Matching melody to chords

January 27, 2009

For some odd reason, after 25 years of teaching, I’ve stumbled upon a good way of teaching students how to write melodies that “go” with given harmony. I have been introducing new chords every week, and with each assignment I have students write short chord progressions, and then compose a melody against one of the progressions. Instead of writing for piano or SATB, I have them writing for string quartet — this teaches them the backbone of the orchestra, and introduces the alto clef as well.

As I grade their papers I have to communicate to them why certain melodies “go” and certain don’t. If you have, say, a G major chord, the melodic fragment that glides atop it should express G major-ness, or be an obvious part of the G major chord. When a student puts a melodic fragment that outlines, say, a D tonality, I’ll bracket that part of the melody, pointing out that it’s D, and not G, while I bracket the harmony, pointing out that it’s a G harmony. The student then sees that there are two conflicting sonorities happening simultaneously.

Now, we adult composers know that one CAN mix a melodic fragment that belongs to a different harmony, and it can sound perfectly good, or better, exotic, or mysterious, or modal, or far away. But for beginners, I’m keeping the training wheels on so that a G major chord gets a G major melody. We then look carefully at the “in” notes and the “out” notes and whether those notes fall on strong or weak beats.

Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Woof.

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