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I have quite a good knowledge in music theory, scales, modes, and all different kinds of chords (basic triads, sus, add, all extensions, slash, inversions, ...), but I'm having a tough time when it comes to putting this into practice. Not really when I try to write a chord progression from scratch, but only when I have to put chords under a given melody. More specifically, a lead vocal melody. My composition routine is the following: I can write complex, beautiful lead vocal melodies, which would suit for an entirely developed pop/edm song. Once I have written it down or put it into MIDI, I check for the sharps/flats and define the scale the melody is written in. But what should be the next step? I've heard people saying that the chords are "already written in the melody", but never really understood how it means. Others say you should check for the note the melody "revolves around the most" in each single bar and use it as the root note for the chord you are going to build. Others say you should check for the note the melody resolves to in each phrase and use it as root, third or fifth of the chord. All of these "methods" seem pretty reductive to me, and when I try to apply them, they hardly ever lead me to something good. I wonder if there's something that I am simply missing or getting wrong, given the extreme ease at which some people seem to be able to succed in this process. What's your opinion? Do you have a personal routine when it come to writing chord progressions for a song, starting from a lead vocal? Do you have any tutorial to suggest on the matter?

  • I'd say that this is one of the things that fall under creativity in composition, if you want to write a good melody. Only experience and the ability to compose come into play here. However, just try to write down whatever comes down into your head - the key is experimenting here. – Ansel Chang Apr 14 '17 at 14:17
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Really, I'd just play around until I found something I like. But for some initial ideas:

  • given a scale and a note, there are three triads from the scale that contain that note; for example, there are three triads from C major that contain the note A: Dm, F, and Am. Try one of those.
  • The IV, V, and I chords (in C, those are F, G, and C, respectively) are the most commonly used chords, and together cover every note of the major scale. When in doubt, try one of those.
  • The chord's usually chosen to fit the melody notes that land on strong beats. For the purposes of finding chords, you can start by ignoring melody notes that fall on off beats, that don't last long, or more generally that feel like they're unstable, or just on the way to another note that feels more "at rest".
  • Think about how often you want the harmony to change. Probably once or twice a bar at most.
  • Listen to the bass notes; the most common bass movement is probably by fourths or fifths, but basslines that move by steps can also be nice. Usually you need to invert some of the chords (put something other than the root in the lowest position) to get nice stepwise motion.

And, yes, that's all pretty reductive, but, try starting there and maybe that will help you find something that works even if it's a little vanilla.

Some ways to make a boring progression more interesting:

  • try replacing the chord by another one a third down (e.g. try Dm instead of F).
  • try changing the quality of the chord (e.g. from major to minor or minor to major), even if that doesn't fit in the scale. E.g. try using an Fm chord to harmonize a C in C major.
  • Try a chord that fits the note but not the scale. E.g. an EbM to harmonize a G in C major.
  • Try a chord that would make the melody note a 7th or a 9th from the root. Or try a sus4 chord with the melody on the fourth.

But my (admittedly uninformed) impression of EDM is that "vanilla" chord progressions are a defining part of the sound, with texture being what adds interest. So stick to IV, V, I and the occasional vi and use the rest of this stuff sparingly.

Longer term:

  • acquire some keyboard skills, if you haven't already. You want to be able to say "what would a Cm7 under this part sound like?" and play that without thinking.
  • work out the chords to some of your favorite songs. This will take some tedious trial-and-error at first, but you'll learn some of the common patterns and you'll train your ear. (Don't look up the chords, try to figure them out yourself.)
  • take some college-level theory classes. You'll learn about species counterpoint and other centuries-old stuff, but the skills will come in handy.

Oh, and the keyword you want for google is "harmonizing". E.g. a search for "how to harmonize a melody" will get you some tutorials. Don't ignore them just because they talk about classical music or some other genre--the basic principles are pretty similar.

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I'm assuming that you have composed your melodies according to the wise advice:important notes go best on important beats. So you probably don't have passing notes on 1st or 3rd beats of the bar or the first note in a pair of quavers unless you have a compelling reason. Your chords are probably going to change on the important beats too. Note that strong syncopation could be a good reason to shift your chords.

For elegance, try to retain at least on note from chord to chord and/or move one or more voices in steps between chords. You can achieve this by trying different inversions, by adding or subtracting notes from chords or by substituting chords using the following rule: if two chords have at least two notes in common you can probably substitute one for the other. Just substituting relative minor for major and vice versa can double your chord choices.

Here are some principles to play around with:

melody note repeated-change chord-change bass note. melody note repeated-change chord-repeat bass note. melody notes change-keep chord-change bass note. melody notes change-change chord-keep bass note. etc. mix up parallel, contrary and oblique harmony.

Add a pattern to the chord pattern. Steely Dan's Peg is a great example. To a basic blues progression they use IV-I of chord I, but moving in steps, then IV-I of chord IV, then IV-I of chord V. Adding/suspending a 2 and slash chording are worth trying too.

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First you could just take the lead notes and play the chords having the lead as its root, you can then even leave out the root. If the lead uses a lot of notes, you can leave some out. Some will sound more important than others. Basically you are being lazy, like oh those notes are two quick to play so you don't play them. Finally you can try different voicings, and even some chord substitutions specially if parts the lead doesn't do anything.

Really you could just play 3 chords for the key it's in. That is main thing stay in the same key for key changes.

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