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Putting Chords to an Existing Melody


What you should get from this section:

After completing this section, you should be able to take an existing melody and put chords, and a bass line to it to create a strong structure.

There are several things you can do to help you put a chord progression to an existing melody that will make your life a lot easier. Here are a few of them:

  • The first thing you should try to do is work out what key it’s in. This will make it a lot easier, as if you know what key you’re playing in, you can pick chords from that key (see section on theory). How do you do this?
  • Well, first of all, play the melody. Are there lots of sharps or flats in there? If so, look at the key signatures in the theory section and see what ones match the notes you’re playing. Do they match any particular key? If there are F#’s in the melody, but C naturals, then it might be in G. If there are lots of Bb’s and Eb’s but natural A’s it may be in Bb major.
  • If that hasn’t helped, then see what note the melody starts and finishes on. Quite often a melody will start and/or end on the note of the dominant chord in the key. So if it’s in A for example, it will quite often start on that note and/or end on that note.
  • It could be in the relative minor key. Every Major key has a relative minor key, which contains the same notes, and the same chords as the Major; it simply starts on a different note. For example, in the Key of C Major, the relative minor is Am. So if the piece looks like it’s in C, but starts and/or finishes on A, it’s probably in A minor. The way to find the relative minor key from each Major key is to simply count up 6 notes from the root. For example in C Major: C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6 (And this is the minor key). Note how it’s different from the A Major key.
  • Try putting a simple bass line to the melody. As bass lines are fairly easy to write, you should have no problem with this. Once you’ve got the bass line, take the root notes and use the chords that they correspond to. See if it fits.
  • Try putting a standard chord progression to the melody. For example, I, IV, I, V (In C this would be C, F, C, G). The reason this might work is that the way our Western musical ears are “tuned”, we automatically follow certain musical patterns without even thinking about it, subconsciously creating melodies that fit in with the “norm”.
  • Strip the melody down to its bare essentials. Take out all the notes that aren’t totally necessary to the overall feel of the melody, and see if that makes it easier once you’ve got down to the core of the melody.

Here is an Example of how I’d put chords to a melody. Let’s start with a melody that everybody knows. Amazing grace:


Well it’s in the Key of C Major for a start (it’s easy as I wrote it down in that key, but I DID work it out...honest)

So the notes in the 2nd bar are C and E. So it’s in C Major, the first accented note is a C, and the notes in the bar are a C, and an E which are the root and third of the C Major chord. Do you think a C chord might work here? Let’s try it…Ok, that works!

Next bar. The notes are an E and a D. The E lasts for the majority of the bar however, so let’s concentrate on that note. We’ll try an Em as it’s the obvious choice, but if you play it, it doesn’t sound very good so let’s discard that chord. Am also has an E in it, so let’s try that chord. Ahhhhh much nicer, so we’ll stick with that!

The next bar contains a C and an A so Am could work again here, but I have a hunch that we should go back to C. Ok that works well.

Where did my hunch come from? I thought it was an appropriate place to change the chord, and we’d just been on Am so I assumed that C would work, and as the main note in the bar is a C it stood to reason that it would fit.

Next bar only contains the note G. As the chord G is in our key, and it seems obvious, let’s try it. . . Bingo! It works.

The next bar is the same as the 2 nd bar so I think it’s safe to try a C there.. Yep, it fits.

Next bar again, same as the third so we’ll stick an Am in there and it works a treat.

The next TWO bars seem to stay on G, so let’s try a G chord holding it for two bars. Do you think that worked? Yes it did, so it seems we have a chord progression here that’s working. If we play the second half of the song using exactly the same chords, it works fine.

The only difference is the last two bars where we need to finish up with two bars of C Major, instead of two bars of G Major.

So this is what it looks like with the chords added:

So what guidelines did this melody follow??

  • We ascertained the key as C Major.
  • All the notes were in the key, which made it easy. No accidental sharps or flats.
  • The first AND last chords were C Major, so it followed that basic rule.
  • All the chords were within the key.
  • By taking the main notes of the melody, we were able to attribute chords to them pretty easily.

So what did you learn in this section?

  • How to take a basic melody and break it down bar by bar to find out what chords would fit.
  • Different methods of working out the chords within a melody.
  • How to ascertain the key a melody is being played in.
  • How to work out the relative minor keys of the Major key.


  • Take a couple of melodies, either well known ones, or ones of your own creation, and using the techniques above, work out what chords would fit with the melody. Then using your composing skills, add nuances to it to make it a little more interesting.


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