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I've been learning some Christmas carols on the guitar and I noticed that the chord structure they have is very different from what I can usually see in popular/rock music.

I noticed that the melody that is meant to be sung is reflected (along with it's pitch) by the chords following this melody.

That feels like the chords don't function here as an accompaniment to a melody and does not provide it's standard function, which is tension and release, but rather follow the sung word changing to match higher or lower pitch that is currently being sung.

So instead of chords being its own thing and melody its own (in a reasonable, consonant way, of course), the chords seem to be the melody itself. If you didn't sing the song and just played the chords, you could pretty much imagine the right words In your head.

It feels different than a typical chord progression I'd sing a song along with. Is there a name for these two approaches of composing?

And more importantly, what would we call the function of these chords that follows the melody by it's pitch more than by a sense of building release and tension? Are they for an accompaniment, or sometimes maybe it's just ok to follow the melody with chords pitch like and by the function they stand for in the scale?

The video (it's a tutorial in Polish, it's a Polish Christmas carol):

I'm talking about this exact moment (chords changing rapidly trying to match the singing voice) and pretty much entire song in general. The song starts with V (Gmaj) and I believe the entire song is in C so it's already pretty unusual from a popular music point of view to start a song from V chord.

And that's what I mean by "more popular approach to chords accompanying melody":

  • This reminds me of SATB choir/hymn, where 4 voices can generate a specific chord (meaning that the chord is the melody itself). – Andrew T. Jun 26 at 6:08
  • Oh, that's interesting. So as far as I can see I could harmonise the song in two approaches: One would be with standard chord strumming pattern and the other is with chords following the melody, right? – Duplex Jun 26 at 13:41
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I'm not certain if this is what you're after, but you may be interested in the concept of the melodic-harmonic divorce in rock music. In short, it's a theory about this repertoire that states that a melody and its underlying harmonies don't always work in tandem the way they traditionally did (like, for instance, in a Christmas Carol), with dissonant pitches often not resolving the way our ears may expect. (If you're interested, you can read more about this phenomenon in this famous article.)

I don't know the history of the Christmas Carol (see also What exactly is a Christmas carol?), but I wonder if these tunes originally began as unaccompanied melodies. If the harmony was added later, it may help explain why it so closely follows the melody.

  • Thank you for the links. Actually what you wrote in the last sentence about carols being unaccompanied melodies at first makes a lot of sense (because they are old songs). Maybe this is why the chord structure follows them so closely. However I believe there could be another way of accompaniemnt for this carol I provided, right? Like the one (chord progression) that would be more static, providing some harmonical function beside just following the melody. I tried accompanying this song by myself before and I might try to do it later. – Duplex Jun 25 at 14:27
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    I haven't heard the word "divorce" before, but I think it describes modern pop music very well. Melody and harmony have divorced and they live their separate lives. Melody sticks with the minor/major pentatonic scale and avoids making any commitments or statements about any specific harmony. The chords behind the melody can be pretty much anything. Lyrics are made by the lyrics committee, harmony by the chords committee, and melody by the melody committee. Proper rhythm and EDM sounds from a suitable vendor. Calculate earnings and costs, record company board approves the business decision. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 25 at 18:30
  • And that's why it's good to have rock and metal around :) – Duplex Jun 26 at 13:42
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If I'm understanding the question correctly, it sounds like you are describing what is called appropriately enough, "Chord Melody" which is a popular method to harmonize a melody line often seen in jazz arrangements, but can be used in almost any style of popular music. I'm guessing you got your hands on some of those kind of arrangements, but I can assure you that Christmas carols can be played and sung using the more common chords and separate melody lines also. That said, it generally takes more skill to play "Chord Melody" so it's not used as often.

  • Ok, got it. Why though is it harder to play chord melody? Is this because you have to think of chords in terms of pitch (following the melody) and not their harmonical function? – Duplex Jun 25 at 15:25
  • @ Duplex- Actually, I'm not an advanced Chord melody kind of player, but I'd say it doesn't exclude the first idea in favor of the second idea, but rather including both ideas together while choosing the best voicings of each chord to help harmonize the chord note selected to carry the melody. When I've done it, I've had to work up arrangements of the music and rehearse what I had worked up before ever thinking about performing the piece. Contrast that with playing something where the leader says " we're going to do this one in "A". More chord changes too. – skinny peacock Jun 25 at 19:38
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    @Duplex It's just generally hard to play that many different chords to do the whole melody. It's generally easier to play and hold one chord (with a strumming pattern) while you sing until you get to the next chord. – trlkly Jun 26 at 0:51
  • It might be good to point out that it is possible to play the verses of a song using the simpler method and then play a lead break using some chord melody. Mix and Match is perfectly acceptable and even advisable if one is just starting to learn the technique. – skinny peacock Jun 26 at 2:19
  • Thank you for your help, Skinny and Trlkly – Duplex Jun 26 at 13:39

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