Progression: Music Theory 111 – Where Melody Ends and Harmony Begins

- Posted April 2nd, 2018 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

I’m gearing up to drop my new album this month, so look out for a post on that in the future (probably next month) but for the meantime we can look at some hyper-cool music theory stuff.

Last month we covered the idea of Developing Musical Material. You’ll know by this point I’m going to rant about how I strongly advise you to go back and read through my previous articles which will will help contextualise what we know by this point. This month is where these separate puzzle pieces seem to start connecting, and creating a whole cohesive entity that is ‘Music Theory.’ We’ll be covering the idea of establishing harmony, mood, and feeling through the use of melody.

Let’s jam.

okay now these are just getting ridiculous, far too abstract, and honestly quite hard to follow

So hold on… I thought Melody and Harmony were different things???

Well. Yes. They are in their specific function, but it should also be noted that something that acts primarily as a melody can have a harmonic function. Take for example, if you were playing a piece of music in the key of D minor (D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D) but used B naturals in the melody (while avoiding B altogether in the bassline and other parts) you can actually lead your harmony in a new direction, where the bassline and chords don’t dictate the overall sonic characteristics of your song. In fact, a great example of this technique can be found in this super great video on modes in music theory using Undertale as an example. The bassline repeats verbatim almost throughout which leads us to believe that after the first few bars we are most definitely in the key of D minor. This gives us a shocking revelation when on beat two of the fourth bar we finally have a B natural appear. This catches us off guard and grounds this harmony in D Dorian momentarily, before immediately resolving to a D minor arpeggio (shown in blue) which refreshes our harmonic palette back to D minor. The B natural stays out of the harmony until bar 8 where it catches us off guard again. The Dorian mode is used to create a ‘brighter’ sound which makes the naturally occurring iv chord in D minor (G minor) into a major chord IV (G major). This also plays into the modal mixture that we talked about in a previous article. You starting to see that everything is related in music theory yet? Nice.

The B naturals are shown in red to emphasise where they alter the harmonic landscape

You also said something about mood and emotion or something

Yes, so the whole idea of using your melody to instigate some form of harmonic change is directly related to emotion. Most people would walk away from hearing a song and sing the melody… not as many would walk about singing the harmonic progression or bassline. The beauty of great melodic writing is knowing when to make it venture outside of the box harmonically too. This will impact our general emotional state. A really great example for this is ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. This song goes through SO many temporary modulations that happen for a few bars maximum, and generally without set-up. This is helped by a few critical elements in the melody. The first one is set up in bar one, in the first beat. The suspension of a G down to an F over the top of the F major chord starts the whole song without a clearly defined chord I. The song starts on a suspended chord before immediately resolving to an E minor chord, which should be an E diminished chord because of the Bb in the key of F major. The E minor actually works to set up the A7 chord halfway through the bar, with the melody stepping up to a C# as the chord hits. This gives us an allusion to a V-I movement, veiled in the form of a v-I7 (Em – A7). This melody keeps rising until we arrive at the D minor chord with the suspension figure found in the first bar again. This tethers this chord (the relative minor of F major) to the ‘home’ of the piece of music. The Bb in the following bar sets up the C7 as the melody lands on the C and then proceeds to follow down the F major scale including Bb (the minor 7th of the C). This downward moving melody could easily resolve to F and finish the phrase, but Paul McCartney decides to take it for another few bars, which stretches out this feeling of yearning and longing that’s found in the song. It instead reintroduces the suspension figure on the F major chord, before leading to the relative minor. The G major that follows is a Major II chord (which doesn’t naturally occur) but is contextualised by the suspension figure yet again (which could have very easily resolved up to B natural) before approaching Bb and F with only natural chord tones. Solidifying the end of the phrase.

Yes. That was a decent number of words to explain seven bars of a criminally underrated Beatles’ song. They were all important words though, and really show the power of melody and how it can set up expectations and then break them for stunning emotional effect.

I always thought of this song as starting on the second bar, with three 2 bar phrases introduced by a single Fsus2 chord. Paul McCartney is a brilliant writer. 


I hope that this has inspired you to not only listen to ‘Yesterday’ today but also to think about your melodic writing as part of your harmonic intention. Please share how this knowledge has helped you with your own craft! If you have questions, recommendations for topics, or even just want to share what you’ve learned, get in touch with me at tuberzmcgee (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to listen/read/help out. This has been a very fun topic to cover this month and I look forward to delving further into the realms of music theory in the coming months!



Note: traducción al Español por Pixel_Guy encontrado aquí.

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