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I read somewhere that any melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords of the major scale. The reasoning behind this being that any possible note played in the melody will exist in one of these chords. My question is whether this is true, and if not, in what context would this idea fail?

Example G+C+E (Ma)

G+B+D (ry)

E+G+C (had)

G+B+D (a)

G+C+E (lit)

G+C+E (tle)

G+C+E (lamb)

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What are you proposing that you play six chords while singing the word Mary? – Neil Meyer Feb 12 at 17:00
1  
The letters G-C-E (Ma) are notes of the same chord. It is the root C chord 2nd Inversion. – Ritchel Cousar Jr. Feb 12 at 17:01
    
Any note can be harmonized against any chord or combination of chords. It's a matter of what you want the result to sound like — but that's a matter of opinion/intent. – buildsucceeded Feb 12 at 18:10
    
F+A+D is not one of I, IV or V in key C.. Was that your intention to show? – Tim Feb 12 at 18:39
    
Excellent observation. I retrieved the example from the same place I got this idea from. If I correct the chord for (ry) and (a), I can still use G-B-D (the V), though, according to the concept described in my question. I tested this out on my guitar while playing the melody as the highest note and it seems to work (in this situation of course). – Ritchel Cousar Jr. Feb 12 at 18:56
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I read somewhere that any melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords of the major scale. The reasoning behind this being that any possible note played in the melody will exist in one of these chords. My question is whether this is true, and if not, in what context would this idea fail?

I'm going to try and take a stab at this. I'll try and explain the core concepts of this question so you have a better idea of what is going on.

Firstly lets take melody.

Melodies when written correctly are built on chords. This is a big misconception that seems to be widespread but the first thing you have to decide on when writing a melody is the chord progression.

Ambiguity in regards to chords leads to melodies that have no proper foundation to build on. This is not chord in the way we guitarist think of them. When you jump from c to e to g in a melody then it is clear that the melody in that bar is built on a C Major chord.

There really is no good melody that would have only Primary Chord. Your natural chord progressions for melody writing would simply not allow you to only have Primary Chords in them.

It is simply just a sign of a good melody and harmony exercise to include Secondary Chords as well.

Harmony

Now harmony is when you are given a melody and asked to harmonize the melody for four voices. This is not really how music is written. It is all just an exercise to explain the core concepts of how multiple voices interact with each other.

When you think of harmony you need to think about how the chord interacts with the previous and the next chord. You need to think about the spacing, the doubling of the notes, the resolutions and the form.

Trough this all you have to write a melody within the boundaries of the rules of good harmony. You need that melody to make sense and interact with the given passage.

Where melody is just a single line of notes harmony is four lines of notes that all have to come together.

Now you ask...

I read somewhere that any melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords of the major scale.

I would say that this is somewhat general. Maybe if a melody only consisted of these three chords then maybe you could harmonize it with only these chords but as I say your melody chord progressions should be more than just Tonic, Sub Dominant and Dominant.

The reasoning behind this being that any possible note played in the melody will exist in one of these chords. My question is whether this is true, and if not, in what context would this idea fail?

The choosing of chords for harmonizing is much more than just choosing one of the three you mention. This is a gross over simplification of good harmony.

There is a plethora of chord progression that are important for harmony that do not have I, IV or V in them. You have the passing 6/4 built on the Leading Tone chord which you will never learn to use in this way.

You have a Imperfect Cadence that can be ii - V. You have an Interrupted Cadence that ca be V-vi. You have a lowered Leading Tone progression that is I - III - Iv with vi sometimes being substituted for I.

All of which are things that are often used in harmonization and all of which you will never learn with this misconception.

Truly harmony is much more than just a melody written of I-IV-V

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"Melodies when written correctly are built on chords. This is a big misconception that seems to be widespread but the first thing you have to decide on when writing a melody is the chord progression." I think that in the context that this answer is written, this is a reasonable response, but this isn't at all universally true. E.g., in older counterpoint, "harmonic, "vertical" features are considered secondary and almost incidental ... Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction—only secondarily on the harmonies produced by that interaction." – Joshua Taylor Feb 12 at 19:14
4  
I'm confused, are you saying that it's true that you have to decide on chords before you write a melody? Because I couldn't disagree more with that concept. Or are you saying it's a misconception that you have to write the chords first? Which I would agree with. – Todd Wilcox Feb 13 at 1:38

This is generally true of a melody in a major key. However, things can be more complicated in actual usage.

If the melody contains chromatic notes that are not in the key, the basic three chords may not work. Also if the melody modulates into an entirely different key than the original key, it won't work either. There are many songs where the melody does not stay in one key the whole time. In that case you need to identify what new key or keys that the melody has modulated into, and use the chords from the new key to harmonize that part of the melody.

You should also learn about the distinction between homophonic texture (the kind of texture used in your own example, where you have a different chord for every syllable or note in the melody) and melody with chordal accompaniment, which is what people are usually talking about when they say using three chords to harmonize a melody. In the latter, you usually only have one or two chords per measure, and each chord rings out for a few beats while the melody notes change above it.

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+1 for actually mentioning all the caveats with this approach (must be in major key, avoid chromatic notes, and not modulate). – Caleb Hines Feb 13 at 4:10

The I,IV,V are the basic chords in a scale. The other chords (ii,iii,vi, vii) can be 'created' from these chords by substituting some notes for some other. Let's take the C major scale:

I: C,E,G
IV: F,A,C
V: G,B,D

The remaining chords are:

ii: D,F,A -- Take IV, remove C and add D.
iii: E,G,B -- Take V, remove D and add E.
vi: A,C,E -- Take I, remove G and add A.
vii: B,D,F -- Take V, remove G and add F

So, in a way you could say that you could harmonize a simple song like Mary had a little lamb using only the 3 basic chords. You can use the other 4 chords when you want to spice up things a bit. If you have a song that sounds boring only with the basic chords, you can substitute some of the chords with some other. This is really common in music. An example you might have seen:

There is the usual progression I IV V, which is really really often substituted by I ii V.

Also, it is common after V to see vi instead of I.

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I read somewhere that any melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords of the major scale. The reasoning behind this being that any possible note played in the melody will exist in one of these chords.

Firstly, that reasoning only makes sense if the imagined melody line that stays within the major scale. The idea will 'fail' for any melody that uses notes outside the major scale.

Even with this restriction then, how profound is it to say that any major scale melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords?

Even if we restrict ourselves to sets of chords that contain the tonic (I), there are quite a few sets of chords from the major scale that contain all the notes of the major scale:

I,ii,iii

I,ii,V

I,ii,iii,IV

I,ii,vii (dim)

I,IV,V

I,ii,iii,V

I,ii,iii,vi

I,ii,IV,V

I,IV,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,V

I,ii,IV,vii (dim)

I,ii,V,vi

I,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,V

I,ii,V,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,vi

I,ii,vi,vii (dim)

I,IV,V,vi

I,ii,iii,IV,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,V,vi

I,iii,vi,vii (dim)

I,IV,V,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,V,vii (dim)

I,ii,IV,V,vi

I,IV,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,IV,V,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,V,vi

I,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,IV,vi,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,V,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,V,vi

I,ii,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,V,vii (dim)

I,iii,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,vi,vii (dim)

I,IV,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,IV,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,iii,IV,V,vi,vii (dim)

I,ii,iii,IV,V,vi,vii (dim)

The set {I, IV, V} is one of the smallest suitable sets of chords, consisting of only three, but there are other sets of three chords that also contain all the notes of the major scale. The question arises, then : why single out {I, IV, V}?

There must be another criterion the author of this proposal is going by, other than simply that the set of chords must contain all the notes in the major scale. In other words, {I, IV, V} is somehow seen as providing more satisfying cadences and harmonic movements than those other groups...

...but then, if providing satisfying harmonic movements is a criteria, why restrict ourselves only to the three chord groups? Why not make a similar statement about {I,IV,V,vi}?

On the other hand, if we restrict ourselves to the three chord groups, it's possible that for some melodies, {I,ii,V} or {I,ii,vii (dim)} would provide more appropriate possibilities.

Possibly the significant thing about I, IV, V is the fact that 1) in itself it is a common set of chords used to construct a progression (due to the strong relationship between I and IV and I and IV), and 2) it happens to be one of the smallest sets of chords that contains all the notes in the major scale.

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Look at the circle of 5ths and you'll figure it out pretty fast. – Dom Feb 12 at 23:46
    
Another way to look at it is that the circle of fifths is important because of the strength of the 2:3 frequency ratio relationship (which is the IV-I and I-V relationship I mentioned). – topo morto Feb 12 at 23:59
    
While that does exist, you're missing the bigger picture in the system. In the circle of 5ths you move up or down a 5th and building a scale off of it you get 1 note difference, but the tonic chords only share one of the previous notes due to how we build chords. Also while the the 4th and 5th degree are important, the 7th degree AKA the leading tone is the money maker which is why the tonic-dominant relationship works and make V-I and I-IV work so you have to look more towards ideas in the tonal system when talking about it. – Dom Feb 13 at 0:03
    
The reason I'm kind of being a stickler about this is because you throw the question of "why" the system is used and never resolve it and seem to not grasp it yourself with how it concludes and the alternative suggestions that don't go anywhere which is why I almost down voted this. Remember whenever talking about I, IV, and V we are talking in a tonal context like it or not so an answer should come from a similar context which the understanding and the explanation of tonic, dominant, and subdominant in the grand scheme is crucial. – Dom Feb 13 at 0:17
    
I don't think I'm questioning any system or its use in my answer here, simply trying to examining what logic someone would be following if making the statement that "any melody line can be harmonized using the I,IV and V chords of the major scale". Can you clarify what part of my answer you think is confusing/confused? – topo morto Feb 13 at 0:40

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