If you see a simple melody line (first Amazing Grace image above), it can be challenging to set chords to the melody and equally challenging to know how to play the chords. In this article we will discuss how to add chords to a melody line, and how to artfully play chords once added.
Step 1: Find Your Melody 🙂
The first step is to establish the melody of the song. If you already have the melody written out or in your head, great. Sometimes, though, you may be looking at some sheet music like this:
In this case, you will need to find the melody by ear, or look-up sheet music of the melody line. In this article we will assume you already have the melody worked out. We will demo adding and arranging chords to “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.
Step 2: Add Piano Chords to the Melody
To fit chords to the melody here is a bare-bones process to use. We’ll get into the more complex stuff later:
- Key. Find the key you are in.
- Primary Chords. Be aware of the primary chords of the key.
- Fit primary chords to a musical phrase. At beginning stages, hang onto a chord in the left hand until it clashes with the melody, then find another primary chord for the next phrase.
Determine Key of Melody
Determining the key takes a bit of detective work but some quick tips include:
- Check the key signature if available.
- See which scale most of the melody notes fall into.
- Check the first and last notes or chords of the song, often these chords correspond to the key you are in.
- Check which notes are placed on the downbeats, often these are more important than the off beats.
- Play a bit of the melody. Stop. Hum. Often the note you hum is the note of the key.
Below are some reasons why this version of “Amazing Grace” is in the key of F.
If you need help identifying your key signature use the chart below. This chart is also called the circle of 5ths.
Establish Primary Chords of Key
Now that we know the key of “Amazing Grace” is F, we want to find the primary chords of the key. The primary chords of a key are based off of the 1st, 4th, and 5th scale degrees.
Using roman numeral analysis we can number the scale with roman numerals using a capital letter if the chord based off of the note is major and a lowercase letter if the chord is minor.
For example, G is lowercase because the key of F uses a B♭ instead of a B causing the G chord to be composed of GB♭D (minor) instead of GBD (major). Below are the notes that make up each primary chord in F major.
So in F major our primary chords are F (I), B♭ (IV), and C (V).
And in F minor our primary chords are Fm (i), B♭m (iv), C (V). (The 5th chord of a minor key is usually major).
As you begin developing the skill of adding chords to melody just stick to these primary chords. Later on you can throw in other chords from the scale such as D or G minor.
Fitting Primary Chords to Musical Phrases
Now that we know the primary chords, let’s start fitting them to the melody. Here are some tips to follow.
- Look at the notes of a measure (or phrase) and find a primary chord that roughly matches it.
- Play the melody in the right hand and chord in the left hand to make sure it sounds ok. If not, try out a different primary chord.
- Change to a new chord when you hear a clash (or when music instincts tell you to change)
For example, consider this harmonization of “Amazing Grace”.
All the notes of the melody fit more or less to the F major chord. This is alright, but as per step 3, my musical instincts tell me it is a bit bland. I should spice it up with some other chords as I’ve done below.
In the long run you can’t always rely on primary chords. Sometimes you need to use other chords from the scale, or even chords with notes outside of the scale. Nonetheless, I usually start with primary chords and get creative later. For a deep dive into making more creative chord choices you can check out functional harmony.
As a side note the image you see above, where the chords are displayed over a melody line is often referred to as a lead sheet
Step 3: Get Creative with Chords
So now we have a crude form of melody and accompaniment. How do we make it compelling to listen to? Using just block chords as below, is not fun to listen to.
This is opening a HUGE can of worms; we have stepped into the glorious arena of improvisation and composition. There are many ways to spice up the melody and accompaniment (chords).
Here are 2 of the techniques that I think deliver the most musicality with minimal effort.
Accompaniment: 1-5-1 Arpeggio
The arpeggio in the left hand creates movement and prevents muddy resonance in the lower registers. (I call it a 1-5-1 arpeggio because we use the 1st and 5th scale degrees of each chord).
Melody: Passing Notes
Try connecting one melody note to another with a note from the scale in between them. For example:
By adding passing notes again there is more movement. Be careful not to over embellish as that can sound a bit showy.
For more ideas check out Nahre Sol’s video on the 16 levels of composition. Levels 1-6 will be more attainable for beginners. At the very least check out 8:55 when she puts all 16 levels together at once!
Tip for Making It Enjoyable
The inspiration for this website is learning in a way that is enjoyable throughout the entirety of all processes. So I want to give some thoughts on how to make this process enjoyable.
Setting chords to melody was a gateway to improvisation for me – which is now my favorite way to engage music.
Interestingly improvisation can greatly decrease blood to the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with planning and self-monitoring. As someone with perfectionist tendencies improvising is a way to stop planning/self-monitoring and really embrace beautiful imperfection. At 10 minutes watch the effect that improvisation has on the brain of a professional musician – Fantastic Negrito.
If you want to improve your interpretation of chords try improvising on a single chord. With a single C major chord you have access to a wide range of emotions:
- Majestic – large C chords that multiple octaves with inversions in both hands
- Excited – quick arpeggios in high registers
- Content – LH plays lowest C’s an octave apart while RH plays softly in the upper registers.
Try ranging through a wide variety of emotions for about a minute straight improvisation. What does that feel like? Fun? Exciting? Perhaps a tinge of frustration? (That’s ok too!).
What do you do to make the process of playing melody and chords enjoyable? Leave your answer in the comments.
Learning how to play chords and melody at the same time on the piano can be challenging. By establishing the melody, finding the key, minding the primary chords and matching notes of a melody with the primary chords; the process is actually quite straight forward. With practice, chord recognition becomes stronger and the process becomes automatic.
From here you may want to: