I've been composing for a couple of years and I have a pretty good understanding of how to choose chords for melody in a diatonic context. However, when I try to introduce some quirky elements to my own music, it always seems to fail a bit.

Attached is an example with the score. My goal was to make a simple 8-bar exercise, where I harmonize my melody with diatonic triads, but I wanted to add some unexpected spice in a couple of bars, just for fun. I adjusted some of the melody notes to be out of key, and then I tried to harmonize it by using chromatic harmony. For example, in bar 4, I go from E♭ major chord to a G major chord, and I chose G major just because coming from E♭, I could keep the G as a common tone.

The problem is that I would like to know better what I am doing when re-harmonizing. When I listen to the excerpt, I'm not sure if the chromatic stuff works here, it's maybe a bit too random. I'm quite new to this stuff, and I would like to expand my harmonic language so that I wouldn't have to rely just on diatonic chords or secondary dominants.

Or is the problem that I try to introduce too spicy elements to a piece that is otherwise very vanilla, in other words, the contrast is way too sudden and harsh? How exactly does one introduce chromatic harmony to a diatonic piece so that it doesn't sound too weird?


  • listen to other composers like Bernstein (e.g. Westside Story (Sgt. Kruppke), Prokofiev, (Peter and the Wulf - the Cat theme), Shostakovich (Symph. 7), or start with Bruckner Symph. 7 Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 15:33
  • Diatonic music uses many common patterns, where sequences of chords are associated with other musical ideas (eg tension, rhythmic stress, cadence, modulation, prolongation). These are so common and standard that we say these chords have function, in the sense of functional harmony. Chromatic harmony has its own patterns, endemic to whichever style of music you're interested in, and the best way to learn them is to listen to and analyze music that uses them. Developing an ear for these patterns. along with knowing general counterpoint and voice leading will be valuable for writing it yourself.
    – bjb568
    Commented Dec 17, 2020 at 1:11

5 Answers 5


I am not sure about being "quirky". At the end of the day you have to like what you've done and since music is an art form no one can say it's "wrong".

However, there are some classic patterns in western music that serve a purpose or function and this determines how chords follow each other in succession. I am not sure where you learned harmony theory, if you are self taught, by example, or from a book. But the first thing to know is how the I, IV, and V or V7, lay over the major scale. These are really the only three chords you need to harmonize a melody in a given key (major key as a reference).

I --> (1, 3, 5)

IV --> (4, 6, 1)

V7 --> (5, 7, 2, 4)

No surprise that the arpeggios of the chords are the notes they harmonize (most of the time). There is no law that says you can't harmonize the 2 with a IV chord, in fact this would be a IV6 and sound cool. But the classic approach to beginner harmony is to start with the above map.

Now it helps to understand the movement of the intervals from one note to another as that serves a purpose. It is often said in western music that the movement from IV-->I and V-->I have a sense of closure of finality. These are called cadences, or resolutions (I may be using vocabulary incorrectly). The V7-->I has the strongest sense of finality from among all possible changes. The IV-->I is often called the Amen cadence and appears a lot in church music. All of these changes have a few things in common among which are chromaticism, 4-->3 and/or 7-->8 in terms of scale degrees of the key signature. In fact the V7-->I has both of these. The IV--> only has 4-->3. To make the IV-->I cadence stronger some people move to the minor IV chord IV-->iv-->I. This introduces a chromatic walk down from 6-->b6-->5 in terms of key scale degrees.

This is not the only feature of a cadence but it is one that is very often and easily capitalized on. So, rather than just add "quirky" things, I'd encourage you to think about ways to introduce meaningful chord movement that follows either IV-->I or V-->I.

There are a few things you can do to "add" to your harmonies.

The first is to introduce what I'd call a cycle extension (or back cycle) in the progression, a very common trick. As as example let's say you are going to move from I to IV. Try putting the I7 right before the IV chord. This is a V7-->I cadence in the key of the 4th, and introduces an accidental relative to the original key, namely the b7. You can do this to your heart's desire and many scores are filled with such extensions. For example, C-->E7-->Amin-->C7-->F-->G7-->C, which is really just C-->Amin-->F-->G7 with the V7 placed strategically before the Amin and F chords.

Another way to spice up your chord progressions is through chord substitutions. This is very common in Jazz but applies to all forms of music. The idea starts with understanding how chords are related to each other. For example any Major chord, and its relative minor are so compatible they can be interchanged. Specifically, the chords I6 and vi-7 are identical. Next is any Major chord and the min a 3rd above it. These two add to create a Maj7, example I + iii = IMaj7. So the group of chords (I, iii, vi) can, in theory be thought of as serving the same function. More intricate substitutions include the b5 (or tritone) sub, which is most commonly applied to a V7 chord but could be inserted anywhere. This creates a lot of chromaticism. Following a circle of 5ths (or 4ths) like B7-->E7-->A7-->D7-->Gmaj, and applying this sub will get you B7-->Bb7-->A7-->Ab7-->Gmaj.

There are endless extensions of the things I've listed but in short these all follow a simple set of rules in harmony that attempt to create close movement into chord tones.

If you haven't looked at any books I'd recommend a few:

[1] Basic Theory-Harmony, A Text and Work Book for the School Musician By Joseph Paulson, Irving Cheyette

[2] How to Create Jazz Chord Progressions by Chuck Marohnic

[3] Modulation by Max Reger


It sounds like you're off to a good start, but I agree that it sounds a bit random. This exercise you have written falls clearly in the Western tonal system, and in that system each pitch has a function - what I mean is that certain pitches have pull toward other pitches.

But in your piece, you just go to the new chord, then right back to where you were. That's why it sounds "random" - the chromatic pitches make you think you're going somewhere new, but when you got right back to the tonic it makes the listener think "Was that right?"

This is especially jarring because of where in the phrase you added the chromatic notes - during the cadence. Tonal music is centered around the tension of going from dominant to tonic (E♭ to A♭, in your case). You have chosen to add your notes right at the cadence point, so, again, you are setting the listener up to go one place but not completing the transition.

You have several options to adjust this piece, here are two:

  1. Modulate - The chord you have inserted is a G major triad, which is the dominant of the key of C major. So you could use the G major triad as pivot chord to a new key. All you would need to do is transpose your last 4 measured up a major third to C major, and adjust the notes on the last eighth note of measure 3.

  2. Colorful chromaticism - Sometimes chromaticism is just used for color, and not actually as a change in direction. One technique of adding color to a chord is by using a common-tone diminished chord. In this chord, you take one pitch from the chord you are on (in your case, G from the E♭ triad) and build a diminished seventh chord off of, then return to original chord. So that create a Gdim7 chord (G-B♭-D♭-F♭) to replace your G major triad. This G diminished chord will also resolve nicely to your Ab chord in measure 5, so you wouldn't need to change the last four measures, but you would want to change to melody in measure four to match this new harmony.

Ultimately, you are the composer, so you have to decide what sounds "good" to you, but hopefully these techniques will give you some new ideas to explore.


There are (at least) two methods of using chromatic harmony in a piece. The two do blend into each other and can be used in varying ways themselves. First: essential chromaticism uses chromatic notes in a functional way. Second: nonessential chromaticism inserts chromatic tones in a mainly diatonic context. More at my answer here: What are the uses of chromaticism?

Many composers do start with highly chromatic stuff and then drift into using non-essential chromatic material. I'd guess because non-essential chromatic writing highlights the chromatic.

A simple and highly useful chromatic procedure is the use of secondary dominants. In a major key, all chords can be preceded by their own dominant. The most common is to use the II or II7 chord as a dominant of V. (Written as V/V read "five of five.") For example, many popular songs (country and earlier style rock) use the pattern I-IV-I-V-I; in the key of C, this would be C-F-C-G-C. The sense of closure can be enhanced by inserting a D (or D7) chord before the G giving I-IV-I-V/V-V-I (or I-IV-I-II-V-I) or C-F-C-D-G-C. No key change happens. The idea can be extended as in a common bridge from the 1930s or 1940s, I-I7-iv-II7-V7 or C-C7-f-D7-G7. One can also use exchange a major chord for a minor on the same root or vice-versa. These are particularly easy (even in improvisation) and usually can be used to good effect. There are a few more complicated techniques (still non-essential) that are nice: one is the use of the major chord built on the flat 2, Db in the key of C, but almost always in 6-3 position. In C the chord would be F-Ab-Db-F; this chord has a funny resolution in that the Db can go directly to B (the flat 2 directly to 7, an augmented second.) Sometimes a passing tonic 64 is put in between to make voice leading easier. F-Ab-Db-F to G-C-E-G to G-B-D-F or something similar. (The chord is called the Neapolitan Sixth.) This chord can be put in various places before the V chord. Instead of I-ii-V-I, one might have I-N-V-I (where N is the Roman Numeral for this chord; it doesn't have any other good description.)

Likewise, there is a set of Augmented Sixth chords built on the flat 6 step. In C (major or minor) these are Ab-C-F#, Ab-C-D-F#, and Ab-C-Eb-F# called the Italian, French, and German Sixths respectively.) The notation is intentional as the resolution is to move the augmented sixth (Ab-F#) outward by a semitone: giving G-G with some filler. G-C-E-G is common to avoid parallel fifths (which are often allowed in these types of progressions) or to G-B-D-F or G-B-D-G. In a minor key, the resolution would go to G-C-Eb-G or its equivalent in another key. With some practice, one can use these in improvisation too.

Note that this use of Augmented Sixths isn't the same as the jazz-oriented tritone-substitution. There Ab-C-Eb-F# is treated enharmonically as Ab-C-Eb-Gb and used to resolve to Db. Some composers (Schumann and Beethoven a couple of centuries ago) would do things such as approach the chord from Db as a V chord and then resolve into C as though it was a German Sixth. Db-F-Ab-Db (through some manner) to Ab-C-Eb-F# to G-C-Eb-G to G-B-D-F ane a quick key change. The reverse is also possible.

These are a few of the chromatic techniques that can be used without (mostly) changing keys.


Try out playing around with a motive

  • in the mediant key: C->Ab or Eb,
  • transpose a motive a minor third up, going through all 4 keys of a dim 7 chord (Bruckner)
  • write counterpoints in intervals of minor 3rds and dim. 5ths
  • transpose a semi tone up or down, you can harmonize with triads of the root or a tritone,
  • look up and study the augmented 6th chords (Germnan, French, Italian. - probably you know them - also the Neapolitanian).

You really have two questions in one: how to learn chromatic harmony, how to revise this example.

Obviously, explaining chromatic harmony can't fit into a Q&A answer, but perhaps at least a topic list would be helpful:

  • chromatic embellishment of diatonic melody, not really harmony, but it could help with blending in chromaticism
  • secondary dominants, especially important is the full diminished seventh chord which is normally on the leading tone but can be treated so any of its four tones becomes a leading tone for distant tonics. Ex. in C major, V7/V is D7 or F#o7 whose various tones lead to potential tonics G, Bb, Db, E and those tonics could be major or minor, that's a lot of chromaticism!
  • borrowed chords, this mostly gives you minor forms of subdominant chords in a major key
  • get acquainted with the common chromatic chords Neapolitan and Augmented Sixth usually found in minor
  • learn about jazz harmony especially the tritone substitution and the use of altered dominants in minor
  • chromatic mediants (some overlap with borrowed chords) very colorful and dramatic
  • parallelism, sometimes called chord planing, you can hear this in Impressionism like Debussy or jazz
  • use exotic scales like whole tone, octatonic, etc.
  • chromatic, harmonic sequence. Diatonic sequences move through varying chord qualities. An easy way to get chromatic harmonies is to sequence one chord type. Seventh chords provides lots of color. A common way to sequence is root progression by descending fifth sequenced up/down by whole/half steps. A staple of jazz is a sequence of dominant seventh chords by descending fifths. Sequencing minor sevenths and half-diminished sevenths will also give you interesting colors.

That's a lot of work on, but it gives you an idea of the many ways you can approach chromaticism. Keep in mind some approaches work mostly around functional, tonal harmony while others involve other musical aspects like voice leading and a general sense of dissonance resolving to consonance.

I had two main thoughts about your example:

  • highlight the root movement by step of G major to Ab major with parallel motion
  • accentuate rhythmically the "surprise" of a G major chord in the key of Ab major

In this part the G up to Ab and bass B down to Ab is the part where we get root progression by step. The contrary motion looks like an effort to avoid parallel octaves which is part of the harmonic vocabulary of common practice music.

enter image description here

But this isn't a common practice progression, so why play by those rules? The quirkiness of this part comes from the progression by step and harmonizing a major chord on the leading tone. If the intention is quirkiness, don't try to hide it, flaunt it! Make the "slide" of root progression by half step really felt.

I think the G chord could benefit with a bit more dramatic rhythm to accentuate the quirkiness of the harmony. The melodic figure in that part...

enter image description here

...mirrors the flowing figure at beats 3,4 of m. 2 which has a gentle feel over the subdominant pedal...

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...but you could work with the sixteenth not figure just before for a snappier rhythm...

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That may seem a subtle difference in what to reuse, but I think it can provide a different character.

Below is a sketch (the bass part isn't meant to be the actual accompaniment) with bar four in parallel motion and a different re-used rhythm, the harmony is root position and the treble centers around G to emphasize the parallel movement...

enter image description here

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