Musicians: Two Questions about Harmony

When writing a song, I was wondering:

A) Is the harmony is harder to write than the melody? Seems to me the melody would comes first…

B) Take a folk song, like “This Land is Your Land”. Would the harmony as played on guitar be the same notes/chords as played by the left hand on piano? (I am assuming the left hand plays the harmony while the right hand plays the melody, but please feel free to set me straight…) Even if not identical, are the two so virtually similar we could say this is generally true?

Just wondering…

  • Jinx :confused:

A) The harmony is implied by the chord progressions. A melody implies certain chord progressions, which imply voice leadings. I assume you’re talking about one or two voices harmonizing against the melody, as most popular songs are. The harmony isn’t harder to write, because the outline of the harmony is in the chords. Listen to the harmony in “The Sound of Silence” for instance. Simple harmony, moving up or down a little to complement the melody. But it’s always notes that are part of the three or four note chord that is underneath the melody.

B) I don’t know much about guitar playing, but I know about piano playing. A pianist’s left hand often plays part of the chord, but also moving bass lines against the right hand playing the melody (sometimes) and filling in the rest of the chord.

I hope that helps. It’s not a complete answer, but it’s a pretty complicated matter, believe it or not.

I’m not sure if we’re on the same page as far as “harmony”. I always thought that harmony referred to notes sounding good together, i.e. two or three voices singing different notes, but in harmony relative to each other.

(If you couldn’t guess – I’m an idiot when it comes to music theory … I can just play)

If you mean, if in writing a song is it easier to come up with the chord progression than the melody? … I think it depends on the musician.

I’ve come up with dozens and dozens of tunes … riffs … chord progressions … whatever, but nary a melody. But Paul McCartney tells the story of dreaming the melody of “Yesterday” and then crafting the restof the song around it.

Jack, I am a play-by-ear musician, but I would venture to say that your definition of harmony is a generic definition. However, as I have come to understand it, the melody is what we sing (the tune to the lyrics) and the harmony complements the melody.

IMHO, you can detect this most easily with any piece played on acoustic guitar. The singer, such as John Denver, is singing a totally different tune than that being “strummed out” on his guitar. In other words, if you just heard the guitar part, you probably couldn’t name that tune…

Personally, I wish I knew more about the music theory, too. A co-worker once tried to explain it to me, and it made sense. Having a math background, there is a sort-of math-type of logic to the chords, but I have since forgotten… I should get “Piano for Dummies” out of the library! :cool: - Jinx

Any combination of notes is a harmony. They don’t have to sound good together. Most chords on a guitar are based on major and minor triads, which consist of roots, thirds and fifths. Other voicings can and often are added to these triads, (7ths, especially) but most of the time you start with a root, a amjor or minor third and a fifth. These notes sound the strongest together. You can work in more dissonant notes to add tension, and some times throw in “accidentals,” or notes that aren’t on the scale. They may sound really dissonant (bad) but they are still a harmony.

There are some basic, stock chord progressions on guitars that some songwriters will start with and then compose a vocal melody over those. Other songwriters may start with a melody and then work out a logical chord progression from the voice leadings. (Generally a melody will follow a particular scale and suggest corresponding harmonies).

In my experience as a songwriter, I tend to start with a riff or a chord progression first, and then jam on the chords while I try out some vocal melodies. Once I work on the lyrics.

I meant to say once I settle on a melody, I work on the lyrics.

Oh, and to answer your first question, I think it’s easier to throw a few chords together than it is to write a good melody. Most songwriters I’ve known started with chords, but a few will start with a melody. I guess it’s a personal thing.

Okay, this is four semesters of music theory classes, 4 semesters of piano class and a semester of guitar along with a lot of self-guitar-teaching, and about 7 years of songwriting talking here, but I am very crappy at explaining things (One of the reasons I’m not a Music Ed. major… ) so I’m not sure how clear I’ll come across.

A) It varies. It depends on the writer, really, and the song itself even. It also depends on if you’re talking harmony as in the accompaniment to the melody, like guitar chords or piano, or if you’re talking harmony as in companion to the melody, like backup vocals. I’ll go with the first sense first, since that’s what I think you mean.
Before I learned guitar or learned any music theory, all my songs were just a melody and lyrics. I go back now, and it’s occasionally pretty difficult to just add guitar or piano to those old songs. (although my still-mediocre guitar playing may have something to do with that…) So, depending on the melody itself, it can be hard to come up with a pleasant-sounding accompaniment. Now, I write all my songs with my guitar, and the process varies. Most often I come up with a snatch of melody and a lyric, and find chords to go with it and build from there. Sometimes I find a chord progression that I love, and build a part of a melody that sounds good with it, then add lyrics and build it along that way. This varies among songwriters, really – alot of it depends on their main musical focus. I’m a singer, and a writer, so the words and the melody are the most important part to me, so that’s usually what I build from; although the guitar or a piano are now pretty much always an integral part of the process, the spark is usually a lyric or a bit of a tune. On the other hand, I have a couple friends who are guitarists - their songs often have no real lyrics or even solid melodies, it’s progressions, riffs, etc. I’m honestly not sure how to explain it, it’s really different with each writer.
If, on the other hand you mean harmony as in back-up vocals and such (I’m thinking barbershop quartet stuff and the like), complements to the melody, then I would say that almost always comes after the melody. I know I never come up with background vocals for a song until I record the instrumental and lead vocals and decide it needs something more. I’m not sure if this is the explanation you’re looking for… but I did my best.

B) As for guitar chords being the left-hand of the piano, that also varies according to conventions and whoever transcribes everything. The notes of the guitar chords will probably be there, but not necessarily in the left hand, depending on the style. I know in my last piano class they told us a couple different things – either the chords are entirely in the left hand, usually in whatever inversion is easiest for reach, and the melody is in the right, OR the left hand plays the bass notes of the chords, often doubled in octaves, while the right hand plays the chords and the melody (since the notes of the melody are almost always part of the chords with the addition of various non-chord tones for connection or embellishment, this isn’t hard). And then there’s the option to play half the notes in one hand and half of them in the other, split the difference, if you will. Once again, it really varies.

Am I any help at all? I don’t know. I’m bad at explanations, I think. But I did my best, short of lending you my theory textbook. :stuck_out_tongue:

About writing:

Some people start with lyrics, some start with melody, some start with a chord progression/riff. Some start with whatever comes first. Example: if you are inspired by a particular line of lyric that pops into your head, you might write a melody to go with it.

Most composition is an iterative process, that is,
1) Try a bunch of stuff
2) Some of it works–keep that
3) Some of it doesn’t–throw it away (maybe some that you kept before)
4) Listen to what you’ve got, get inspired
5) Go to #1

About harmony:

Harmonies are based on the chords, but don’t have to match one-for-one. There are passing tones (steps from one harmony note to another) and other non-chord tones.

To answer the OPs question–harmony is easier to write than melody.

About guitar vs. piano:

Some guitar parts are strummed chords, up to 6 notes (many times fewer) played mostly all at once. Some guitar parts are “picking patterns”–again a chord but played one at a time. The aforementioned “Sounds of Silence” starts with one of these. Finally, “classical style” guitar parts are made up of melody, harmony and bass lines which are each played independently.

Piano parts can be any of the above, without the limitation of a max 6 notes at a time. One could play chords (all notes sounded at once), arpeggios (chords, but played one note at a time), or multi-part (melody+harmony+bass+who-knows-what).

As an example, let’s take Bridge Over Troubled Water (since we’re using S&G). Paul Simon wrote the song on guitar. He gave the chord chart to the pianist (who’s name escapes me) who then played–brilliantly!–complimentary parts, chords and arpeggios, on the piano. On the “Sail on silver girl” verse, Paul sings harmony to Art’s melody, pretty much just singing one harmony note for each note of the melody.


The “bass” part is a harmony too, but it typically (not always) moves from the root of the chord (a C note for a “C” chord) to the root of the next.

It’s a good thing to learn the vocabulary. Every field of learning has a specialized vocabulary and music is no exception. This doesn’t mean you have to learn every obscure technical term, but learning the difference between a B major chord a B minor chord and a B-flat major will make it easier to talk about these things with other musicians.

Whew…that got long, didn’t it?

I had a very long hamster eaten post. :frowning: It was too long to recreate but I will try it more succinctly.

Your basic question is how does harmony work. You have a grasp of it. Typically in folk styled harmony the parts are sung at 3rds, 6ths, and 4ths (in that order). The most common being 3rds. Many people try to stick with straight thirds but it often creates unwanted dissonances within the chord progression. 4ths are typically only sung to remain within a given chord. An example would be if you were singing a G on a C chord (C E G) and the harmony was typically in thirds above it, the harmonist would likely sing a C (a fourth) instead to fit into the chord rather than a B. However, with music, this isn’t necessarily true.

When singing harmony, one has to think vertically along the individual chords rather than horizontally along the melody, assuming they are doing it by ear. Typically the shape will roughly follow the melody but won’t be exact and won’t typically be constantly at the same interval as the example above shows.

If you really want to learn how harmony functions, you should learn your chord forms and some minor voice leading parts. 4 semesters of music theory in college would really help but it isn’t as important as just developing a good feel for how traditional music is supposed to work.

I also left out, the definition of harmony I used was following a folk style. A real definition of harmony is any note that has other notes played with it. So the bass line is a form of harmony as well. C C# D D# could be considered a harmonic chord (a tone cluster) but it would likely sound like crap. I gave examples of harmony parts that would sound more aesthetically pleasing than that together.