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I know some basic stuff about harmony, but I do not know have to advance any further.I finished my harmony lessons for this year and I'm going to start again in the autumn.

Is there any way I can practice harmony on my own?

I want to focus on two things:

  • Theoretically. I want to learn harmony in the theory, like taking a melody (on a piece of paper) and adding the harmony.
  • Practically. I would like to apply what I learn on the bass.

My problem is that I don't have any way of knowing whether what I play/write is correct or not.

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String bass or electric? For the latter I've been learning a lot about music theory and harmony from Mark J Smith's site, talkingbass.net. If I have time I'll write up an answer for the electric bass angle. –  Bradd Szonye May 20 at 20:35
    
This is pretty broad. And why do you think you can't verify your answers against whatever resource you use? –  Matthew Read May 21 at 3:27
    
@MatthewRead if I have a simple melody on a piece of paper, and add the chords, how can I verify that? No resource, just a meldoy –  Shevliaskovic May 21 at 7:06
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A short answer is, there is no right or wrong. If you try something new, you either like it or you don't, and that's the only meaningful metric. So try lots of new harmonies and techniques! –  Kevin May 21 at 13:36
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@Shevliaskovic you can start by getting a looper pedal –  Spring May 21 at 14:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I don't know your level, so this may seem too simple or too advanced. Hopefully there's something here to help you.

Improve your ear training. Listen to intervals (start with melodic intervals, then progress to harmonic intervals) and try to determine what they are from their sound. If you google for online ear training, you can find several websites that will play random intervals and ask you to guess what they are. Treat it like a game, and try to beat your previous score! You can start out with just a few intervals (e.g. PU, M3, P5, P8) and add new ones as you become comfortable.

Perform harmonic analysis on sheet music. Hymns and chorales are great for this. Underneath the score, write out the names of each chord. Watch how the voices progress from one chord to another. Realize that not all notes will necessarily be part of the chord -- learn to recognize different types of non-harmonic tones. Also watch out for inversions, where the bass isn't playing the chord root. Depending on your level, you may not need to determine the exact name of every chord, but try to at least determine the root, and whether the 5th is perfect, and whether the 3rd is major or minor.

Once you figure out what the actual chords are in a piece, figure out how they relate to the key. If you see a C chord and and F chord, is it a I IV progression (in the key of C), or a V I progression (in the key of F). Make sure you're familiar with what the main chords are in a scale. For example, in major keys, I, IV, V are major, ii, iii, vi are minor, and vii* is diminished. I want to emphasize this: for the purpose of harmonic analysis, knowing the absolute chord name (e.g. D major) is not as important as knowing it's relative location in a key (e.g. I or IV or V, etc...). Be able to perform this mental translation quickly for any keys you play in regularly.

Now listen back to the piece, reading your harmonic analysis, and listen for the sounds of various chords and progressions. All chord progressions can be thought of as the root of the chord rising or dropping by a second, a third, or a fourth. A rising fourth is one of the most common progressions you will hear.

Or go the reverse direction, and listen without a score, attempting to guess what the chords are. At first, its easiest to distinguish tonic (I) chords vs. non-tonic chords. Then listen to cadences (the chord progressions at the end of a phrase). These often take the form V I, and are easy to recognize. Try to determine whether the chord you are hearing at any point is a major chord or a minor chord. Don't worry about getting all the chords, but try to get as many as you can. A great way to determine chords is to listen to the bass line (since you're a bassist, this shouldn't be a problem) since it will very often emphasize the root of the chord. The goal here is to be able to be able to perform some level of harmonic analysis while listening. This ties directly back to the ear training too.

As for the practical application, once you can tell what chords you are listening to, you can begin improvising around those chords. The details of this will be specific to whatever style you are playing, but arpeggios is probably a good place to start.

EDIT: You also mentioned wanting to harmonize melodies. A lot of the above will help with this. The ear training especially will help, because if you can imagine what the chord you want should sound like in your head, you will be able to identify what chord that is, and know how to play it. Knowing non-harmonic tones will also help you can pick out which notes of a melody are likely to be non-harmonic tones. You also want to look at which chords can be used to harmonize which scale degrees. For example, a ii chord is made of scale degrees 2 4 6, so if your melody contains a 6, you might be able to harmonize it with a ii chord (other options would be a IV or a vi). For each scale degree, try writing out which chords in the scale contain that scale degree.

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I also wanted to add: once you're familiar with all the above basics, you can go on to more advanced topics, like seventh chords, secondary dominants, extended chords, altered chords, and chord substitutions. –  Caleb Hines May 21 at 16:04

One of my old answers is applicable to your situation:

If you're looking for ways to move on to more complicated chord progressions, I have three pieces of advice:

  1. Study music theory [...] The more you know about music theory, the more easily you'll be able to come up with new ideas and the more tools you'll have to play with.

  2. Experiment! Try playing different chord progressions just to hear how they sound. Especially try chord progressions you've never seen written. This will let you get used to how each chord sounds and how different transitions between chords work. It will also mean that occasionally, you'll invent an original chord progression that you can use to write an especially fresh song.

  3. Analyze other people's music. Get used to what chord progressions other musicians use. If you hear an especially interesting chord progression, figure out what it is and why it works.

When I want to practice harmony, I sit down in front of a piano and start noodling. (You can easily do likewise on your bass.) I'll either play with some harmonies I've noticed in other songs that I want to understand better, or try to make up new combinations of notes and chords and see whether I can make anything interesting out of them. Oftentimes, I'll try to play a melody over the top of these chords, too.

While I'm improvising, I ask myself three questions:

  1. Do I like the sound of this harmony?
  2. If so, why or why not, from a music theory standpoint?
  3. If I do like it, what kind of emotions could I portray with it?

Like I said in my comment, the only way to decide if a harmony or melody is "right" or not is by asking yourself if you like the way it sounds. If you do, it's worth using!

Either way, if you can figure out how the harmony works (or doesn't) in terms of music theory, you'll cement the harmony in your own head, get a better understanding of music theory, and possibly come up with ideas of variations or refinements to the new harmony.

And if you do like it and can decide what kinds of emotions it's good for, you'll be more comfortable using it when writing or playing your own music.

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Here's a simple way to harmonize melody but you need a little music theory. I use this for harmonizing melodies in live guitar performance, especially when hearing the melody for the first time. This method is based on music theory but when playing all you have to use is your ear. Harmonizing by ear is much easier in live performance than harmonizing by theory.

You can practice this by playing along with the soundtracks of the movies you watch.

For this example, assume that the time signature is 4/4 which means the accented beats are on 1 and 3. Also assume that the whole melody has only one key center (scale).

First, know the harmonized scale for the key center. A harmonized scale is each note of the scale with a chord whose root is the melody note and whose 3rds and 5ths are from the scale.

For example the harmonized for C major is:

C Dm Em F G7 Am Bdim

Now replace the note of the melody that is on an accented beat (1 or 3 in 4/4) with a chord from the harmonized scale that has that melody note as its root. If it doesn't sound right, then try other chords from the harmonized scale that have the same 3rd or 5th note as your melody note.

You now have many possibilities for chords for the melody. Now start picking chords that have the strongest sense of movement. Most of the time this means you'll lean on one to three chords. But with the palette of chords you now have to paint the harmony you can make the chords move up, move down or follow the melody, especially if you can play chords in many positions. You typically want to start neutrally, perhaps on the root, add some tension to the harmonization and then release the tension by returning to the root.

Let's say we have a tune that you figure out is a "two-chord wonder", in this case, Em D. Chord movement up would be Em F#m G Am Bm C D. Down would the opposite. But when playing live I might make a decision to lean on the Am instead to create some tension which I then resolve with a turnaround like Am Bm C D Em. Or I might decide to use chords that have as their root the first accented beat and then fill in the third beat with some chord that links the chords on the first beats.

Sometimes other musicians will ask me what my chord progression is for a particular tune and I'll have to admit I don't know, intellectually. But I can play it. :-)

Taking another example:

     C C E | E E D | C C A | G G G |
     C C E | E E D | G G G | G G E |

I see that all the notes of the melody fit into the C scale and the time signature is 3/4 which means just the first beat is accented.

So a first pass at harmony would be with the C harmonized scale on just the first beat of each bar:

      C     | Em    | C     | G7     |
      C     | Em    | G7    | G7     |

Putting some more chord motion into the progression I might try something like this on each beat:

     C  Bm Am | G Em F  | C  Bm Am | G G  Em |
     C  Dm Em | G Em Dm | Em F  G  | C G  Em |

but it would depend on the voicings I used and I would usually avoid seconds (notes next to each other in the scale) on accented notes. I also would only play a selection of these chords, not all of them.

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Just a note: choosing the accented note of a measure to use for harmonizing as you suggest is usually a good place to start, but sometimes that accented note happens to be a non-harmonic tone, such as an appoggiatura, or an accented passing tone. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonchord_tone#Accented –  Caleb Hines May 23 at 3:34

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