by Admiral (May 10, 2009)

Harmonies & Harmonizing

This lesson is on harmonies and harmonizing as well as the use of this technique.
To start off with, it is possible to” harmonize in a ton of ways” )) So I won’t be able to cover everything but I hope it will be a fair bit. It is a straight-forward and essential part of theory.
So first of all, what exactly is “harmonizing”? It is simply playing a different set of notes on top of one set of notes to create what is called harmony. So basically, harmonizing takes place nearly in every part of music. Say if you are strumming a few chords on your guitar and at the same time singing to it, then you are already harmonizing. The 2 set of notes meet each other and create a new sound. So in a nutshell, it is all about how the notes you are playing work together and what sound comes out in the end. Not only is this a very important topic for Songwriting, but furthermore for improvising it can be of extreme use. So therefore I will put in some thoughts of myself into this lesson which you will maybe pick up and hopefully continue.

So Let’s get down to the business:
Probably the most common way is having a melody going over a set of chords. Most of the songs you will be listening to are structured like this. It may be the vocalist singing, or the lead guitarist playing over some chords. So here you have a chord meeting with either other chords or just another melody. But obviously, no matter which note you will play over the set of chords it will have a different effect on the resulting sound.
To illustrate this I made up a little example which you should also try. I use the G-major scale in this example. Basically what you should do is to record a G major scale, strumming each chord from I to VII and letting each one ring for about 10 seconds before playing the next one:

Gmaj7 Am7 Bm7 Cmaj7 D7 Em7 F#m7b5
(For a start you can also use the Jam-tool on the site if you don’t have another option of recording, but otherwise try a different way)

Now we are going to play each note of the major scale in G and understand how it relates to its underlying harmony. So reset your recording and now every time the chord rings, you one note to it. To start off we take G. I will introduce you to what I think it sounds like so don’t just read what I wrote but try it out yourself! See what connection, tension or maybe even “harmony” you can hear! And remember, of course this all is also dependant on the situation, for example the key you are playing in.

G over Gmaj7 (root note)
The “Final note” and the melody wants to finish here. No resolution required

G over Am7 (b7)
Strong sound, feels slightly dominant. Maybe a resolution into the Tonic? (G)

G over Bm7 (#5)
An incorrect note to stress. Much tension. The G collides with the F#. A resolution into the F# or up to A could be of use.

G over Cmaj7 (5th)
Rare, open sound. Strong in its nature, needs no resolution. The characteristics of a 5th.

G over D7 (4th)
Presence of tension is definite. It feels like it needed to be resolved down into the F# or maybe into the A again. Not a note you could stay on for too long. G clashes with the F#.

G over Em7 (3rd)
A strong, interesting sound. Has some finality to it. A very dominant appearance. No resolution needed.

G over F#m7b5 (b9)
Wow, a sound full of tension, be careful with this one! I feel like resolving into the Ab. So thus it may be used as a passing tone, not ideal to stress for long.

Ok so basically we just analyzed how the note G fits to all the chords of the G major scale. So as you may see, in some places there was “harmony” in some other places there was tension. Every tone was unique tough. So now it is up to you, to do this with all the other notes of the G major scale with the same pattern. Always ask yourself:
-Is this a strong or a weak sound?
-What tension is there?
-Stress able or not?
-Is the note leading to another note? Resolution required?

It is a lot of work, but you will understand A LOT about how chords and melodies relate to each other (in a nutshell: What the harmony between them is) and your ear will also adjust and improve. Mine did very much so. So it is also a good practice for improving your listening skills. And for the improvisers amongst us this is helpful in this way that by knowing what notes sound weak or the ones which you shouldn’t stress you can improve your playing. You should never be more than a step away from a strong sound!

If we look at the results again we can see for example with the Bm7 chord, that the G collides with the F# which is part of the Bm7. These 2 tones are just a semitone away from each other and therefore, create a lot of tension. So by looking at the notes you can often hint at what sound turns out at the end.

Wow! So by now we have already covered a good deal of what harmonization is all about. The relationship between the notes hopefully got a bit clearer to you.

Part 2:

However, there is another chapter on it. It is also possible to harmonize single note instruments. So basically, if you have the bassist playing an A, the guitarist plays a C#, and the vocalist sings an E we get an Amajor chord! It’s as simple as that. So this is another way of how the notes can work together.
Another common way (and I believe this was the initial question) is that 2 guitarists play together to create a very abstract sound. This is also referred as “harmonizing”. A very common metal technique and there are countless examples: Metallica, A7X, BFMV, etc. For my part the harmonizing in 3rds has always paid off in these cases. So what’s important for this?
1: Get you guitars perfectly in tune (use a guitar tuner for that)
2: know what key/scale you are playing in. If you have a riff already made up, then analyze what scale it’s in and then, you harmonize it in 3rds which basically means that the required note is either 3 or 4 halftones above/below the note you are playing (the above/below depends on what pitch you want to get)
3. Gain always helps.

So this is just an example in A minor. I am moving up and down the scale and harmonizing in thirds. It is from Malmsteen’s “I can see the light tonight” (not the exact tab I think, but something like that)

Guitar 1:

Guitar 2:

This is in fact harmonizing in 3rds with two guitars. You can also harmonize with 5ths which will give you a different sound. I will hopefully soon get the time to write a follow-up lesson to this one where I would further discuss the harmonizing other than just thirds. But anyway, If you want to give it a go then just go ahead and try it yourself. As you hopefully saw, the principle of harmonizing in this conext is fairly easy. As long as it sounds good, there is nothing to complain about! You can also harmonize in thirds with one guitar, which basically means that you are just playing for example the E on the a string and at the same time the G# on the D string. ( A good example would be the Intro of Arizona by the Kings of Leon) Or you can also play up the Aminor scale for example by making steps of thirds. JazzMaverick has an excellent lesson (one of many as well all know) on Arpeggios, there you can find the tabs where the positions of different modes are harmonized in thirds. So as you see, there are really “tons of ways” of how to harmonize.

So hopefully all of this talk about harmonies and harmonizing notes hopefully got clearer to you, and maybe you even got some new ideas from the lesson.

Until next time