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Melody (part 2): melody with chords

Chord variations

There isn't any kind of law, though, about what chords are required with what tune. Consider the following fragment from Bobby McFerrin's famous, "Don't Worry, Be Happy":

"Don't Worry, Be Happy," major chords
Don't Worry, Be Happy (145major)
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I've harmonized it all in major chords, following the 1-4-5 rule. But let's try rethinking the chord structure. See what happens if we rearrange the same melody using the relative minor chords:

"Don't Worry, Be Happy," minor chords, same melody
same melody, minor chords
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What we get is a very different sound, without changing the melody at all.

11 It is observably true that minor key tunes tend to be sadder. What is not clear is whether it is fundamental to the mode. It is obviously psychological, but whether that is hard-wired (neurological) or just a product of Pavlovian co-location is presently anyone's guess. Similarly, why do we assume that the monster is right around the corner when we hear diminished chords? Either way, it is part of Western culture, so if you are a composer, you need to be aware.

There are a number of web sites in ether-space that illustrate how we can make a sad song happy or the reverse by changing the mode to minor.11 We get some of this by simply changing the chords as we just did. But it is possible to go another step by changing the key signature, moving it into its parallel minor (we have to minorize the chords too, but otherwise we will keep them the same as the major version:

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" in minor key (minor chords with minor melody)
Don't Worry, Be Happy in minor key
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We may have to change the title to "Just Worry, Be Miserable," though. We can, however, mangle it still further. Since we tried putting minor chords on top of the major-key melody, let's do the reverse and put major chords on this minor-key version (it doesn't resolve right, so I had to add a couple of chords at the end):

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" in minor key with major chords
Don't Worry, Be Happy minor key major chords
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12 There is a conservative current in country/western music that objects to minor chords. They are not offended by the fact that Mendelssohn and Brahms fond them useful, but they regard them as adulterations in the 'pure' country/western sound.

To my ears, this is not so happy sounding, but not so sad either. It feels more solemn; maybe you'll respond differently. There are no fixed rules in this stuff, but you can use these sorts of methods to add variety to your tunes and arrangements. By the way, McFerrin doesn't use any of these chord arrangements. His is like the major-key version, except that where I have G, he uses Dm. Usually, it is a good idea to mix your majors and minors, as he does, rather than being stuck with only three chords.12

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" as Bobby McFerrin did it (major key, mixed chords)
Don't Worry, Be Happy original chords
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Modal shift

13 By this I mean notes with the same letter names. In the example, D major (2 sharps) contains a c♯ and an f♯; in the parallel D minor the c♯ and the f♯ would be f♮, and the b would go to b♭. See below for an example using McFerrin's "Don't Worry; Be Happy."

14 Thomas Yorke, Edward O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, Jonathan Greenwood, Philip Selway, Albert Hammond & Mike Hazelwood.

A common technique in classical music is to restate the same theme in the parallel or relative major or minor. A parallel mode is a different mode that has the same root. A composer might write a melody in D major and then represent it (e.g. the same note classes13) in D minor. It is quite common to shift from the minor to the major this way, but the reverse is frequent enough as well. This allows her all the advantages of repetition, but keeps the second phrase noticeably different. You may see this in popular music sometimes, but the only example I could think of is in the second two phrases of Radiohead's "Creep", although in that case only the background chord changes a, g, and f are common to both keys (C & Cm).

Radiohead,14 "Creep" (excerpt)
Radiohead,  Creep (excerpt)
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The two phrases are essentially the same (except for the final note); only the background chord is different here. The parallel minor is possible only because the notes common to both do not include mode specific notes (only a, g, & f) which work in both C major and C melodic minor).

15 The G to Gm; the C to Cm changes the underlying chords, but the tune goes its own way (although within the Cm scale).

Mode change: Major to parallel minor
Mode change
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Here is an example (my own) of the tune mode-shifting along with the supporting chords.15 Also, note that I have actually changed the key signature each time. This is to make the mode change more obvious; usually such a short shift would simply be handled with in-line accidentals.

It is feasible, obviously, to do the same with other modes. Particularly as a brief excursion, this can be quite interesting.

If you are covering a song, and don't want to sound like you are trying to just ape the original artist, playing with the chords is a good way to accomplish this. Of course, if all you do is change a few chords, folks may think you simply couldn't figure out the "right" ones (or you found them on some internet site).

Who's got the tune?

Most songs put the melody in the dominant voice. In popular music, finding it is rarely a problem, being ultimately decided by the character who controls the volume on the final mix, but it can be tricky. If one voice is moving and the others are static, the moving one is probably the melody. If it is a duet in counterpoint, there is very likely supposed to be more than one tune. If a refrain is repeating, and someone starts singing (or playing) something on top of it, it is probable that that secondary tune is what you are supposed to focus on. An instrumental lead can be the 'melody' if it is melodic, but if the player is just showing off how fast it is possible to play, the effect is more like ambience.

Nevertheless, we tend to hear melody best when it falls within an analogous range. It was popular, particularly in the baroque period to take advantage of this psychological feature. In this (modern) baroque example, the melody is actually in the bass, since the high voices, while not static, are not really doing anything but establishing the chords:

Melody in bass
Melody in bass
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What this sounds like is something like this in the bass:

Melody in bass: bass line
Melody in bass: bass line
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And this in the treble:

Melody in bass: treble line
Melody in bass: treble line
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If we were going to pick a melody, though, it would be the bass. In fact, your ear gets a little confused about the A at the beginning of the fourth measure because, while it has come to expect a bass note, it is in the same range as the following treble notes.

Non-harmonic tones

We have mentioned these sorts of notes on several occasions. They can, of course, take any form a composer desires, but there are some types that occur frequently enough in tonal music that they have names. So at this stage we are going to talk about those categories and how they work.

Unless you are using this to help study for an academic class in music theory, however, I do not think there is any value in memorizing the names of these forms. It is worth going through this information and listening to the examples. Many of these are cool ideas that you can incorporate into your own writing but remembering the categories is probably a waste of time. The exception might be the section on suspensions, simply because it is worth understanding the difference between suspensions as a type of voice/chord movement and suspensions as a category of chord types.

Passing Tone

We have already talked about passing tones, so that is a good place to start. They are also probably the most common. These occur when the melody is moving step-wise in one direction and passes from one chord tone to another with a non-chord tone in the middle. Here are some examples:

Passing tones
Passing tones
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The passing tones are marked with the arrows. Note that it doesn't matter which way the melody is going, or what the musical context is outside of the three notes that make up the form. The passing tone is the middle of those three notes (double p.t. = middle two of four). The third example illustrates that this does not have to all happen within a single chord. The a is a chord tone in Am, and the c is a chord tone in F. The b is not part of either (although it is only essential that it not be part of the Am). The fourth example is called an accented passing tone because the p.t. is on the beat with the chord change.

Neighboring Tone

16 Also called just neighbor groups, and changing tones.
Neighboring tones
Neighboring tones
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A neighboring tone is also part of a three note step-wise sequence. The difference is simply that the two outer notes are the same (as each other) and the middle (non-harmonic) note is one step either up or down from them. Double neighbor groups16 combine the upper and lower neighbors, hitting the one and then the other (either order) before returning to the starting note. Here are some examples:

Note that, as in the second and last examples, it is possible (but never required) to change chords on the last note.

Anticipation

These, and most of the remaining non-harmonic tones, assume a chord change, either right after (unaccented) or right on (accented) the non-chord tone.

Anticipation
Anticipation
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Anticipation occurs when the melody (not necessarily the dominant 'tune') moves to a non-chord tone of the current chord which is a chord tone of the next chord, and then repeats or holds through the chord change. In doing so it anticipates the coming chord tone. Traditionally, the initial movement is step-wise, although in modern usage this rule is not treated as firm. It is always unaccented, which should be reasonably obvious if you think about it.

Suspension/Retardation

Suspension/Retardation
Suspension/Retardation
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Suspension and retardation are similar to anticipation, except in reverse. Where anticipation leads with a note from the next chord, both of these hang on to a note from the previous chord. They are both accented, and both traditionally resolve step-wise. The difference between suspension and retardation is that the former resolves downward, and the latter resolves upward. Here are some examples:

While most in this group resolve to the third of the target chord, they can, and do, resolve to any note in the target. In this example, the first suspends a second resolving to the tonic, and the second suspends a fourth resolving to the fifth. The third resolves from suspended fourth to third, but it has some other interesting features. The passing tones in the F♯7 should not be surprising, but then the resolve takes the form of a neighboring tone construction. This last feature is one of the most common ways of resolving a suspended fourth.

Note that when a note is suspended or retarded, the natural note in the chord is withheld until resolution. The following illustration should make this clear.

Right and wrong suspensions
Right and wrong suspensions
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The second one just doesn't sound quite right—not disastrous, just a little off. When these are properly constructed, the missing notes are as much part of the tension created as the non-harmonic tone.

While suspensions are a clear enough feature of voice/chord movement, the term in popular music usually refers to a chord with an altered third. If the 3 of the chord is replaced with a 4, the chord is called X, or often just X (because it is the older, and still most common form of suspension). If it is replaced with a 2, it is referred to as X. Voice movement is inconsequential, and the chords often enough do not resolve at all. This terminology is clearly derived from the voice movement category, but it is different enough to deserve mention. Variations in terminology on these chords were discussed in the section on Expanded Chords.

Appoggiatura & escape Tone

Appoggiatura and escape tone
Appoggiatura and escape tone
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Appoggiatura is the fancy Italian name (='support') for a jump (disjunct motion) to an accented non-harmonic tone which then resolves step-wise in the opposite direction. They can be either upward or downward, but the reverse in direction is an essential part of the form. The escape tone is the exact inverse. It is unaccented, begins with step-wise movement to a non-chord tone, and then jumps to resolution on the next chord. Like the appoggiatura, the two steps in this construction move in the opposite direction.

 

Rhythmic variation

The other major components of melody are rhythm and rest, both of which are about timing. Rest is simply the silence between notes. Frequently, they just divide phrases, but they can also be used as an integral component of a melody's rhythmic feel. Consider the following well-known melody. Give it a listen, and identify it.

Mystery tune
Mystery tune
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What? Don't remember it? See if this helps:

Patty and Mildred J. Hill, "Good Morning to All"
Good Morning to All
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17 Not the title you expected? Today is just full of surprises! "Happy Birthday" is the most recognizable song in the English speaking world, according to Guinness (1998). It has been translated into numerous languages, and is in fact, one of the best known tunes world-wide. The original version (with different lyrics) was written by Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. The well known lyrics are of unknown authorship, although they existed prior to 1912. An arrangement by Preston Ware Orem was copyrighted by the Summy Company in 1935, who claimed rights to the song in its entirety. That claim (since acquired by Warner/Chappell) was challenged in court in 2013. The "You live in a zoo" variation may actually have come from author Judy Blume (Are you there God? It's me, Margaret, 1970), although I don't know if she would prefer to take credit for it. It could also have been a third-grade folk invention that she picked up on.

All the notes are the same, but with the rhythmic values altered, this extremely familiar tune17 becomes virtually unrecognizable.

A composer might well use such techniques to create intentional variations, and this is a frequent technique in expressionistic performance. Consider Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday," sung for JFK. Of course, if you are looking for a complete transformation, compare the Flying Lizards version of "Money" to the Beatles'.

Rhythm is the root of Rock and Roll. But, while rhythmic variation is what makes Reggae interesting and was a mainstay among certain metal bands in the '80s (esp. Metallica and the like), it tends towards regularity and sameness in most pop. Creative use of rhythm is notably unusual in popular vocals, except in performance, as noted above. Lead parts will often break through this barrier, but rock's roots in dance music are particularly apparent in this area.

Outside of popular music, however, variations in rhythm have be a frequent component in 20th century (and later) academic composition, and in different ways, in Jazz. Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which we took note of on the page about notation set the stage for both tonal and rhythmic experimentation that dominated much of the century. However, no one in their right mind would lump this with 'popular music.' Folks can usually deal with the occasional ⁵ ("Take Five"; "Do What You Like"—both mentioned on the notation page), but that is about as far as it goes.

Coming to a webpage near you

In the next section we will be discussing chord movement. See you there.

© 2015 Alan Humm