Introduction: How to Add Chords to a Melody on the Piano

Adding chords to a melody on the piano just changes everything!

It's like going from being the only person in a room to having a whole team with you that supports you and gives you lots of new tools to work with. Or it's like making a drawing in black ink, and then filling in everything with beautiful and different colors.

Harmony - Chords...are the colors in music.

Chords always contain more than one note. Melody is usually just one note that follows a particular lyrical line in the music.

For this lesson, we're going to be using chords that have 3 notes in them. They are really easy to learn and once you know your chords for a given key signature, you're ready to add them into a melody line that you already know in your right hand.

This lesson will go over 3 different steps to finding the right chords for the melody that you're playing and we'll apply those new ideas to 3 different piano pieces so you can see exactly how this works, and you'll be able to practice with me using the video tutorial in the last step.

Let's get started by looking at the 1st thing you need to do to apply chords to your playing.

Step 1: Figure Out the Key Signature

This 1st step is easy, especially if you are familiar with several different key signatures already.

When you look at a melody that you want to add chords in to, look first at what the key signature is for the piece.

You have to know the key signature in order to play the correct notes in each chord, as they will be made up of the specific notes for this specific key signature.

If your piece is in the key of C, then you know that every chord you play will have all natural notes.

If your piece is in the key of G, then you know that every chord you play with an F in it will be a F# as F# is in the key signature of G.

Make sense?

OK...now, practice through the scale of your piece a few times to reinforce your knowledge of that particular key.

Do this with each new key you are playing whenever you want to add in your own chords to a melody.

(In the video, the first 2 pieces that we will go over are in the Key of C, so take a minute to go through the C scale before watching the video just to prepare yourself better)

Now that we know the key signature, let's move on to Step 2...identifying the chords in the key signature that we're playing in.

Step 2: Figure Out the Chords - Specifically the Primary Chords

Now we're about to dive deeper into the area of music theory as we learn how to put notes together to make chords that create harmony.

Remember that each major scale has 8 notes in it. 7 are unique but the bottom and top note are the same note, just an octave apart.

You can build a chord on every single note (all 8) in each scale!

It's really incredible just how much music can come out of just 8 notes!

If you're playing in the key of C...build chords on each note of the scale by simply playing 1, 3 &5 fingers, on notes C, E, & G. Now repeat this starting on the next consecutive note going all the way up through the entire scale.

For the C scale, your chords would be:

  1. C-E-G
  2. D-F-A
  3. E-G-B
  4. F-A-C
  5. G-B-D
  6. A-C-E
  7. B-D-F
  8. C-E-G

Notice how the 1st and last chords are actually the same notes, but again, they are an octave apart.

Also notice the numbers next to each chord. See how the number corresponds to where the first note falls in the scale itself? It's in numerical order, and we actually call these chords by these numbers.

When you add chords to a melody line, you will be able to choose from any of these 8 chords to match with the notes in the melody.

Most often, however, we use specific ones, that are called Primary Chords.

The Primary Chords - there are 3 of them for each Key Signature are:

Chord 1, Chord 4, & Chord 5

This means that in the above example if you take the numbers next to those chords for what your primary chords are in the key of C, they would be:

1) A-C-E

4) F-A-C

5) G-B-D

This is true for any key signature you're playing in.

Why don't you take a few minutes now to play these primary chords on your piano, and then take another simple key signature, like G major, and figure out the primary chords in that key as well...Need a hint?

G Major...the Primary Chords are:

1) G-B-D

4) C-E-G

5) D-F#-A

Why do we have a F# in the 3rd Primary Chord? Because the Key of G major has F# in it. Remember that your chords always have to have the same sharps, flats, and naturals that are in the key signature.

Why all this emphasis on Primary Chords?

They will be the ones that you use the most when you start adding chords to your melody lines. So remember this, and focus on these 3 chords in each of your key signatures so you can start bringing them into your playing more.

We know so far that we need to identify the key signatures of our pieces first, and then we need to identify the chords on each numbered note in the scale, and finally, we learn to really focus on the Primary Scales as they are the easiest to match to a melody line and most often used in all kinds of playing styles.

Now, let's look at several examples of how we actually do this with different pieces.

Step 3: First Example - Jingle Bells

This piece is in the key of C Major...a great one to start with.

Look at the first note of the piece...it's E, right?

How do you choose out of all those 8 chords in the key of C major, the right one to go with that first E?

First, always try your 1 chord...that's a great place to start and it will usually fit just right with the first note. In this case, play the Chord with the notes C, E, & G.

Play the chord with your left hand while you play the melody in your right hand. Just play the 1st measure.

Now here's an important thing to remember!

When you want to pair a chord with a specific note, always play a chord that has that same note in your melody line as well.

So if your note is E, you would want to play a chord that has an E in it. In this case, the first note is, in fact, E, and look...the 1st chord which also happens to be a Primary Chord, as E in it as well. You can't go wrong with picking that chord to go with the E note.

Don't try to add in a bunch of different chords in each measure, to begin with...that's too complicated. Just start by using one chord for each measure...and it can be the same chord for each measure in the beginning; just make sure you start adding in different ones as you get more comfortable with doing this.

If any of this is confusing, be encouraged! I go over all of these examples in this lesson in the video at the end and I take you through the whole piece with chords, not just the 1st measure like we went over here.

Let's look at our next example. It's in the same key, but it has different notes so we'll use different chords.

Step 4: 2nd Example - Deck the Halls

This great piece is in the key of C major just like our last one was.

Notice how the 1st note in Deck the Halls is a G.

Remember what we have to do to add in the right chords for this melody?

  • Figure out the Key Signature - C Major
  • Figure out the chords in the Key of C Major - see Step 2
  • Identify the Primary Chords in this Key - see Step 2
  • Choose a Chord that contains the same note that is in your melody line to play for that measure.

What chord would you choose to play with the G that is the 1st note of this piece?

hint - The Primary Chords in C are C, F, & G

Do any of these primary chords have a G in it? Yes, in fact, 2 of them do! C does, as well as G. So which one do you choose?

Remember when we said in the last step that you'll usually pick the 1 chord to start the piece out? This is exactly what you do here...even though you have 2 options, you'll usually come out the best if you pick the 1 chord for the very beginning.

So in this piece, you would play the 1 chord with the notes C, E, & G in it while playing the melody of the 1st line in your right hand.

I take you through this whole piece in the video so you'll get a really good understanding of each measure and the changes in chords as the notes themselves change measure to measure. Be sure to watch!

Our last example is in a different key. This will help you apply what we've learned up to this point using different notes now.

Step 5: Example 3 - Mary Had a Little Lamb

Now we're dealing with a new key signature which will require us to identify different chords than we played in the key of C.

And...don't worry...you won't have to learn how to play the violin to play this version of "Mary Had A Little Lamb"...it's just the music sample that I happened to find! :)

This piece is in the Key of D Major...2 sharps: F# & C#.

Although the notes have changed...the principal hasn't. Let's walk through this.

  • Identify the Key Signature: D Major - (F#/C#)
  • Play through the D Major Scale
  • Identify the 8 Chords in the D Major Scale...do it the same way you did for C Major in Step 2
  • Identify the Primary Chords in D Major (1, 4,& 5 chords) - Step 2
  • Make the 1st chord of the piece your 1 Chord and make sure each chord contains the same note that is in the melody line.
  • Just try using 1 chord per measure unless the notes change too much.

That's all you need to do and you do this with any key signature you're playing in. Later on, when you start playing in minor keys and other modes, you'll still do this same method to add in harmony to the melody line.

OK..that's a lot of information. Read through this several times slowly before you even try this on the piano. That gives your brain time to process all of the new info without overwhelming yourself with understanding and playing it at the same time. Once you've done that...grab your keyboard and sit down with me while I take you all the way through each of these pieces - measure by measure while we add in chords and talk about even more ways that you can easily harmonize your playing.

Ready to Come and Practice With Me?

Step 6: Come Practice With Me!

Playing through all of these examples with me in this video will really reinforce what we went through in this lesson here.

It's always better to play with someone who is teaching you a new concept and these videos give you a sort of "teacher on demand"!

Just remember to take this slowly -

Start with the Key of C so you don't have to worry about sharps or flats; know the scale well and play through each chord of the scale like we did earlier, and then really dig into each of these pieces with me, because in the video I'll walk you through the changes in notes that come in some of the measures and how you pick the right chords for those notes - especially when we're not using the 1 chord like we predominantly do in the beginning of each piece.

I hope you enjoy this lesson because being able to harmonize melodies on your own will add so much to your piano playing!

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