Sight Harmonization  

copyright © 2002 by Larry Solomon  

Sight Harmonization definition: extemporaneously setting chords while sight-reading a melody.

A prerequisite to sight harmonization is sight-reading and a knowledge of the fundamentals of musical structure. See sight-reading essay. Melodies are made of: 1. scales, and 2. chords. So, a secure knowledge of chords, keys, and scales is also necessary before attempting sight harmonization.

1. Diatonic Melodies

Diatonic melodies are those whose notes are all within a single scale. Some melodies clearly outline chords, and are, therefore, easy to sight-analyze for their underlying structure. The following example is an transcribed excerpt from the "Ride of the Walküres" from Richard Wagner's opera Die Walküre.

Before harmonizing a melody one must know the tonic and key. Determining these often involves a little detective work. Tonic is almost always the last bass note or chord, but if these are not available, the last soprano note is normally tonic, or secondarily, a note of the tonic chord. The key signature is the next best clue, because it usually indicates the major or minor key of the music. (Determination of key, key signatures, chords, intervals, etc. is a topic of Music Fundamentals or basic Music Theory and will not be covered here in detail.) Notice that the excerpt from Die Walküre ends on A, and A is tonic. That combined with the key signature of no sharps or flats informs us that the key is A minor. (The last chord here is A major, but that is due to the use of the Picardy third.) Other clues for key are cadences and the initial chords, due to the ordinary establishment of key at the outset. One should not rely on just one of these clues but look for corroboration in several.

Melodies are made of two ingredients: chords and scale segments. Chordal melodies involve leaps, while scale meolodies move by step. (A leap is any interval larger than a major second). There is no step motion, therefore no scale passages, in this melody. It is entirely made of leaps, i.e., arpeggiated chords, making it easy to analyze and sight harmonize. Notice the four-measure phrases. Measures 1-2 outline the A minor tonic. Measures 3 changes to a C major arpeggio followed by its dominant to form a cadence on the relative major in measure 4. Notice that measures 3-6 could all remain with a C major chord, but an authentic cadence at m4 is stronger. Measure 7 outlines E minor (minor dominant), and m8 (measure 8) cadences on E major, the major dominant (half cadence). Measure 9 is D minor, the subdominant. The second beat of 10 changes to A minor, tonic (due to the A to E arpeggiation at the end). M11 goes back to D minor for the first beat. The Bb on the second beat indicates the Neapolitan chord, Bb major, but the last beat changes to E, the dominant, which helps to form the cadence on tonic in m12. Notice that measure 11 contains three different chords, more than any other. The next 2 measures alternate D minor and A minor again, and m15 ends with an outline of the dominant, again forming the cadence on A in m16 with a picardy third. Regular four-measure phrases may seem surprising for Wagner, but the Ride follows the form of a dance.

Most melodies are not so clear as this in outlining the harmony. Notice that one could harmonize this with just a knowledge of chords, even without knowing the key! The harmonic rhythm changes frequently, increasing speed at cadences, which is common. All that remains is to create an appropriate rhythmic figuration for the chords. Here, a fast galloping rhythm would be effective.

The following is the Irish folk song, "Believe me, if all those endearing young charms".

This tune is all diatonic in the key of C major. (All the notes conform to the key of C, i.e., all are natural.) Other important considerations include meter, which is compound duple here (2 beats, 6 pulses), phrasing, which is shown in normal 4-bar phrases, and cadences. A cadence occurs at the end of each phrase (m4, m8, m12, m16), and every cadence is on a note of the tonic chord, implying a tonic harmony. Harmonic rhythm (rate of chord change) is also important. This may be determined by the location of changes in the chord outlined in the melody. Leaps in melodies outline chords. (Leaps are intervals larger than a second.) So, leaps are important clues for chords. The notes outlining leaps are often members of the same chord. Melodies that are strictly diatonic, like this one, may be harmonized with just three chords: tonic, dominant, and subdominant, the three primary chords in a key, because these three chords, aside from being the most important ones, contain all the notes of the scale. This is a good place to start with sight harmonization.

Form is a very important consideration. Compare the four phrases. Phrase 2 is identical to phrase 4. Phrase 1 is a question compared to phrase 2. The two form an antecedent and consequent, a period consisting of parallel phrases. In fact, phrase 2 is very similar to phrase 1. Only their endings differ. Phrase 3 is a new question, answered by phrase 4, another 8-bar period with contrasting phrases. The form is a typical rounded binary. By observing the form, we can see its structure contains a lot of repetition, which helps reading and sight harmonization.

The leaps in m1 outline a C major chord, and both beats are on C. This confirms the tonic chord in m1. However, m2 outlines an F major chord, affirming the subdominant and indicating a probable harmonic rhythm of one chord per measure. Measure 3 contains no leaps, so the determination of harmony may seem more complex. But, in compound duple, notes falling on the beats are more important than those that are off the beats. G and D occur on the beats, and the only primary chord with both of these notes is the dominant, G. The other notes fill in the leap from G to D, and are called nonharmonic tones*. So, m3 can be harmonized with a G major chord. Measure 4 marks the end of phrase 1 with a cadence on E, part of the tonic chord, C. Phrase 1 ends with an authentic cadence. Scanning the whole tune, one can see that every phrase ends this way (note the Ds at the end of measures 3, 7, 11, and 15, which indicate dominant.)

Phrase 2 can be harmonized nearly the same as phrase 1, the exception being m7. This measure outlines a C major chord for beat 1, but beat 2 is on D, implying a chord change to the dominant. So, this measure has 2 chords, I and V. The same is true for m15. Phrase 3 outlines tonic in m9, F in m10, and V in m11. This completes the harmonic outline.

2. Chromatic and Modulating Melodies

Some melodies contain notes that are outside of the home key or scale. These chromatic notes appear with accidentals that indicate one of two alternatives: 1. the melody changes key (modulates) or, 2. the melodic line is "embellished" chromatically. Normally, these alternatives can be quickly sorted out through the consideration of the context and a little knowledge of key relationships. Modulation is quite common in music, but key changes are usually to those of closely related keys; i.e., keys that are one sharp or flat different in key signature from the base key, plus the parallel key. For instance, if the base key is G major, closely related major keys are D major and C major; minor keys that are closely related include e, b, a, and g.

The following is an example of a modulating melody from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Measures 5 and 7 contain C#s, which are outside the base key of G major. Raised notes, such as these, often suggest modulation to sharper keys. They are normally the pointers (leading tones) to the new tonic and lie a semitone below the new tonic. In this case the C# makes sense in D major, a key with one additional sharp; the C# is the leading tone to D. Notice the cadence on D in measure 8 confirms the modulation. Additionally, these raised notes are part of the dominant or leading-tone chord.

A possible harmonization would be as follows:

Notice that only primary chords I, IV, and V7 are used in each key. That is all that is required, although chord substitutions could be used for some of the chords. The A7 chord is the dominant of D major.

Lowered chromatic notes, those with flat or natural accidentals, often suggest a modulation to a flatter key. E.g., a Bb in the key of C suggests a modulation to F major, and a C-natural in the key of D major suggests a modulation to G major, etc. These lowered notes are also usually the seventh of a seventh chord in the new key, most often the dominant seventh or leading-tone seventh.

Both raised and lowered chromatic notes may also have secondary dominant functions if they are not real modulations. These may be called virtual or transient modulations. The same suggestions apply as with real modulations.

Another melody that contains chromatic notes is "Non m'abbandonar" from Verdi's La forza destino.

This tune is in B major, but it has several chromatic notes and nonharmonic tones. The first one is the G natural at the end of measure 2. It is simply a chromatic passing-tone, rather than indicating a change of harmony. This tune contains a pattern of appoggiaturas, For example, the first measure can be harmonized with an F#7 chord, the D being an appoggiatura. The second measure is a transposition of the first, so the G# is likely to be an appoggiatura as well. This measure can be harmonized with a tonic B major chord, with the G natural being a chromatic passing tone leading to the F# in measure 3. Measure 3 is harmonized with an F#7 chord, the dominant. It also has a chromatic passing tone, E#, which moves stepwise from F# to E. The same pattern occurs in measure 7. But, what about the G natural in measure 8? It does not appear to be a standard type of nonharmonic tone, since it leaps from B and begin the phrase. The cadence in measure 8 clearly indicates a stop on tonic, B major, which does not contain a G. This G natural is a lowered chromatic note, i.e., lowered from G# that is in the key. Lowered notes, like this one, are usually the seventh of a seventh chord. The only seventh chord containing a G natural in this key is the diminished seventh, A#o7, the subtonic seventh. (The fully diminished seventh is considered normal in a major key because it is so common.) It occurs again in measure 10. Therefore, a possible harmonization of this tune is as follows (phrase marks are omitted for clarity):

A more challenging chromatic melody is the "Evening Star" melody from Wagner's opera, Tannhauser. This melody is shown here in G major, and contains several chromatic notes. A knowledge of chromatic harmony is necessary to follow the analysis. The chords suggested here are not the only choices, but are those used by Wagner.

This aria is shown in G major. The instrumental introduction of four measures is omitted. The melody begins in measure 5. The C# at the end of 5 is a chromatic passing tone. The Bb in measure 7 is harmonic and uses a borrowed chord from the parallel minor, namely a Bb major chord, the mediant in g minor. The analysis below shows the chord names and functions, the latter are below the staff. There is a deceptive cadence at the end of measure 8 on Eb, again borrowed from the parallel key. The Bb chord occurs again in 15. Measures 9, 17, and 18 use a secondary leading-tone seventh chords. The D at the end of 22 uses the secondary dominant V7/ii, as does the end of 23. Measure 24 has an F major chord which is borrowed from the minor, as bVII. Other secondary dominants and leading tone chords occur later.

Notice the use of the Neapolitan chord in measure 31, spelled enharmonically as G#. That is its function in the new key of c# minor, the dominant. The modulation is brief, with a return to G major in 34. Most of the chromatic notes in this melody serve a harmonic function as well as a melodic one.

* Nonharmonic tones.  These are notes that are not in the chord used to harmonize some part of the melody. They include various types, including passing tones, neighbors, suspensions, appoggiaturas, anticipations, escape tones, cambiatas, pedal tones, and retardations. A detailed explanation of these can be found in standard counterpoint and theory textbooks.

Begin each definition with "a nonharmonic tone that":


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