10 Techniques to Harmonize a Melody for Piano
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Are you someone who thinks of great melodies, but struggles to find the right harmonies? Or are you someone who is looking for some more advanced ways to harmonize a melody for piano? With these 10 techinques to harmonization, you’ll be playing beautiful, interesting chord progressions no matter your skill level. Let’s dig in!
Before we get into our 10 harmonization techniques, let’s take a look at the melody we’ll be harmonizing:
As you can see, this is a very simple melody, but the harmonic possibilities are endless! Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced student, you’re sure to find something to help you harmonize this melody. If you’re an intermediate or advanced student, feel free to skip ahead. The first three approaches are beginning level.
When it comes to harmonizing melodies there are a few principles we can use to always find success:
- Each note of the melody should be a chord tone or chord extension. This will help you avoid playing “weird” chords
- The motion of the bass from chord to chord can follow stepwise motion, common chord progressions, or the circle of 4ths
- The penultimate chord should resolve to tonic (there are several ways to achieve this)
Keep in mind these are not rules! These are guidelines for harmony that have many exceptions, but if we follow these steps it’ll be easy to find solid harmonies for any melody. Remember you can follow along with our Smartsheet as you work through each example. Let’s look at approach 1.
This approach uses one of the most common chord progressions in music: IV, V, I. Play each chord in root position with your left hand and listen to how the harmony guides the ear to “home base” when you get to C. This is called resolution and is a key component to harmony. V – I is far and away the most common harmonic resolution in music, and you’ll see that many of our examples get back to C from G. The bass moves stepwise from F to G, then up by 4th to get to C. This progression follows all three of the guidelines above, but is fairly limited in scope. Let’s expand on this in approach 2.
This approach is almost the same as approach 1, however this time we start with the ii chord. The ii-V-I progression is also extremely common in music, and is the fundamental chord progression of jazz. Many other styles of music utilize the ii-V-I, and this example also follows all three guidelines. In approach 3, we’ll get away from one of the guidelines, but the result is a much more interesting harmony. Let’s take a look at it.
You can see right away that this is a more involved chord progression! Each note of the melody is a chord tone of each chord, but the bass motion doesn’t follow the second guideline. That doesn’t matter, because this progression sounds great! One of the reasons this works so well is because this progression follows the third guideline: the penultimate chord is G, which creates a V-I resolution to C.
If you want to learn more about chords in the key of C, check out our Key of C Major course. Let’s move on to two intermediate techniques to harmonize a melody for piano.
In these two approaches we will be using some inversions as well as root position chords. Let’s look at approach 4
This is a very interesting chord progression! The reason this one works so well is because it follows all three guidelines. Pay attention to how the bottom note of each chord moves: it goes up by half step for each chord! Chromatic motion like this is a great way to add a lot of harmonic interest while creating a chord progression that still makes sense. Let’s look at approach 5.
Similar to approach 4, this one is utilizing some beautiful chord extensions as well as an ascending stepwise bass motion. Bass lines that move by step will always create a flowing, beautiful harmonic foundation for any chord progression. This one doesn’t use a chord tone for each melody note (F is not a chord tone of C/E) but it doesn’t matter because the strength of the harmony overrides the dissonance. It’s a beautiful harmonization!
If you want to learn more about chord extensions, check out our Piano Chord Extensions course. Let’s dig in to some advanced techniques to harmonize a melody on piano.
If you want to learn jazz harmony, this is the section for you! Let’s look at approach 6:
This is a ii-V-I progression with some nice extensions and an altered dominant V chord. Almost all of the advanced approaches are going to use altered dominant chords since that is another component of the sound of jazz! Pay attention to how each of these approaches conforms to the guidelines of harmony from above; each one will follow at least two of them.
An expansion of the previous approach, this one uses a iii-VI-ii-V-I progression with altered dominants. The iii-VI-ii-V progression is probably the second most common in jazz, behind the ii-V-I. The melody is sometimes a chord tone, sometimes an altered note!
This one is a more advanced version of approach 7. Instead of a iii-VI-ii-V-I progression, this one uses tritone substitutions for all the dominant chords, creating a iii-bIII7-ii-bII7-I progression. Cool! Notice the descending chromatic motion of the bass. When the harmony is this advanced, chromaticism at the bottom helps to solidify the harmony above. Let’s check out approach 9.
This one is similar to approach 8, but we’ve used the tritone substitution on all the minor chords! This chord progression is bVII-VI-bVI-V-I. There are lots of colors and chromatic motion here! The same principle of chromatic bass motion keeps this harmonization grounded and very hip. Finally, let’s look at approach 10.
If you’re looking for a more contemporary sound, this is the approach for you! This one has been harmonized by looking at the intervals of the melody. G moves down a whole step to F, so we started with FMaj9 and moved down to EbMaj9. Then the melody moves down a half step, and the harmony follows with Dmin9. The last chord is BbMaj9, but this still follows the third guideline: resolving back to C. Harmonic resolutions can be done three ways: from the V chord, from the bII chord (tritone substitution of V), or from bVII (also known as the backdoor resolution). This approach utilizes the backdoor resolution.
If you’re interested in learning more about chord alterations and rootless voicings, check out our Piano Chord Alterations course and the many courses that use rootless voicings, like the Jazz Swing Accompaniment 2, The Way You Look At Me Cocktail Piano 2, and the Autumn Trees Lead Sheet courses.
I hope you’ve found some useful information in today’s lesson! Finding ways to harmonize a melody on piano is so much fun because there are an infinite number of ways to do it. Loosely following the guidelines of harmony will give you chord progressions that always sound good. Be creative! Happy harmonizing!
Thanks for learning, and we’ll see you in the next Quick Tip.
Blog written by Austin Byrd // Quick Tip by Jonny May
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