Making Harmonies

In most jam sessions people play tunes together in unison, just for the joy of playing the tunes. Sometimes, for special moments, variety, or in performance, musicians like to add a touch of harmony to fill out the melody. Below are some tips on making harmonies, and at the end, I will give you an example of a harmony part I’ve written that incorporates many of these suggestions.

1. No need to play harmony notes everywhere. Sometimes the nicest effect is to surprise the listener with a nice harmony on a long note, an ending, or a high point of a tune. Very often harmonies are saved for the repeat of a tune, so that listeners get to hear what the tune sounds like before the decorations are added. You can use the ideas below to make a full harmony or just to add bits of harmony in key places.

2. Octaves are nice for variety and reinforcing the melody. A high tune can sound stronger with a lower octave added. Pipe tunes, for instance, are limited to a specific range, from the G just under the open A string, up to the next A (3 fingers on the E string). There is always room on the fiddle to play these tunes an octave lower, though they can sometimes be more awkward to play there. Use your ears. Once you are familiar with the tune, start on the first note but an octave lower and find the way the tune sounds from there, bit by bit.

3. Harmonies are usually made using notes from a chord.  Start by trying to use chord notes to harmonize beat notes; don’t try to fit the chord of every note of the melody. If you have any questions about what the chord notes are, learn lots more by working with Technique Video Group 4. The basic chord is the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale. If your melody starts in the key of D, you can build your harmony by starting with a note of the chord that’s different from the melody note (in D major, this would be F# or A). The harmony can be played on chord notes above or below the melody, but avoid using too many fifths (fifth note, or one string higher than the melody note), especially not in a row, unless you deliberately want an unusual sound! (But see #5.)

4. Don’t distract from the melody. Sometimes it’s nice to merge with the melody so as to direct the listeners to what the melody is saying. I often like to start a harmony part by playing the actual melody for at least a few notes before diverging. When the melody lands on a finishing note of a phrase or part, it can be nice for the harmony to fill in a few notes for decoration. Sometimes, and especially when a quieter instrument is playing the melody, try allowing some longer notes in the harmony part, so that listeners pay attention to the melody. We tend to listen to the moving parts rather than the longer notes.

5. Ultimately it’s all about how the music sounds. You can work with chords if you know what they are, or just work with notes that sound good to you. If your harmony sounds good but diverges from a typical chord pattern for that tune, a good accompanist can always adjust chords to fit your harmony. In other words, don’t feel trapped by music theory, but knowledge about chord progressions can inform and improve a harmony part.

6. Make a harmony part that can stand on its own. Even if a harmony part theoretically fits the tune, it can still sound odd or distracting if it jumps around from one place to another just to fit the music theory of which chord notes you want to make use of. Just as tunes do, harmony parts can make their way plausibly from a nice sound on one beat note to the next beat note, even if a note or two in between, along the path, might sound funny on its own. Once you start working with a harmony part, see if you can adjust it to have a nice flow. This makes it both sound good and be more fun to play and easier to remember.

Below is the tune Hills of Lorne with a harmony part I wrote for it. There are many possible harmonies; this is just one idea, and I personally don’t always play the harmony this way! Note how the harmony’s first three notes are the same as the melody before moving into harmonic ideas. The melodic line of the harmony part itself can be played in its own right. Some notes lead from one beat to another, just like the melody does, without necessarily strictly fitting the chord of the moment — but the beat notes do fit in with the chords appropriate in those moments. Note how the high F# of the first phrase and the same note in the third phrase (same phrase of the tune) use different harmony notes implying different chords for the same note — just a nice idea, but often you’ll want to use the same harmony for the same phrase. At the end of the first line, the harmony jumps to a lower idea which fits in nicely and adds a new feeling, rather than just mirroring everything the melody does. The last note of the first line is an example of a plain quarter note allowing the melody to have the moving eights leading us back to the first phrase; a similar idea can be seen in the second-to-last measure of the third line. At the end of the second line, the harmony leads down to the final note with an extra eighth note, without distracting from the melody arriving at the last note of the A part.

©2020 Ed Pearlman

One thought on “Making Harmonies”

  1. I like the ideas you have presented on writing harmonies for tunes. I will have to keep this article in mind when I try writing a harmony for a tune. So much to do, so little time.

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