Lesson How To Write Harmonies Part - 1

Benefits from studying this article:

1. Understanding basic theory behind writing harmony parts.
2. How to write harmonies.
3. Shortcuts you can use to write harmonies quickly, so you can write them on the spot.

A guitar harmony is a great way to make a simple melody sound totally awesome. Once you understand how to do them, they are quite easy to do and you'll be able to incorporate them into your songwriting very easily. You'll even be able to write a harmony on the spot - so next time you're jamming or at a band rehearsal, you'll look like a boss.

This is the first in a two part series, in the next part, we'll look at ways to get more out of your harmony by changing the chords you are playing over, but let's get back on track.

What is a harmony?

Harmony is simply, the vertical element of music - the notes that are sounding out at a point in time. When we write a harmony, we are stacking two melodies on top of each other - Iron Maiden are very famous for doing this.

So we need a starting point - what intervals are good to use for a harmony?

A good starting point is intervals we know work - major and minor chords. Major and minor chords are both built around the 3rd and 5th in the major scale (or minor scale).

Example 1: Thirds

So let's say we are in the key of G major:

G A B C D E F#

And we have a melody that goes:

G G A B A

And in tab, we'll play it like this:

e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

To write our harmony, we are going to play the note that is a third up over the top of the original melody:

Original note   Third up
G B
A C
B D

So now we have:

Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony part: B B C D C

And to tab out both guitar parts:

Guitar 1

e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Guitar 2

e|--7-7-8-10-8-------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Simple! You can apply this technique to any melody you want to write a harmony for.

Example 2: Fifths

If we take the same key and melody as the previous example:

G A B C D E F#

With the melody:

G G A B A

And in tab, we'll play it like this:

e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

This time, rather than taking the third, we are going to take the fifth:

Original Note    Fifth Up
G D
A E
B F#

So we have:
Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony: D D E F# E

Guitar 1

e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Guitar 2

e|--10-10-12-14-12---------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

So now you know two ways to write harmonies!

How can you creatively use these techniques?

Now you know two different ways to write harmonies. If you recall the beginning of this article, you'll remember that we started off by taking our ideas from the intervals contained in common major and minor chords. So, the two ideas we worked out will work simultaneously, as a three guitar harmony:

Guitar 1

e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Guitar 2

e|--7-7-8-10-8-------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Guitar 3

e|--10-10-12-14-12---------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------

Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony part 1: B B C D C

Harmony part 2: D D E F# E

This also shows nicely that our harmonies are built around the chords G major, A minor and B minor, all chords in the key of G major.

You could start with the original melody for a few repeats, then introduce harmony 1, then introduce harmony 2. Or have them all simultaneously… there are several ways you could arrange this! If you only have two guitar players, you could move through the harmonies like this:

Guitar 1  Original Melody  Original Melody
Guitar 2 Harmony 1 Harmony 2

Or:

Guitar 1  Original Melody  Original melody  Harmony 1
Guitar 2 Harmony 1 Harmony 2 Harmony 2

You can also see that our harmonies are built around the chords G major, A minor and B minor.

What are the shortcuts for writing harmonies?

So now you know how to write a bada-s harmony ... you want to be able to do it quickly. Doing this is going to require knowing your modes, but demonstrates another massive benefit to knowing them well.

If we look at our previous melody in the context of the modes of G major, we can see it fits in the Locrian mode:

So to write our harmony in thirds, we are going to find the same pattern, but a third up, which in this case will be our Dorian mode (the mode that is a third higher):

Locrian
Ionian
Dorian

and to write our harmony, we just play through the notes in blue in the same pattern that we used in the Locrian mode.

If you want to work out a harmony in fifths, we are going to use the Lydian mode to find our harmony (the mode that is a fifth higher than the mode we are starting from):

Locrian
Ionian
Dorian
Phrygian
Lydian

So there you have it, if you know your modes well, you can write these harmonies on the spot - a very cool skill! If your melody is across more than one shape, then move up to the appropriate shapes.

If you have any questions leave them in the comments below.

About the Author:
By Sam Russell. Sam is a professional musician in West London. You can get his free book, "The Ultimate Guide to the Modes of the Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor Scales" which is available at: www.samrussell.co.uk/ebook.


Ashutosh Pande
Ashutosh Pande

Author



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