March 2017

Techniques: What’s in a Chord?

Understanding how to use chord tones to write melodies.

National Standards: 1-7, 9, 11

Prepare: Have the class read Techniques: What’s in a Chord? (page 28 of the student edition). The article provides a few exercises that strengthen students’ understanding of the relationship between chords and melodies.

Listen to a playlist of audio samples illustrating the examples from the article:

NotionappClick here to download the files for audio playback in the Notion app.
Key points in the article:

  • Thinking about chord tones, or the notes that make up a chord, can help you when improvising a melody.
  • You can emphasize chord tones in a melody without having to play only those notes. Try mixing in non-chord tones, but saving chord tones for the downbeats.
  • Try out this technique with major, minor, diminished, and even seventh chords.
  • Take a look at some famous classical melodies to see how they implement chord tones, then try writing some melodies of your own.

Begin: Try some of the techniques with the class, noting the tips described in each example. Lessons might include:

  • Having students split into groups to sight-read the examples
  • Having someone play the melodies in the examples while accompanying them with chords played on piano or guitar
  • Having students try writing their own melodies to a basic chord progression like I-IV-V or I-vi-IV-V

Develop: Play the following video of Kamasi Washington’s “Cherokee”:

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Help students figure out the chords behind the melody. Then have students independently work on transcribing the melody, with the challenge of transcribing the harmony as a bonus. Have them then break down the chords and identify the chord tones in the melody.