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Compose Yourself, Part 3: Harmony from the Heart

In this segment of my series Compose Yourself, let's take a look at how we can fill in our original compositions with thoughtful harmonies that get to the heart of our musical intentions.

Before we proceed from the melodic and rhythmic ideas proposed in the first two posts of this series, though, I'd like to issue a caveat.

The order of my posts isn't necessarily the sequence all composers use when putting together their music. Some do indeed begin with the melody, choosing pitches (and rhythms) with which to construct it.

Other composers, though, begin with a harmonic framework, then compose a melody that fits the chord progressions.

And yet another option is to build the melody and harmony at the same time, a method that can achieve beautiful results, but that requires a strong underlying knowledge of music theory.

For purposes of this post, let's leave aside the discussion of which order to integrate musical principles and simply proceed with a few harmonic considerations applicable at any point in the composition process.

Thick or Thin Texture

What is the character you want to convey with your piece? Answering that question will help you determine how simple or elaborate your harmony will be.

It helps at this point if you've got a title in mind for your piece, as it also can guide you in your harmonic choices.

A mood piece about a slow walk across a vast prairie as light snow falls may lend itself to a thin harmonic texture.

The depiction of a sunset with numerous layers of color on the horizon may warrant a multitude of simultaneous tone colors from the piano, perhaps blended and magnified with use of the damper pedal.

Rhythm of the Harmony

Another choice you will make is how often to play harmony notes. Sometimes with a fast-paced melody that you wish to highlight, you will want to simplify the harmony by playing mainly half or whole notes.

On the other hand, if your piece is about a busy carnival, you might purposely choose to have a lot going on in both melody and harmony!

Other times your melody may be slow and leisurely, and you might decide to change chords frequently, or pulse several times on repeated harmony notes, so there is a sense of moving forward with the piece.

Consider Chopin's Prelude Op. 28, No. 4 as an excellent example of a lingering melody with long phrases, pushed ever onward with steady eighth notes throughout most of the harmony.

Chord Progressions

Whether you choose to fill in with big chords or a single, thin line, or anything between, your harmony will fully or subtly display an underlying chord progression.

In classical and other genres of music, applying principles of chord leading can help you craft a harmonic structure that sounds good as it proceeds through your piece.

Which chords flow well to other chords?

Opinions and musical tastes vary somewhat, so the following list is not carved in stone, but may be helpful in making effective harmonic choices.

In a major key, for example:

I (Tonic) leads well to ... any chord

ii to ... IV, V, vii

iii to ... ii, IV, vi

IV to ... I, ii, iii, V, vii

V to ... I, vi

vi to ... I, ii, iii, IV, V

vii to ... I, iii

Chord Extensions

If you are interested in a more contemporary sound for your piece, you may enjoy adding chord extensions.

One consideration is using major sevenths to flavor your harmony with a bit of dissonance.

Other chords that lend a contemporary color are ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths.

When you begin to introduce extended chords into your compositions, you will find you have many choices for which chord tones to use, which to omit, how to invert them, whether or not to play them blocked or broken, and the like.

Chord extensions, however, like any other good thing, can be overused, so consider their frequency and placement as important to supporting your melody, rather than overshadowing it.

Wrapping Up Harmony

As is true with melody and rhythm, there are many more things I could say about using the element of harmony in one's compositions. I'll stop at this point, though, because it will be more fun for you to make some of your own discoveries as you hone your composing skills. :-)

Enjoy the process, and stay tuned for next month's concluding post in the Compose Yourself series, where we'll tie it all together into one expressive whole.

Compose Yourself, Part 1: Make a Memorable Melody

Compose Yourself, Part 2: Rev Up Your Rhythm

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