Guitarists tend to think of harmony and melody as two distinctly different musical elements. For most players, harmony consists of the standard chord grips. Melodies are played one note at a time and are usually related to familiar scale patterns. While those conceptions aren’t incorrect, there are ways of making harmonies more melodic, and vice versa.
To give your melodies more harmonic lucidity, you can emphasize essential chord tones on the strong beats (beats one and three in 4/4 time) of each measure and use other scale degrees on the weaker beats. To make your harmonies more melodic, you can play two-part counterpoint in lieu of stock chords. These integrative approaches—which you’ll learn in this month’s Weekly Workout—can keep your playing fresh and dynamic in any musical style.
One way to learn how melody playing can be made more harmonically clear is to study the repertoire of a non-chordal instrument, such as the violin. (Chords can be played on the violin, but the instrument is melodic by design.) Traditional Irish fiddle tunes—jigs, reels, and hornpipes—are a great place to start, because many of the tunes are easily transferable to the guitar fretboard.
In this week’s lesson, you’ll play “St. Anne’s Reel,” as shown in Example 1. It’s meant to be played at a brisk 200 bpm, but take it more slowly at first if need be. Once you have Ex. 1 under your fingers, repeat the entire tune several times, until the melody becomes so familiar that you’re barely reading the music at all.
Record yourself playing Ex. 1 along with a metronome. As you listen back to your recording, play along using the chord symbols shown. There should be no surprises, as the melody is already telegraphing the harmony quite clearly. In next week’s workout, you’ll learn to write your own harmony-rich melody.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Remember those Magic Eye posters that were popular in the early ’90s? At first glance, they looked like random colored dots. But when you learned how to adjust your gaze, 3-D images would appear. Studying a new melody can be sort of like that. You have to get past just playing the right notes in order to really hear the melody—and, hence, the harmony.
Now that you can play Ex. 1, it’s time take a look under the hood. Example 2a shows the guide tones at the heart of that tune. Guide tones are fundamental chord tones. In folk music, that usually means the root, third, or fifth; in jazz and other styles, the seventh is considered a guide tone as well. These tones are typically placed on the strong beats of each measure. The guide tones in Ex. 2a are taken directly from Ex. 1’s melody. The first and third notes of each measure there have been converted to half notes here.
Your assignment this week is to create your own reel-style melody based on these guide tones. You don’t need to add many more notes to bring the melody to life. Compare Ex. 2a with Ex. 1 and you’ll see. You may find it helpful to closely (or exactly) copy the rhythms from Ex. 1 (use eighths in your melody where you see eighths in Ex. 1, and so on). As this piece is in the key of D major, use notes from the D major scale as scalar connectors between the guide tones. Example 2b is given as a model.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Once you familiarize yourself with a guide-tone melody like Example 2a, let it do the work for you. You need only add a few scalar passing tones to create your own tune.
Irish fiddle tunes aren’t the only part of violin repertoire that use melodic lines to convey shifting harmonies. In the early 1700s, J.S. Bach composed his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, which became a cornerstone of the classical repertoire. Though some movements of these pieces include three- and four-part chords, the bulk of the work is made up of single-note melodies.
Example 3 is an excerpt from the Presto movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. Although the implied chord progression here (shown above the staff) is more sophisticated than those in the previous examples, the guide-tone principle can be seen here as well—that is, you’ll find essential chord tones on the strong beats. (The strong and weak beats in 3/8 meter are less predictable than in 4/4 because 3/8 measures may be subdivided into two groups of three 16ths or three groups of two 16ths. In the case of the former, the first and fourth 16ths will be considered the strong beats; in the latter, the first, third, and fifth 16ths will be strong.)
One new musical element here is the use of sequencing—the repetition of melodic motifs across changing harmonies. Sequencing can be a very effective tool for extending melodic ideas through several measures of music. In this example, measures 3 and 4 are sequenced from the motif in measure 2, and the two-measure motif in bars 5 and 6 is sequenced through the four measures that follow. Another two-measure motif occurs in measures 10 and 11 and is sequenced through the end of this example.
Once you can play Ex. 3 as written, experiment! Trace the given chord progression with your own one- and two-measure 16th-note motifs.
Beginners’ Tip #3
With its perpetual motion and breakneck tempo, Example 3 may be intimidating. Cut it into shorter phrases—just three or four measures each—at first, then stitch the phrases together once you can play each with confidence.
This week you’ll learn how to make your harmonies more melodic by employing two-part counterpoint as an alternative to common chord shapes. To explain counterpoint, a few fundamental terms must be defined. When two notes move the same intervallic distance in the same direction (up or down), that’s called parallel motion. (See Example 4a.) Two notes moving different distances in the same direction is called similar motion (Example 4b). Contrary motion is when two notes move in opposite directions (Example 4c). When one note moves and the other stays, that’s oblique motion (Example 4d). Now look at Example 5. Can you find examples of all four types of contrapuntal motion?
Record yourself playing Ex. 5 along with a metronome or other steady timekeeper. Listen back—a few times, or more. See if you can begin to hear two individual melodic lines distinctly, as well as hearing them as a harmonic whole. Compose your own blues counterpoints—in G or other keys—making sure to include all four motion types. Once you’ve written a few of these, try improvising contrapuntally in real time. It’s definitely not easy, but trial-and-error is part of the learning process. Keep at it.
Beginners’ Tip #4
Practice playing just the upper notes of Week Four’s dyads at first. Next, just the lower. When you finally put them both together, you should still be able to hear each melody distinctly.
Take it to the Next Level
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Here’s an example based on the first seven measures of the jazz standard “All the Things You Are.” It incorporates the contrapuntal concept from Week 4 (measures 1–2), the sequencing concept from Week 3 (measures 3–4), and the guide-tone concept from Week 2 (measures 6–7).
Be sure to continue exploring the harmony/melody connection in a variety of keys (major and minor), tempos, and time signatures. And, as always, take what you learn into all areas of the fretboard—including the open strings, the uppermost fret positions, and natural harmonics. Leave no musical stone unturned.
Adam Levy is an itinerant guitarist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on recordings by Norah Jones, Lisa Loeb, Amos Lee, and Ani DiFranco, among others. He is also the founder of Guitar Tips Pro. guitartipspro.com