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I’m a beginner-intermediate harmonica player. I live in a country where Celtic music is very popular and a lot of my friends and family play along with each other. The problem is very few of them know music theory or even how to read music so they can’t explain this to me. However, I know some basic music theory. My goal is to identify the chord progressions of the Galician Celtic music so I can comp along.

So my question is how do I identify the chord progression of music sheets?

For example here is a piece I would like to learn, the chord progression for muiñeira de lugo:

included image from link into post

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  • If you can play a melody rather than chords, I think it's common for gaita players to create a parallel harmony line at a third or sixth. Feb 13 at 15:50
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    I see quite a lot of (worship) music which is typically written for piano and guitar accompaniment. The music is arrange with chords at the top of systems, and parts in descending order of register (vocal soprano & violin down to bass), then the L/R hand piano parts. When I'm backing up on guitar, if those chords don't exist, I will write them in beforehand. For folk melodies like this, there are usually many chords that fit the music, its up to interpretation. On the other hand, many art pieces art be almost impossible to set chords to as for guitar accompaniment.
    – AdamO
    Feb 13 at 21:06
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    A keep it simple -method often gets away with I, V7 and IV. Here the key is D major, so I would use chiefly the chords D, A7 and G. Insert a relative minor, or go up/down the circle of fifths one spot, if you think the situation calls for it. Here in the first part (one bar at a time) it could go like: D, D, A7, D, D, D, A7, D, then repeated. And in the second part: D, A7, A7, D, D, A7, D+A7 (half bars), D. But, I don't know the story of the song, nor the mood. To me the second part feels equally good with E minor chords ub the second and third bars: D, Em, Em, D, D, A7, D+A7 (half bars), D. Feb 14 at 4:44
  • (cont'd) As a first approximation I pick the chord (out of those three) containing same notes that appear in the melody (but you can't match all of them, watch out for clashes). The decision to temporarily go to the enharmonically equivalent minor (major) really depends on the mood. Over to people who have actually studied harmony extensively, and can say something more definite. Feb 14 at 4:48

3 Answers 3

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There are no chords in this sheet music, so there is no definite answer. You could try various chords; there are many possibilities at any place in the melody. However, there are some clues that can help determine what chords go best with the rest of the music:

  1. Ask the bass player (if you have one) what notes they play. Most of those would be the root notes of the chords.
  2. The sheet music has two sharps. That means that, in classic harmony, it would be either in D major or B minor. As the melody ends in a D (in the first repeated phrase), it is probably D major. Also, an A# would strongly indicate B minor, and there are none.
  3. So the key is D major. That means the most important chords (I, IV and V) are D major, G major and A major. Try these while playing the melody.
  4. The chords will change at every bar, or two bars perhaps. Probably not more often.
  5. You will find that the strong notes in the melody (those falling on a beat) often point to chords containing these notes. The other notes in the melody are merely passing notes. So if the strong notes in a bar are D and F#, the accompanying chord will probably not be A major, but more likely D major or B minor.
  6. However, the music would be a bit bland if the rule of thumb in point 4 was never broken. For example, the B at the start of bar 5 "feels" to me like a nice contrast against an A major chord, or even a A7.

This line of reasoning should give you a good start for this type of popular music which is harmonically not too complicated. Filling in the gaps will need experimenting, and listening to your fellow musicians.

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  • Thank you. I got up to figuring out that it was in D major (well at least I assumed it was and you confirmed it). My plan was to play some sort of arpegio accompaniment and if these songs had a common chord progression I could make my life easier. Im will play it by ear in this case and experiment as you said. thank you again
    – user26409
    Feb 13 at 19:34
  • There's also the fact that they are playing harmonica, which can limit some chord choices, based on my attempts. They seem to primarily play the I and V(7), and maybe IV or ii (I'm not entirely sure.)
    – trlkly
    Feb 14 at 0:12
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    In this case major (Ionian) is right, but you have to be a bit careful with step 2 because Celtic music often uses the Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian modes. Feb 16 at 2:52
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You typically only jump to and from chordal notes.

So look closely at how the notes jump to discern the tonality and harmony. But before all that look at the key signature what do you see? Two sharps, do you know what that means for the tonality of the piece? Either D Major or b minor.

Already we have a D in the upbeat, then in measure 1 you see an A note that jumps up to a D. This means in that first bar both D and A are chord notes, which leads us in turn to think of a chord built on D.

If you are wondering if the key may be minor then think about the leading tone of the relative minor key. If the leading tone is raised and resolves then you should start thinking the piece is in a minor key, but this piece starts with a D chord and has an unraised A note that does not resolve (A sharp being the leading tone of b minor.)

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An almost impossible question to answer, getting the 'correct' chords to any piece merely from the dots.

I admit to having a sneaky listen to a performance of the example, and it appears two chords, I and V are the only ones used - hardly surprising given the bagpipes are the main instrument.

However, to the question in hand. Most melodies will contain some, occasionally all, of the notes in the underlying chords. Of course there will be what are called passing notes, to get from one chordal note to another. But, those chordal notes will be found on the strong beats in each bar. Here, in 6/8 time, sub-beats 1 and 4.

Knowing the make up of chords in any key is the most important facet here. The key, indicated by the two sharps in its key signature, show D major or B minor. Just by listening, it's easy to determine that it's in a major key, therefore d. Just by looking at the dots, there are far more D, F♯ and A notes, indicating also that it's in D, rather than B minor.

So, rule is to follow the notes, especially the first note in each bar, and that will give a pretty good start to your playing on harmonica. Use a D harp, and blowing will provide I, while drawing will give V.

All that makes the first couple of bars tend towards A - with them having A as their first note! But, looking at the rest of the bar, there's D and C♯! However, the C♯ is at the weakest point, so D trumps it - it's a bar of D!

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