Melody Harmonization

Melody harmonization is an essential act of musical creation.

While it is true that much musical creation in a Western context involves the simultaneous conception of melody with harmony, it is also true that any single melody posseses a number of possible harmonizations, and it is essential training for any musician to see the harmonic potentiality of a given melodic contour.

We see from the example of the Bach chorales that Bach could take the same melody and give it a wide range of harmonizations, always in his case based on the text of the verse that he was using in a given composition. Melody re-harmonization becomes a common technique in 19th and 20th century composition as well. I think for example of the piano music of Ravel, where he often will welcome the return of a melody with a different harmony in the left hand. And jazz is fundamentally an art of re-harmonization, where an often simple show-tune melody is given a more elabrorate harmonic environment than the original composition, without effecting the actual shape of the original tune.

Developing an ear for harmonization takes practice, and frankly those who play harmony instruments — piano and guitar these days — have a more intuitive sense of how to harmonize a melody. This is why, of course, all schools of music including this one requires a certain level of skill in keyboard harmony. That being said, there are certainly some procedures one can follow that intellectually provide the student of harmony with a starting point for melody harmonization.

Here are those procedures.

A process for melody harmonization

In class, we determined a fundamental procedure for harmonizing a melody, based on the principle of the ascending minor and descending major scale.

Using this scale as a model for melodic movement, we found the following pattern:

  1. Assume that a melodic phrase will start with a slower harmonic rhythm and conclude with a faster harmonic rhythm. This helps to propel a phrase towards the cadence point.

  2. Determine the type of final cadence you wish to use, in this case "good old" I6-4, V7, I and create harmonies that propel towards that cadence point.

  3. For other harmonies, decide which potential notes fit the chords by thinking of the chords that would make the melodic note the root, third or fifth of the chord.

    1. Also consider which melodic could, in certain circumstances, be the 7th of the chord. Usually in such circumstances, the following chord is down a fifth, allowing the seventh to resolve properly.

    2. The best melodies also contain melodic notes that are times dissonant to the harmony. This is where the true art of melody harmonization lies.

  4. Choose harmonies that then seem to move well from one to the other. In other words, once the realm of possible harmonies have been determined, the actual choice of harmonies is not just a vertical but a horizontal consideration. In this regard, the concept of essential chord movements in progressive (overtonal) and regressive (reciprocal) movements should be considered.

  5. Test out the harmonic progression by ear, either at a harmony instrument or by entering it in notation software and playing back the result. Eventually, of course, you will be able to hear these harmonies in your musical imagination, which is the final goal!

Here is a template, showing the possible harmonizations of an ascending harmonic minor scale, followed by a descending major scale.


Here you can observe the following:

  1. In the ascending minor, the move from C to Eb implies a temporary shift to the relative major, thus the use of the V7/III going to III (yes, you could also call this VII going to III).

  2. But out of concern that we still want to keep the phrase "feeling in minor", this shift is immediately followed by the iiº, which re-establishes the sense of C minor. The use of the Neapolitan sixth at the cadence point reinforces the darkness of the minor mode.

  3. On the descent, a recipocal movement, up a third, is followed by a forward progression (up a step), followed by another reciprocal movement, made a bit more "overtonal" by its transformation into a secondary dominant. This is followed by a strong forward progression, descending by fifths in the 6-4 cadence.

  4. Also, there is one use of a melody note as the seventh of the chord. This sets up a bit of tension, which is resolved well in the final cadence.

From these principles, you can begin to experiment with melodic harmonization.

Ultimately, the best way to understand melody harmonization is to study scores and analyze the harmony against any given melody. This is the way musicians for centuries have developed a feeling for harmony.

NEXT: 4D The Sequence

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