How to Make Simple Chord Harmonies Sound More Interesting

     Simple doesn’t have to be boring! In fact, it can be fresh and uplifting. Even the most complex things usually sound better when presented in such a way that all seems logical and make complete sense – complex and yet, simple… The ones that can do this are the true masters.

     But also, it may not be so easy to make simple things sound fresh and this is why we will be looking at some ways of putting to good use those simple triads that you already know. Together with the melody, we will be creating richer sounding musical contexts. So, lets start!

     First off, here is the melody we will be working with:

     Next we will harmonize it with the following chord progression. A quick tip for harmonizing melodies, since we will be looking at this technique more thoroughly in other posts, is to choose a chord that shares more common notes with the melody. That said, here is how we could harmonize this melody:

Notice the color coded chord tones matching the notes from the melody

     In the example above, you probably heard the most obvious chord choices for the melody and probably these are not sounding so exciting, at this point.

Using Implied Harmony

     One way to make this melody sound a little bit more interesting is to actually think of it as the element that will imply the extended chord tones of the harmony we are using, while the chords maintain their simple triad construction. That way we will have a richer harmonic context that is implied by both chords and melody. We will be using the same procedure as before. However, we will be on the lookout for those extended chord tones:

As you can see, the melody has less matches with chord tones. Harmonically, this induces a different feel that might be what you are looking for. I also included the implied extensions that occur mostly on strong beats.

     Needless to say, you should always make sure that you have a proper voice-leading from chord to chord where the notes move as little as possible and, when moving, do it in step-wise motion.

Using modulations

     Making a chord progression with chords from other tonalities is a way to refresh your harmonic palette by introducing new chord choices that originate from other tonalities. The only thing to be aware of is that the chord you choose encompasses the melody that is being played over it. With that in mind, you can pretty much choose any chord you like. In this case, we will be using chords from the C major and D major tonality – see scales harmonization to know what chords you have available:

The chords in red are the ones I borrowed from D major tonality and help to provide a different feel for the melody. You can use the same approach while using modal mixture or modal interchange to borrow chords from different tonalities.

Using chord inversions

     As suggested, by paying attention to voice-leading, you can figure out what would be the best way to go from one chord to another, but this time concerning the bass note movement. We could only use the chord tones from each triad but in this case we will not be so strict:

By not being so strict about the chord inversions and focus more on the bass melodic motion, we get different harmonies as is the case with the last two bars where we have a F/G and a Em/A, which technically can also be written as a A sus2 7

     Of course, you can and you should consider this approach while using chords from different tonalities, as suggested in the previous example.

Using Pedal point

     Another way that we will be looking at is to make use of one or more sustained notes over a certain period of time while the chords change. As mentioned in that post, you can either use these sustained notes in the low, mid or high register. This is a technique that should not be overused since introduces a sense a stillness that might not be what you want. Here is the example with pedal point in high register and then on low register:

Again, because of the used pedal, while maintaining the first suggested harmony, we get some different harmonic colors. Notice in bar 5, where the low and high register pedals create a C add9 chord, and the next bar a C maj9, or even the final Em7, because of the sustained D as a high register pedal note.


     There are other techniques that you can use to make simple triads sound more interesting like different chord voicings, register, or other re-harmonization techniques – which I will address in future posts. But for now, play around with these suggestions and hopefully these will help you to find new avenues to express yourself!

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