The Trick To Writing Harmony Lines

hey, welcome to 12tone. as music theorists,
we often talk about harmony in terms of chords, scales, and progressions, but when it comes
time to actually arrange a song, the word harmony often means something a little different. here, a harmony is a secondary line that sits
behind the primary melody. it can add power to a rock song, emotional depth to a ballad,
or just complexity and texture to anything you want, but finding just the right line
to complement your melody can be difficult. fortunately, there’s a couple techniques that
help make it a lot simpler. let’s start with a melody: (bang) if we want to write harmonies for this, the
first thing we need to know is what the chords are. what’s the band playing? if you don’t have
chords yet, we’ve talked before about how to find them, but for the sake of simplicity
let’s say that’s it’s this. (bang) the next question is range. where are we gonna put our harmonies? this
largely comes down to instrumentation. of course, you don’t write parts that your instruments
can’t play, but it actually goes deeper than that. you see, for some instruments, there’s an
inherent connection between pitch and power. because of the way a trumpet is played, for
instance, higher notes take more air pressure, so it’s difficult to play them softly. this means that whatever note is highest is
going to be loudest and is going to come across as the main melody, so if you’re working with
brass or woodwinds, harmony parts should always be below the melody. in other cases, like
guitars, violins, or especially the human voice, you have a lot more dynamic control,
so the melody can stand out no matter where you put it. for our example, let’s keep things simple
and just do two voices underneath. with that out of the way, it’s time to actually
write our lines. let’s look at our melody again: (bang) now
the first step is to find chord tones. these already fit in with the chords behind
them, so they’re the easiest to work with. for instance, we’re starting on an Ab, one
of the three notes in F minor, so the harmony voices should probably just sing the other
two, in this case F and C. most melodies are gonna have a lot of chord tones and this one’s
no exception, so even harmonizing just those is gonna get you pretty close already. (bang) but it’s not quite done yet. not every note in our melody is part of a
chord. for instance, this Bb isn’t a part of F minor, so what do we do with it? well,
this is an example of what’s called a non-harmonic tone, in this case a passing note, and the
simplest thing to do here is to follow the melody’s shape. the melody is moving up by steps, so our harmonies
should too. that’s easy to do in this voice, but in this
one, we have a problem. there’s two different notes in between the
chord tones. which one should we use? well, here we’re saved by a helpful rule of
thumb: in writing harmony parts, where you’re going is usually more important than where
you’re coming from. if we’re gonna have to jump somewhere, we’d
rather just get it over with. this lets us step smoothly into the next chord
voicing and preserves the melodic shape as best we can. but hold on, these three notes make a completely
different chord from what the band is playing. normally we wouldn’t want that, but here we’re
actually ok with it. it passes by too quickly to cause all that
many problems. it actually sounds kind of cool. (bang) we can fill in the rest of the non-harmonic
tones similarly, but then we come to this. this D gets held for a long time, way too
long to do what we’ve been doing. the chords would clash and it would sound
like a mess. instead, we’re going to have to think of this
as a tension, a note that’s not part of the chord but works with it anyway, and when you’re
dealing with tensions the best thing to do is just treat them like they’re the next chord
tone down. in this case, our D gets treated like a C,
so our other voices sing a G and an E, and we’re done. (bang) this is what’s called tight harmony, where
all the parts closely follow the shape of the main melody, usually within an octave. there’s plenty of more advanced techniques,
from voiceleading and tensions to contrary motion or even secondary melodies, all of
which we’ll cover in future videos, but tight harmonies are an incredibly powerful, versatile
tool, and really, most of the time, they’ll get the job done. anyway, thanks for watching! if you want to
help make these videos possible, please consider supporting 12tone on Patreon. you can also join our mailing list for scans
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78 thoughts on “The Trick To Writing Harmony Lines

  1. Thank you so much for making these videos! i found you on the music theory subreddit and everyone is surprised that you don't have more people watching your videos!

  2. Awesome video, guys. This is really what I've been looking for: an analysis of composition moment to moment, concerning harmony and how to achieve that via separate melodic lines. Its a huge subject to cover, and I understand most of it is subjective and yet you still pulled off an informative and balanced approach. Great job!

  3. Aaa this is so helpful! My friend and I have been trying to write two part harmony for a song we're covering, so these tips are going to make that sooooo much easier

  4. This is really good! One of the best music education channels around! Big thanks and keep up the great work!

  5. You write with your right hand in the intro but left hand in the analysis (but right side of the page to left). Are you ambidextrous or are you writing backwards and flipping the videos? Looks like the Zodiac's handwriting too 🙂

    Great videos, keep it up

  6. I remember harmonizing a melody where the harmony notes were always either a 5th diminished 5th or 4th away and it sounded cool, I was able to do a bunch of stuff like inverting it in on itself by also transposing the original melody by an octave and having the otherwise complementary voice be the strong one etc

  7. What? When working with brass, sure. Keep the harmony below the melody. But woodwinds play higher than the melody all the time. It's not as if the piccolo plays the melody very often.

  8. I'm a trumpet player, and what you said about not being able to play quietly in the upper register isn't completely true. Yes, it is harder to play softly in the upper register, especially if the player in question isn't comfortable in that register yet, but with practice, it is possible to build up the control necessary to be able to play a concert B-flat 5 as easily and quietly as a B-flat two octaves below that.

  9. Hey, I was wondering if you could help me. I'm a coach for a HS marching band/concert band and I'm writing some new pep band stuff and I always struggle with second and third trumpets. I usually end up with the seconds being either a third, a fourth or a fifth away from the first. This gets really bland. I was wondering how I write these parts so that they're similar to the first part but a bit more unique than just a third down, fourth down, etc. I don't really have this problem as much with instruments that don't have melody. Thanks. If you could make a video based of this question that'd really help alot.

  10. The key is Ab but your melody has a lot of alterations and the harmony isn't diatonic, is it a mode or something?

  11. I love your videos. I do wonder though, do you create these melodies yourself or do you adopt them? Just curious, especially because I love the melody used in this video, very interesting. Thanks for the amazing content! Keep on rocking!

  12. So how Queen and Freddie were able to write harmonies in songs like the March of the black queen or in the lap of the gods? I don't think they used this technique. It would take a lifetime

  13. This has been INCREDIBLY useful, thanks so much. I'm arranging my second song for our band to play and this is exactly what I needed.

  14. One minute in and already I feel like i've learned more than three month's worth of music theory classes in school, this is like the best thing ever

  15. Can you make another Harmony video about the advanced techniques you mentioned (Voice Leading, Tensions, Contrary Motion, and Secondary Melodies)?

  16. trying to write a harmony for my class's choir competition song. this is saving my neck. thanks man. youre awesome.

  17. Actually I am really confused. Shall we use tight harmony like the one in the video? Or the rules in contrapuntal such as contrary motion, oblique motion and etc?

  18. I try follow ur explanation about harmony. But its dificult for me to hear ur speak clearly. I hope there is substittle in ur video. Cause am not western people 😁

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