. I am simply offering various alternatives to the prosaic harmonic environment we often find ourselves in.
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