How to Write Harmonies. Part 1

A guitar harmony is a great way to make a simple melody sound totally awesome. Once you understand how to do them, they are quite easy to do and you'll be able to incorporate them into your songwriting very easily.

How to Write Harmonies. Part 1
38
Benefits from studying this article:

1. Understanding basic theory behind writing harmony parts.
2. How to write harmonies.
3. Shortcuts you can use to write harmonies quickly, so you can write them on the spot.

A guitar harmony is a great way to make a simple melody sound totally awesome. Once you understand how to do them, they are quite easy to do and you'll be able to incorporate them into your songwriting very easily. You'll even be able to write a harmony on the spot - so next time you're jamming or at a band rehearsal, you'll look like a boss.

This is the first in a two part series, in the next part, we'll look at ways to get more out of your harmony by changing the chords you are playing over, but let's get back on track.

What is a harmony?

Harmony is simply, the vertical element of music - the notes that are sounding out at a point in time. When we write a harmony, we are stacking two melodies on top of each other - Iron Maiden are very famous for doing this.

So we need a starting point - what intervals are good to use for a harmony?

A good starting point is intervals we know work - major and minor chords. Major and minor chords are both built around the 3rd and 5th in the major scale (or minor scale).

Example 1: Thirds

So let's say we are in the key of G major:

G A B C D E F#

And we have a melody that goes:

G G A B A

And in tab, we'll play it like this:
e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
To write our harmony, we are going to play the note that is a third up over the top of the original melody:

Original note   Third up
G              B
A              C
B             D
So now we have:

Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony part: B B C D C

And to tab out both guitar parts:

Guitar 1
e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Guitar 2
e|--7-7-8-10-8-------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Simple! You can apply this technique to any melody you want to write a harmony for.

Example 2: Fifths

If we take the same key and melody as the previous example:

G A B C D E F#

With the melody:

G G A B A

And in tab, we'll play it like this:
e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
This time, rather than taking the third, we are going to take the fifth:

Original Note    Fifth Up
G              D
A              E
B             F#
So we have:
Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony: D D E F# E

Guitar 1
e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Guitar 2
e|--10-10-12-14-12---------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
So now you know two ways to write harmonies!

How can you creatively use these techniques?

Now you know two different ways to write harmonies. If you recall the beginning of this article, you'll remember that we started off by taking our ideas from the intervals contained in common major and minor chords. So, the two ideas we worked out will work simultaneously, as a three guitar harmony:

Guitar 1
e|--3-3-5-7-5--------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Guitar 2
e|--7-7-8-10-8-------------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Guitar 3
e|--10-10-12-14-12---------
B|-------------------------
G|-------------------------
D|-------------------------
A|-------------------------
E|-------------------------
Original melody: G G A B A

Harmony part 1: B B C D C

Harmony part 2: D D E F# E

This also shows nicely that our harmonies are built around the chords G major, A minor and B minor, all chords in the key of G major.

You could start with the original melody for a few repeats, then introduce harmony 1, then introduce harmony 2. Or have them all simultaneously… there are several ways you could arrange this! If you only have two guitar players, you could move through the harmonies like this:
Guitar 1  Original Melody  Original Melody
Guitar 2  Harmony 1        Harmony 2
Or:
Guitar 1  Original Melody  Original melody  Harmony 1
Guitar 2  Harmony 1        Harmony 2        Harmony 2
You can also see that our harmonies are built around the chords G major, A minor and B minor.

What are the shortcuts for writing harmonies?

So now you know how to write a bada-s harmony ... you want to be able to do it quickly. Doing this is going to require knowing your modes, but demonstrates another massive benefit to knowing them well.

If we look at our previous melody in the context of the modes of G major, we can see it fits in the Locrian mode:


So to write our harmony in thirds, we are going to find the same pattern, but a third up, which in this case will be our Dorian mode (the mode that is a third higher):

Locrian
Ionian
Dorian


and to write our harmony, we just play through the notes in blue in the same pattern that we used in the Locrian mode.

If you want to work out a harmony in fifths, we are going to use the Lydian mode to find our harmony (the mode that is a fifth higher than the mode we are starting from):

Locrian
Ionian
Dorian
Phrygian
Lydian


So there you have it, if you know your modes well, you can write these harmonies on the spot - a very cool skill! If your melody is across more than one shape, then move up to the appropriate shapes.

If you have any questions leave them in the comments below.

About the Author:
By Sam Russell. Sam is a professional musician in West London. You can get his free book, "The Ultimate Guide to the Modes of the Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor Scales" which is available at: www.samrussell.co.uk/ebook.

19 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    bdof
    This would've been great about 2 years ago when I was finally taught how 3rds work.
    Funnyname99
    Clear and concise and helpful. Though it's odd that harmonies are often expressed as two guitars, rather than a guitar and bass, where they are always always needed. Additionally it would be fun to read about harmonising your drums with your guitars...
    Sam-Russell
    Thanks! Yes, I was mainly aiming this at recreating that twin-lead sound you would get with Iron Maiden or Wishbone Ash, etc. Covering those other topics will require separate articles
    Baia
    most of the time the bass is simply playing the rythm
    Ardolino_Cool
    I stopped when Iron Maiden were used as an example of a band that use harmonies famously. Name me one band that doesn't use harmony, unless the music is monophonic...its hard to find anything without ...might as well have said, MCR are a famous example, or the Beatles are a famous example.
    Elintasokas
    If you want to go deeper than parallel third/sixths, then counterpoint is the way to go. It introduces oblique and contrary motion, in addition to parallel. What we have here is just parallel interval doubling, which is a great starting point, though.
    Sam-Russell
    I totally agree - I worked through most of JJ Fux's book on counterpoint a few years ago. But that does require reading music to be able to write it quickly, which isn't a common skill amongst guitar players
    Elintasokas
    Yeah, indeed. It opens a whole new world for music writing, though. You learn to control the individual voices in the chords. Fux is good, but it doesn't teach you tonal counterpoint, which would be more useful It's not actually much different, except you aim at chord (1, 3, 5, 7) tones instead of just simply consonances.
    unleashedgame
    How do I know which other intervals would fit? I have that topic in school right now and I think every interval would work? Maybe not the 7th and one of the 2nd, because they just sound terrible. And do I just look on with which intervals the chord is made up and basically can use them?
    Sam-Russell
    Have an experiment and play them! You'll find 4ths can sound cool. 2nds and 7ths will sound horrid. 6ths sometimes work too. Yes - a quick way is looking at the intervals in chords and using those - you'll recreate the sound of the chord.
    Elintasokas
    3rd and 6ths ALWAYS work. They are the safe bets. You can double any line with diatonic (aka. following the scale) 3rd and 6ths and it's bound to work. Those are the "sweet" intervals. They are actually the same interval inverted.
    segovia11
    It depends on how you use seconds and sevenths. For instance, if you look at a Mozart score, you'll notice that he very rarely uses parallel harmonies (i.e. parallel 3rds and fifths, which this article is suggesting): he mixes it up and uses inversions of chords to make for more interesting harmonies (so, to make a very quick example, over a I-IV-V7 chord progression, Mozart might have the guitars play a major third, C & E for example in the key of C over the C, or I chord, change to C and F to accommodate the F chord, or IV chord, in the chord progression, and then change to G and F for the G7 chord in the progression, before going to G and E for the eventual C, or I, chord). Mozart is not the only composer to do that either: virtually every composer from 1650-1850 does that (so Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi etc.) and the result is a very smooth sound. So if you wanted to make harmonies like what I'm suggesting, really look at the chords underneath the harmony and don't feel limited to just consonant (3rds and 6ths) or perfect (4th and 5th) intervals: use all of the above and seconds/sevenths to make a smooth harmony that navigates both tension and release.
    MrLund96
    Stay away from the tritone, a large fourth or a small fifth. For instance a and eb or g and c#
    Wykis
    learning chord scales or just learning to play scales in double stops - and youll never have any problems finding harmonies but its good to keep in mind that in some cases you just have to go for your ears