Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
The musician/comedian Martin Mull said, “People always ask me what I write first, words or lyrics, and I always say, ‘Yes.’”
The truth is songwriters write whatever comes into their heads first. It can be a lyric or a chord progression or a melody. It doesn’t matter which comes first, you always grab whatever inspiration comes and then see what you can do with it.
In earlier installments of this series, we talked about chords within a key, and also about melody. Today, we’ll put them together.
Let’s say you have lyrics and a melody, and it’s our old friend “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Now it’s time to put some chords under it. How do we know which chords are the right ones?
As always, it’s whatever sounds good to you. You’re the writer or arranger here, so you decide what tickles your ears. There are infinite options for choosing chords to go with any melody, and there are almost no mistakes, if you don’t mind annoying your audience.
Still, there are some obvious first choices.
We’ll stay in the key of C for simplicity’s sake. The notes of the first part of the melody are:
I’ve come up with five sets of chords to go behind the first line of “Twinkle, Twinkle.” If you read last week’s edition, you’ve heard the first two already. We’ll begin with the traditional chords that everyone knows and step through it to see why it works so well.
A big part of why it works is because it uses only chords that contain the notes of the melody. I’ll tell you in advance that those chords are C, F, and G, and that they’re all major chords.
Let’s walk through the melody and apply the chords one by one. The first note of the melody is C, so let’s play it safe and put the C major chord under it. The notes in the C chord are C, E, and G, so it would look something like this:
The second note is also C, so we’ll stay with C major. The next two notes are both G, and G is one of the notes in the C major chord, so we’ll just keep using it.
The next two notes in the melody are A and there’s no A in C major, but there is in F major. The notes in F major are F, A, and C. So that gives us:
The two A’s are followed by a G. While we could go to the G chord, it’s at the end of the line so let’s go back home to C major, which also contains a G.
So that’s the first line. Let’s jump to the second line where the first note is F. We’ll therefore use our F chord again.
The next two notes are E, and C major is the only one of our three major chords that has E, so we’ll use that.
Then come two D notes, and the G major chord is the only one that contains a D. Its notes are G, B, and D. Then the last note is a C, so we’ll go back home to the C chord. Remember from a previous installment that we like resolution, so ending on the tonic note and using a chord with the tonic as its root note will sure feel resolved.
So the whole thing might be written like this: I’ll color code the chords and the lyrics so you can see what goes with what.
And it sounds like this:
That’s one way to apply chords under a melody. It’s very simple, but it’s a children’s song. It has every right to be simple. It’s perfect the way it is.
But in the interest of experimentation, let’s try minor chords instead of major ones. We did exactly the same thing last week when talking about relative minors: Am is the relative minor of C, Dm is the relative minor of F, and Em is the relative minor of G.
This is what it would look like with the relative minor chords replacing the major chords. Sometimes the melody note is in the chord and sometimes not, but it still sounds good.
This is probably easier to visualize:
And it sounds like this:
Now, what if we try using both major and minor chords? We already know, from our previous examples, what chords work with which melody notes, so here’s one possibility.
I personally like this one because it rises and falls. The root notes are C, up to D, up to E, up to F, down to E, down to D, down to C. The chords repeat themselves but in reverse, like an arc. It also has the tension and release of the major vs. minor chords that the two previous versions didn’t have.
Now, let’s get a little more complicated.
We’ll start on the F chord because it contains a C. The only other triads, in the key of C, with a C note in them are C major and A minor. We’ve used both of them in the previous examples, so let’s try something new. F major it is.
I then picked B diminished as the next chord. Remember we’re in the key of C, and the chord with B as its root in C is B diminished.
You may remember that diminished chords are like minor chords in that the 3rd is flattened, but diminished chords also have a flattened 5th. It’s not a necessarily pleasant chord on its own, but I chose it … just because.
I chose the remaining chords using the Circle Of 4ths. This is a more advanced concept that we’ll only touch on today. You may have heard of the Circle Of 5ths, which is the same thing but going in the other direction around the circle. It’s a little convoluted, but the basic idea is to move from one root note to another root note four notes away up the scale.
So remember: we’re in the key of C, which means no sharps or flats. If you start at B and go up four notes (e.g., B, C, D, E) and we’ll get E. Or you can just look at the diagram above, find the B in the lower right, and move one place counter-clockwise. Either way, E is a 4th away from B.
The triad with E as its root in the key of C is E minor. I don’t expect you to remember that right now, but next time you’re at a keyboard, play a triad starting on E and staying on the white keys. Trust me, it’s E minor.
From E, go up four notes (e.g., E, F, G, A), you’ll get A, which is also a minor chord. The next spot around the Circle is D, which makes a minor chord on D. A 4th away from D is G, which means a G major. And four more from there puts you back at C major. We’re back home at the end of the melody.
I’ll be honest here. When I chose these chords, I didn’t think front to back. I knew I wanted to end on the C major, so I worked my way backwards using the Circle of 5ths. C plus five notes is G, G plus a 5th is D, and so on all the way back to the B.
And that’s the real reason I chose the B diminished chord when I did.
So the whole progression is:
And it sounds like:
And I’m not even going to try to explain the last example. I just wanted to show you how extreme our choices of chords can get under the same melody.
I used a different chord under each beat, not just when the previous chord didn’t work anymore. I also used chords with four or five notes, rather than just triads, and I used chords where that don’t necessarily contain the melody note.
The chords are C, Dm7, Emb6, Fmaj7, F6, F#m7, C/G, F#7, Dm, D7#5/F#, G6/B, Gm6/9/A, E9/G#, G7, and C7.
Is it beautiful? Eh, not really… but it’s not wrong. The point is that there’s no single right way to reharmonize chords under a particular melody. There are many.
That’s why they call musicians artists and we say chords have colors. Musicians can paint the landscape they hear with whatever chords or scales or notes they want. It’s up to us to stand back and say, “I like it” whether we understand what they’re doing or not.tnocs.com visiting adjunct professor bill bois
I thought I had finished writing this and then I saw David Bennett’s new video about reharmonization. He does the same thing with “Eleanor Rigby” that I did with “Twinkle.” He uses a lot of terms non-musicians might not know (yet) but it’s worth watching just to hear his variations.
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