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When I was learning how to play songs on piano by ear, I didn't know how to add chords to a song melody. What I found on videos and on the Web was that you select a chord that carries the melodic notes played on the down beats. Some instructional videos write out all the possible chords (in letter notations) on a whiteboard to identify the three chords that carry the specific melodic note which was confusing and overwhelming for a beginner.

But most of all, this rule of thumb required me to mentally search through the seven basic chords on the scale including their 1st and 2nd triads to determine which 3 of the seven chords contain the melodic note. Searching through up to 21 possible notes (7 chords with 3 notes per chord) to determine the 3 possible chords required WAY TOO MUCH mental processing to enable me to extemporaneously play songs by ear on the piano.

Wouldn't it be easier to explain, reframe, re-phrase, and replace this general rule of thumb with play the melodic note as note 1, 3 or 5 of the accompanying chord?

My thoughts on this is that this reframed rule of thumb immediately identifies the three possible root notes to the chords, cuts the search down from 21 notes to 3 notes (a 700% gain in processing time and efficiency), simplifies the rule of thumb, makes it more concrete and significantly easier to apply in practice and real-time!

The day I came to this realization back in summer 2019, I suddenly was able to spontaneously play songs by ear on piano, plays songs in any key, and improvise on the piano, literally. Before that, I played piano for 40+ years and relied 100% on rote memory and sheet music.

Your thoughts on which and when each description is most helpful?

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    One big point: This is a good rule of thumb for starting out, but there's no rule that the melody has to be a note that's in the chord. It can be a "nonchord tone," maybe left over from the chord before, or one note away from being "right," and about to "correct itself" on a later note. When creating chords for a melody, often you can guess based on common chord progressions, but this does mean that sometimes there could be multiple "right answers." (and when creating a melody to go with chords, this means you can give yourself a little freedom) Mar 24, 2022 at 16:46
  • An example might be the "Happy Birthday" song. The first downbeat is on the word "birthday," and that's almost certainly harmonized by a tonic chord, but the melody is on the second scale degree at that moment (resolving to scale degree 1 on the next note). Mar 24, 2022 at 16:48
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    Yes, good point. It's a simplified version of the rule of thumb that helps one start to learn the basics on how to add chords to songs. That was the case for me. Once I got the fundamentals/basics and the confidence, I also discovered how to identify chords with passing note in melodies like in the song hap-py-BIRTH-day, add 7th and 9ths to the chords to give it more character, add passing bass notes, etc. Thanks for sharing! : ) Mar 24, 2022 at 17:09
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    @AndyBonner the first note in the melody of happy birthday is the fifth degree of the scale, not the first. 5-6-5-1-7, 5-6-5-2-1.
    – phoog
    Mar 24, 2022 at 19:18
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    Are you trying to (A) reproduce existing song arrangements you've heard i.e. melody + accompaniment and want to identify "what chords are there in the accompaniment I'm hearing", or are you trying to (B) harmonize a plain single-voice melody with suitable nice or creative chords yourself, to create a new arrangement? These two are very different questions with different answers, and it's not clear which one you're asking about. Mar 25, 2022 at 11:14

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Basically, yes, melody notes tend to match notes of chords.

It can help to differentiate applying numbers to notes:

  • scale degrees: use a circumflex ^ with numbers like ^1 ^2 ^3 to mean the first three degrees of a scale, like solfege DO RE MI in major.
  • chord members: root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, etc. provide some context like "third of the chord" or "the chord's 3rd", etc. modify as appropriate, "diminished fifth" or "flat seventh", etc.

In typical, tonal, homophonic music - the bulk of most familiar music - melody notes tend to match chord notes, but keep in mind a very, very important concept in melody is the non-chord tone. Melodies tend to move on and off chord tones, and sometimes a melody will use a lot of non-chord tones. By comparison a bass part will tend to stick with chord tones, speaking in very general terms.

...mentally search through the seven basic chords on the scale including their 1st and 2nd triads to determine which 3 of the seven chords contain the melodic note. Searching through up to 21 possible notes (7 chords with 3 notes per chord) to determine the 3 possible chords required WAY TOO MUCH mental processing...

That is way too much, because music doesn't really work that way. That permutation process you describe treats all chords and scale degrees as equal, but in tonal music that isn't the case. Again, in very general terms, the scale degrees of the tonic chord are hierarchically most important. From a harmony perspective the tonal chords, which are I IV V are more important than the modal chords, which are ii iii vi. Functional harmony is an idea that abstracts that into "pre-dominant dominant tonic" categories. Within that frame work you can say that chords ii and vi can both work like IV to precede V. This then provides a number of common progressions like IV V I, ii V I, or I vi IV V, etc. The point here is harmony often follows a sort of musical "syntax" rather than all possible permutations of melody notes and diatonic triads.

Most of that has a strong "classical" style slant. Pop music tends to give less of a split between the tonal and modal chords of a key. Also, "modal" chords like ♭VII and mode mixing are common in pop/rock harmony. Melodically, blues and pentatonic lines are common in pop/rock. Personally, I think it helps to get a good handle on the "classical" harmony, and then extend it with the harmonic coloring of pop/rock.

...To add chords to a song...how to play songs on piano by ear...

Those are really two different things. Either way, I think what I described above should help with both. Understanding the hierarchy and syntax of harmony helps make solid choices to harmonize a melody, and narrows down likely chords when figuring out things by ear.

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Your rephrasing is correct. The two statements are equivalent — two different ways to communicate the same idea. The first way will work better for some people, your way will be better for others.

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  • The second way was helpful for me when trying to spontaneously play songs on piano by ear. When might the first phrasing be more useful? Which way do you find to be most helpful, and why? Mar 24, 2022 at 16:36
  • @AllanJeong I learned the first way, and it took me one try to figure out the second. For me they are both of equal value.
    – Aaron
    Mar 24, 2022 at 16:42
  • I wonder why instructional videos on how to add chords to songs never present the rule of thumb the second way? I have yet to find an explanation anywhere that presents this rule of thumb in the second and much more simplified/concrete way. Mar 24, 2022 at 16:51
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Can't see why you would have to go through all the 7 chords. Let's take a 1st note in a bar to be C. That means, from what you say (which is basically true), that only three triads would fit - C, F, or Am. I say that, as Dm, Em, G and Bo don't have a C note between them!

So, now, it's narrowed down to only three. Granted, making seventh chords will increase that list by Dm, but that's now only four!

Onto your thoughts. Play the chord with the melodic note of 1,3 or 5. Covered that already, but - let's be certain that the chords we're considering are diatonic. That at least keeps the numbers down to what were quoted earlier. Still no need to think about the chords which won't have the certain notes in them.

Either way, you've conjured up a bigger problem than it really is, and sometimes, when chords outside the key notes occur, we have to try out that same idea, bearing in mind what precedes and follows the 'unknown' chord. So, whichever one works better for you, some folk prefer one, others, the other!

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  • When you think about chords in relation to the melody, do you think specifically about the notes in letter notation or in terms of note intervals? Trying to think of the notes in letter notations makes my head dizzy, particularly when trying to play a song in different keys. : ) Mar 24, 2022 at 17:01
  • True. what I should to say is that one can go through up to 7 chords (like if the melodic note is B). But it may actually be a possible 5 additional chords (rooted in the black keys) if a melody modulates to a new key - making 12 possible chords to search through (or 12 x 3 = 36 possible notes). Mar 24, 2022 at 17:23
  • I don't follow your logic with how many options there could be, even with modulations.
    – Tim
    Mar 24, 2022 at 18:42
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As @Aaron says, your two statements are indeed equivalent. But I'm afraid they only describe one way of choosing very simple chords for very simple melodies.

If you're GOING to be that simple though, you can simplify further. Stick to the three primary chords (I, IV and V) of the key you're in. So, if you're in the key of C major, melody note C can be harmonized by F major or C major chords, D by G major , E by C major , F by F major , G by C major or G major , A by F major , B by G major .

That will cover a simple harmonisation of 'Twinkle, twinkle little star'. Now, forget 'rules of thumb' for a bit and look at some real songs. Just about any song you can think of is available for sale on sites such as https://www.musicnotes.com/ with the first page as a free preview. Plenty to look at there! See where I, IV, V will cover it, see where it won't. See how often more than the seven diatonic chords are used. Don't work from 'rules', look at real music! It's fun!

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  • It seems to work for a lot of the performers in Spain and the Canaries..!
    – Tim
    Mar 26, 2022 at 10:11
  • They doubtless have other attractions.
    – Laurence
    Mar 26, 2022 at 10:15
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Ignoring every single case where the melody note on the downbeat is a nonchord tone (e.g. the A natural on a downbeat in the melody of the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five", which is not found in the E♭m chord playing on that downbeat), to select a chord that carries the melodic notes played on the down beats is not the same as to play the melodic note as note 1, 3 or 5 of the accompanying chord or its rough equivalent that fits better with the former, to ensure the melody note is the root, 3rd, or 5th of your selected accompanying chord.

Part of this is because 7ths of the accompanying chord are too common in melody parts. A tamer example of this is the main theme of the Fire Emblem series of video games, whose 4th melody note is commonly harmonized with a maj7 chord where that melody note is the 7th (e.g. a G major rendition has that 4th melody note, a B, harmonized with a Cmaj7 chord). A wilder example is the regular boss theme of Bravely Default, "Fighting to the End", which outright starts with all 4 notes of a diminished 7th chord.

I would suspect that jazz is not afraid to put the 9th, 11th, or 13th of a chord in the melody.

Classical music is also similarly not afraid to put the 13th of a chord in the melody. For example, the Wikipedia article on 13ths points out that a 13th chord is used in Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and there, the 13th is in the melody: Dominant 13th in Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune

In short, playing the melodic note as note 1, 3 or 5 of the accompanying chord is too narrow, and attempting to learn music by ear this way will burn you sooner rather than later.

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