I'm analysing a piece from the Traditional Songs of the Maori by Margaret Orbell and Mervyn McLean.

Can such a piece with a monophonic melody have harmony?

  • If you add chordal harmony to a monophonic melody, we usually call that “homophony”. Commented Apr 5 at 11:02
  • Technically not the same question as this but very closely related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/115348/… and music.stackexchange.com/questions/131577/…
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 5 at 14:25
  • What was the piece? A Gregorian chant, Bach's cello suites, and Debussy's Syrinx, as examples, all use single lines, but they would be analyzed differently. Commented Apr 5 at 15:51
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    @MichaelCurtis The OP grew this question out of this one; the source is a traditional Maori song Commented Apr 5 at 18:09
  • As a general answer to the title, without regard for the piece being analysed, yes. See Bach cello sonatas as an example, or Telemann work's for solo flute or violin. Commented Apr 7 at 8:39

6 Answers 6


The simple answer is "sure." The longer answer is "it doesn't have to."

For background, simply by using the words "monophonic," "melody," and "harmony," we place ourselves in time and culture. We reference a vast musical and cultural phenomenon that has evolved over centuries. Today we come to music with certain assumptions, like that the idea of "chords" exists, or that "melody" is a different idea. But we can look outside of this context and find many musics, both in Western European history, and in the traditions of other cultures. If we look at all the different kinds of music that humans have made through the ages, the vast majority of these practices are monophonic, from Gregorian chant to shakuhachi music. Within any of these music-cultures, it would have made no sense to even call a tune "monophonic"; it was just music. So within these contexts, the simplest answer to the question would be "No, this tune does not create or suggest some underlying chordal harmony, because these ideas are alien to its creation."

Now, when we view a single line of music from within a culture familiar with the notion of harmony, then yes, it certainly can suggest harmonies. In fact, this idea has become so foundational to our approach to music that it's virtually impossible for modern ears to avoid imagining a harmonic structure. I would argue that if anyone simply played a C, the listener would instantly and unconsciously assume a tonality of C major. This would be far stronger if they followed it, say, with an E, even though these two pitches could be part of many other chords and keys. As other answers have mentioned, there is a long tradition of "harmonizing" linear melodies, applying chords. There is often an "obvious" choice of chords; "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" might be harmonized with "I I IV I IV I V I," and we might say that the melody "contains the seeds of" this simplest interpretation (though really it might have more to do with the conventions of tonal practice, e.g. looking for a cadential V). We could also find melodic lines that actively imply chords, perhaps through arpeggiation. User98284's answer mentions how Bach's solo violin works often use single notes to outline larger chordal motions.

And of course, music from monophonic traditions can be imported into (or appropriated by?) harmonic traditions and be harmonized. This has been happening for about as long as there has been a harmonic tradition, from organum settings of monophonic chants, to Percy Grainger's treatment of English folk tunes, to Russian or Chinese choral settings of folk songs. And to complicate things, many of the global cultures that have monophonic heritages have also assimilated harmonic practices and synthesized new music-cultures that have in turn influenced others. To ignore these and call them "inauthentic" would be reductionist and in its own way culturally authoritarian.

Your present question grew out of an earlier one about a monophonic notation of a "traditional Maori song." Now, I know very little about Maori musical practices, but even a quick search shows that there is a rich body of music being made today, within Maori contexts, that presupposes a harmonic framework, including guitar accompaniment and singing in harmony. Here's one example, but just a few minutes of looking through search results for the term waiata showed many other instances of the phenomena we see here.

So, for the original Maori song in that earlier question—does it "have harmony"? As you can see, that might be a very complicated question. Does it come from a period or a practice within Maori culture that does not presuppose a harmonic framework? If so, we should not expect it to hold any assumed or implied harmonies within itself. But we could certainly impose them upon it; or, if it was created within a time or genre that does include harmonization, then we might say such harmonization is a "part" of the song, if we take it as a contextualized artifact of a music-culture and not simply as a static piece of notation.


First, let's clear up the terminology. 'Monophonic' means a single melodic line, by definition NOT harmonized. A melody consisting of just one pitch would be 'Monotonic'.

One answer (now deleted) has assumed you meant 'monotonic'. Yes, when a melody stays on one note, it's quite possible to change the harmony. You could almost say it's required, in order to add some musical interest! The offered example 'One note samba' is a good one.

Perhaps you are using 'monophonic' correctly, and wonder if a melody can imply a particular harmony? Well, sort of. Within an established style, there may be an 'obvious' harmony for a given melody, one which the majority of players would add if they weren't trying to get clever! Or there may be a few equally 'obvious' choices. And there will certainly be a whole lot more not-so-obvious ones. Think of the sort of thing organists love to do to the last verse of a well-known hymn, a re-harmonization where the whole point is NOT to be the 'obvious' one.

  • Re: "A melody consisting of just one pitch would be 'Monotonic'" -- it would also be "Monotonous". Commented Apr 5 at 13:18

Take a look at the Preludio of Bach's Partita #3 for violin solo (BWV1006). Formally, except for the very last bars, this is a monophonic piece where only one note sounds at a time. However, it would be hard to argue that the extensive 2- and 3-string passages (not actual double stops but fingered like such while bowed one string at a time) are without harmonization.

While this is a rather extreme example, many melodies provide core cues to harmonization that are not usually broken except for comparatively academic harmonization experiments.

If you take a look at Nat King Cole's "It was fascination", then often the starting phrase of a line more or less spells out the Jazz harmony fitting under it. In general, when a line moves by larger intervals than just a second, it tends to spell out chord elements of an unterlying harmony.

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    It can be enlightening to compare Bach's solo violin works to arrangements he made of the same material for lute or harpsichord, in which he gives fuller realizations of the chords that he merely implies in the violin versions. Commented Apr 5 at 13:58

Harmonization is the process of adding chords to the melody. In principal, you are allowed play any chords with any melody, and often there are many different possibilities which sound good in many music styles, so the strict answer is "no" – the melody alone doesn't strictly determine the harmony.

However, the melody can suggest some harmony. The main components contributing are:

  • using chord tones on strong parts of a measure,
  • emphasizing tones which make the consecutive chords differ from each other.
  • following typical patterns for resolving tensions.

You may find some examples at Wikipedia page on Harmonization, and perhaps you may want to get a textbook on harmony to learn more.


Some melodies can imply harmony.

The most obvious way it can happen is when a line uses a lot of broken chords or arpeggios.

Another way to think about it is through the concept of tendency tones, which are tones (pitches) that have a tendency to move, by scale step, in certain ways. The motion of these tones can strongly imply certain harmonies.

The two strongest tendency tones are the leading tone and the subdominant, the seventh and fourth scale degrees respectively. The leading tone has a tendency to move up to the tonic scale degree and the subdominant tends to move down to the mediant. Either motion can strongly imply some kind of V I or V7 I harmony.

It's also possible for the motion of subdominant to mediant to imply harmony IV I.

The sixth scale degree, the submediant, has a tendency to move down to the dominant, and that can imply harmony IV I.

The second scale degree is pretty flexible regarding how it moves, but there is a tendency for it to go down to the tonic, and that would imply harmony V I.

These tendencies are not absolute rules. There are many caveats. Probably one of the most important is to understand when these tones are important harmonic tones rather than embellishing tones like passing tones. Also, the tendency tone idea is a stylistic thing. You will hear it a play in common practice era music, especially Baroque and Classical style music.

Understanding common practice era harmony will help a lot for understanding the harmonic implications of an unharmonized line. For example, consider what I said earlier about the subdominant scale degree. When it moves down a step it can imply V7 I or IV I. Let's say the music is in the key C major. If the line moves ^3 ^4 ^3, where ^ means scale degree, that strongly implies the harmony C: I IV I. But, if a passage in C major introduced the line ^1 ^♭7 ^6, that strongly implies a shift to F major and harmony C: I F:V4/2 I6 (the numeric figures, the chord inversions, could vary, but the change of tonic and chord roots are clearly implied.)

Look up the rule of the octave and solfeggio. It will provide useful "rules of thumb" about the characteristic harmonization of the various scale degrees.


Utilizing echo/reverb one might easily overlay any monophonic melody with it's own previous self. Check out Phil Keggy ebow youtube video for examples

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