Melodies as our Guide

by adminKFS on · 8 comments

I’m always fascinated at the harmony of fiddle tunes. No matter how long I’ve been playing a tune, I still can discover something new about its harmony. As an accompanist, I’m very concerned with following the melody as closely as I can. Tune melodies are based on arpeggios with some passing tones in between. Sometimes parts of the melodies can be ambiguous in terms of the chords implied, but for the most part, the melody is blatantly telling us what chord to use. For this reason, it is very important for accompanists to know the melodies of the tunes as well as what notes are contained in chords.

What I commonly listen for is a choice between the ii and the IV chord in a major key. In the key of A major, the ii chord is B minor (B D F#). The IV chord is D major (D F# A). The ii and the IV chords are easily interchangeable since they share two of the same notes, D and F#. So in many melodic contexts, both chords can work, but sometimes there is a better choice.

Let’s look at the choice between these two chords in first bar of the common jig, Irishman’s Heart to the ladies:

In the second half of the bar we have the notes B A and F#. The D major chord can work in this context- it contains two of the notes in this phrase, A and F#. However, B minor can be heard as more closely following the melody: It contains the root of the chord (B) and the A can be interpreted as an extension of the chord- the minor 7th (a B minor 7th chord contains the notes of B D F# and A). But again, both chords can work and sometimes this boils down to individual preference.

Sometimes instead of following the melody in this way, our ears pull us towards typical harmonic progressions. For example in the climatic parts of a tune, or points of cadence, like middle of a part or just before the end of a part , our ears expect to hear that strong resolution from V chord to the I chord. Sometimes, though the melody can actually spell out a IV chord. For example, in the Irish jig Willie Coleman, we have the following melody in the first part of the B section:

How do we interpret that E at the end of the 4th bar? We usually expect to hear a V chord at the cadence point. Sometimes I hear accompanists play a D chord, sometimes I hear accompanists play an A minor chord to a D chord. This is a typical chord progression known as a ii V. It’s easy to follow that progression since it is so common and so strong. However, if you look at the notes just before the E, you’ll see that they spell a G major chord-G B and D, not A minor. And in terms of the E itself, in my opinion, it suits a C major chord more rather than a D major chord. The note E is not found in the D major chord but it is a chord tone of C major.

So the next time you are wondering what the chords of a tune are, always look at the melody. It never lies!


September 22, 2011 at 7:07 pm, Zachary said...

Very helpful! thanks for posting!

September 22, 2011 at 8:16 pm, Dan Mcmahon said...

Awesome post! Theory posts like this are very helpful.

September 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm, Thos Cochrane said...

Do you have a tip for learning the chords well enough to do something like what you describe here? I could work out the notes & match them with some chords, but it would take me forever and I’d have to get out something to write with!

    September 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

    That’s a great question and I will definitely address it in another post!

    September 27, 2011 at 8:50 am, Randy Latimer said...

    One tip for which chords to use involves knowing the “I, IV, and V” chords in the key of the tune. For example, if the melody is in a major key – G major: I=G, IV=C, V=D. In D major: I=D, IV=G, V=A. In A major: I=A, IV=D, V=E.
    Usually the tune starts on the I chord and has a ‘cadence’ of V to I at the end of the phrase. (all tunes won’t follow the exact same chord pattern – that’s part of the art of harmonizing with chords)
    The I chord is the called the tonic, IV is the subdominant, and V is the dominant. A cadence usually involves the dominant to the tonic (V – I). Another common cadence pattern is I IV V I.
    In the first part of ‘Put Me in the Big Chest’ as an example, there are 4 measures in the overall phrasing. Kimberley points out how there are smaller phrases within the overall phrases. The overall phrase for the first part of this tune (the first 4 measures) can be harmonized using these I, IV, and V chords: | I I | I IV | I IV | V I |,
    or | A A | A D | A D | E A | because the tune is in A major. Note the first half of the phrase, in measure 2, goes to the sub-dominant IV, and the second half of the phrase in meas. 3-4 you see the I IV V I cadence.
    As much as possible, I think it’d be good to talk about the harmony (chords) for each tune – if there’s an interest.

September 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm, Randy Latimer said...

Thanks for posting about chords. It’s a great topic.
For “Put Me In the Big Chest” (beginner reel 1) –
I think the basic chord pattern you’re playing is
||: A A | A D | A D | E A :|| (| I I | I IV | I IV | V I | )
||: A A | A E | A D | E A :|| (| I I | I V | I IV | V I | )
||: A A | A D | A D | E A :|| (| I I | I IV | I IV | V I | )
||: A A | A E | A D | E A :|| (| I I | I V | I IV | V I | )

I think you play some inversions in there too. I like the I IV V I cadence for the end of each phrase, and the I of that cadence appears on the 2nd beat of the measure (using 2 beats per measure).
Also I like the variation of the I to IV on phrases 1 and 3, and I to V on phrases 2 and 4.
Hope this makes some sense, the chord accompaniments can be a big part of the music, coloring can change alot based on chords.

    September 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm, Randy Latimer said...

    (in my comment above, looks like my colon-vertical lines for the repeat sign came out as a face of some kind)

      September 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

      Thanks for the analysis Randy. You have the chords right. I do play inversions but that is all improvised.

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