I Have a Melody But No Chords! How Do I Find Chords to Go with a Melody?
So, my budding songwriter: you just hummed out a killer melody line for your song. But with your limited experience in music composition, you’re now stuck trying to figure out how to turn that simple little tune into a full fledged song. You at least know you’ll need some chords to go with it, but what chords!? Stay cool, I’ve got you covered. Here is a simple 5-step guide on finding chords for your melody in various ways. Try each method, or pick which one suits you most.
How To Find Chords for a Melody: A Prelude
In order to find the chords that feel right for your song’s melody, you will first need to understand some basic music theory about chords and scales. I have more extensive articles about these topics and if you are totally new to music composition you should read those first. But I’ll give you the short version for now.
Your melody is a sequence of notes that play, one after another, and form a musical phrase. A chord, on the other hand, is a set of notes that are played all at the same time and create a specific tonal texture based on what notes are being played together. For most popular music in general, you want the chords and the melody to all be written in the same key so that it all sounds like it fits together. Therefore, your primary task will be figuring out what key you’ve written in.
There are five (5) steps to adding chords to a melody:
- Record your melody
- Identify the notes in your tune
- Pick the key and scale of it
- Determine the natural chords in that key
- Play different combinations of those chords over your melody until you like what you hear
It sounds simple enough but, if you lack experience in music theory, finding the key can be an uphill climb the first time around. I will teach you the easiest methods for doing this. Similarly, looping the melody may take some finesse if you do not have access to production-level recording equipment, but I will show you some lo-fi hacks for getting that done as well.
Quick note: I’m going to be referring to key and scale throughout this article. While there is a difference between the two, we will be working in standard major/minor scales for this task and, at that basic level, the terms key and scale will mean essentially the same thing.
Tools You’ll Need for the Job:
- Your voice or a musical instrument
- A device for recording
- A pen/pencil and some scrap paper for notes
- A smartphone that can load apps (optional)
Step 1: Recording Your Melody
Before you begin any chord comping, the first thing you should do is record what you already came up with! A human can only hold four or five bits of information in his/her short-term memory at a time. If you think you’re brain will remember the exact notes you sang (or played on guitar, etc) in an hour from now, you may be sorely mistaken. Record it on something, anything. I’ve lost several good tunes in the abyss of my thoughts because I did not save them to disk soon enough.
The best option is to use a handheld recorder. This could be an actual portable field recorder designed for recording audio…you know, in the field…such as the Tascam DR-40 or the Zoom H1n.
Once you have an app or a recorder accessible, turn that sucker on and hit the record button—it’s usually the one with a big red circle on it. Sing/perform your melody at least three times, keeping each take as similar to the last one as possible. Now is not the time for adding variations or belting it; play it straight a couple times. If you have a variation in mind, then record that as well after you’ve gotten your original tune recorded.
Now that you have a recording of your melody, we can move onto note identification.
Step 2. Identifying the Notes in Your Melody
There are only 12 notes in music (that’s it!), but every note is not used in every scale or key. The primary major and minor scales all have seven (7) notes each. Therefore you’ll need to figure out what notes are in your melody so you can figure out what scale/key you wrote it in. The way you do that will depend on what tools you have available. Grab a pen/pencil and some paper for taking notes, and let’s get to the various techniques of note identification.
Method A) Finding Your Scale with a Smartphone
The quickest and easiest way to determine your melody’s notes is to use an app that can identify pitch. I have an Android app called “VocalPitchMonitor” which is free in the Google Playstore, but any pitch identification app should work the same. VocalPitchMonitor will display on-screen what pitch is being picked up by your phone’s microphone, so all you need to do is sing or hum your tune into it and write down each note in the sequence.
Method B) Finding Your Scale with a Tuner
If you don’t have a smartphone, or prefer not to download apps, that’s fine. There are analog methods of doing the same task. If you have an instrument tuner with a built-in microphone, it can be used in the same way. Turn on your tuner, hold the speaker close enough that it can pick up your voice, and sing or hum the melody. Write down each note in sequence. With this technique, you could instead hold your phone up to the tuner and replay the recording you made. The choice is yours.
Method C) Finding Your Scale with an Instrument
This old-school technique requires more effort, an instrument being available, and a bit of music theory. Grab your instrument or sit down at the piano. Start singing your first note and then pluck a string/play a key; determine if you’re instrument’s note is higher or lower compared to the melody note you sang. Then work up or down the fretboard/keys until you hear the guitar/piano start to “ring” in unison with your voice. Write down the notes as you go.
Method D) Finding Your Scale with a Computer
You can also identify your melody on the computer using software, but it’s going to take longer to accomplish the task and you’ll need more equipment to do it. This technique is the most complex, and I would recommend a simpler approach unless you are planning to sit down and compose a full multi-instrument track around the melody right now. But, just so you know about the option, you could download a free trial of Melodyne and use that to analyze the notes in your audio recording.
Step 3: Picking the Scale and Key of a Melody
By now, you should have a scrap of paper with a series of notes on it. For my example melody, it looks like:
- A – C – G / G – A – C – F – E – D / A – C – G / G – A – C – F – F
Now we’ll determine which keys the melody may fit into. It could be two or more and, if that’s the case, either key can work for your song; there is usually not a right/wrong answer here, just what sounds best to you in the context of the tune.Most melodies will be a minimum of three (3) and a maximum of seven (7) notes, but like I mentioned all keys are set at seven notes. If your tune only contains three or four notes, you will have a larger variety of keys—and therefore chord progressions—from which you’ll need to choose.
Before we get to testing out chords, we need to pick the keys that fit. Below is a chart showing all of the keys in music. Compare the music notes you wrote down to the notes in each key. Write down which ones match, and take note of which notes from each key are missing from your melody.
Keys & their Notes (Major / Minor)
|C / Am (no flats)||C||D||E||F||G||A||B|
|Db / Bbm (5 flats)||Db||Eb||F||Gb||Ab||Bb||C|
|D / Bm (2 sharps)||D||E||F#||G||A||B||C#|
|Eb / Cm (3 flats)||Eb||F||G||Ab||Bb||C||D|
|E / C#m (4 sharps)||E||F#||G#||A||B||C#||D#|
|F / Dm (1 flat)||F||G||A||Bb||C||D||E|
|F# / D#m (6 sharps*)||F#||G#||A#||B||C#||D#||F*|
|G / Em (1 sharp)||G||A||B||C||D||E||F#|
|Ab / Fm (4 flats)||Ab||Bb||C||Db||Eb||F||G|
|A / F#m (3 sharps)||A||B||C#||D||E||F#||G#|
|Bb / Gm (2 flats)||Bb||C||D||Eb||F||G||A|
|B / G#m (5 sharps)||B||C#||D#||E||F#||G#||A#|
You should also be aware that some notes have more than one name because that note could be considered the sharp of it’s preceding or the flat of it’s proceeding. The key that you’re in will determine if you refer to notes as flats or sharps. Below is a chart clarifying which notes are the same (with the more common one being first):
|This note is the same as…||this note|
|B||Cb (very rarely)|
You’ll notice that for every major key or scale, there is a minor key that has the same notes but with a different starting point. This is called the relative minor and, for the purpose of this article, I won’t go into details on differentiating them. For now, we’ll use the major/minor pairs to just determine the major scale/key.
My example melody includes these six notes: A, C, D, E, F, and G. By looking at the scales chart, you can see that my melody is either in the C/Am scale or the F/Dm scale. The difference between these two scales is only one note: either B or B-flat, respectively.
Pro Tip – Following the Tonic
Before we move onto the chord selection, there is one last tip I want to share: you can sometimes find the key of a tune just by checking for it’s tonic note. This will not always work if you’ve inadvertently written your melody in a mode of a scale (explaining modes is a topic for another article).
Start by looking for the tonic note in your tune; the tonic is the note that holds tonal center, the one to which the music wants to resolve. In many melodies (but not all), the tonic will be the first note in the sequence.
For my example, the first note is A. This holds up to the tonic test, because all the other notes in my melody do fit into the A minor scale, which is in the Key of C/Am.
Step 4: Choosing Chords that Fit Your Key
We now know what notes make up the melody, and what scale/key it likely is. All you need now is to identify which chords are in that key and start playing them alongside your tune.
Below is a chart showing each of those major/minor scales and which chords are natural to each one:
Major Keys & their Chords (with relative minor keys also noted)
|Maj / rel min||I||ii||iii||IV||V||vi||viio|
|C / Am||C||Dm||Em||F||G||Am||Bdim|
|Db / Bbm||Db||Ebm||Fm||Gb||Ab||Bbm||Cdim|
|D / Bm||D||Em||F#m||G||A||Bm||C#dim|
|Eb / Cm||Eb||Fm||Gm||Ab||Bb||Cm||Ddim|
|E / C#m||E||F#m||G#m||A||B||C#m||D#dim|
|F / Dm||F||Gm||Am||Bb||C||Dm||Edim|
|F# / D#m||F#||G#m||A#m||B||C#||D#m||Fdim|
|G / Em||G||Am||Bm||C||D||Em||F#dim|
|Ab / Fm||Ab||Bbm||Cm||Db||Eb||Fm||Gdim|
|A / F#m||A||Bm||C#m||D||E||F#m||G#dim|
|Bb / Gm||Bb||Cm||Dm||Eb||F||Gm||Adim|
|B / G#m||B||C#m||D#m||E||F#||G#m||A#dim|
Review the chart for whatever key your melody is in, and write them down on your scrap paper underneath the key. If you still aren’t sure which key you want to use, write down both selections of chords in two different groups on your paper. You can try each group out separately.
For my example melody, I’m going to show you two chord progression I picked, one from the Key of A minor and one from the Key of F major.
Step 5: Comping Chords to Your Melody
Once you know what chords can work in theory, it’s time to try them out in practice.
Replay or loop your melody and begin testing out different chords progressions. This is a subjective process and there is no right-or-wrong answer. To get you going, here are a few quick tips on chord selection:
- The more major chords you use, the more happy your music will sound
- The more minor chords you use, the more sad your music will sound
- Popular forms of music usually have between two and four (2-4) chords
- The most common chord progressions start on the tonic (the chord that has the same name as the key or scale)
- Many modern pop and hip hop songs use only one progression for the entire song; more traditional pop and rock songs will use two different chord progressions: one for the verses, one for the chorus.
There are several methods to do this depending on what tools you have:
Method A) Replay without an Instrument
If you don’t have an instrument, the simplest method is to simply replay your recording and hum out the bass note of each chord you want to try. It’s lo-fi, but it will get you where you need to go. When you’ve found bass notes that you like with your tune, write down another section on your melody scrap paper showing which chords should go where in the melody.
Method B) Replay with an Instrument
If you’re using an instrument, start playing chords while replaying your recording. Alternatively, if you are using a guitar or piano, you can play the melody over root notes all on the instrument at one time. Vary the length that you use your chords, and try a few different chord progressions before you settle on just one. Write down whatever chord progressions you like the most.
Tools That Can Make The Process Easier
I’ve shown you various methods to finding chords for your original melody, depending on what items you have available. Some of these methods are more time-consuming than others, and there are certain tools that will cost some money but save you time in the songwriting process.
My personal recommendation is that you:
1) Get a Field Recorder
You should consider investing in a dedicated audio recorder for recording song demos and music-related audio notes on the fly. This will help you to easily organize your melodic thoughts. In addition, some of these recorders have features built in to let you loop and overdub (overdubbing is where you record a second track over top of the first track, for example recording the chords over the original melody track—but saving each one as their own separate audio file for working with later). I can personally suggest the Tascam DR-05 or the Tascam DR-40x, because I’ve used both of them and they have been pretty reliable for me…my DR-05 lasted me about 10 years before the microphone jack stopped working (hence why I bought the DR-40x).
But you may not have the budget for a dedicated recorder and that’s okay. A simple smartphone with a good app will let you save all of your recordings; just be sure to move your audio files to a computer on a regular basis, organize them in their own folder, and label them so you know what’s what.
2) Learn an Instrument
Learning an instrument can dramatically improve your music theory and speed up the composition process. There are plenty of artists who only sing and know nothing about music theory. But those artists can easily be at the mercy of others to get their completed songs recorded and produced. If you are serious about writing and releasing your own songs, there is a huge number of advantages to learning even the most basic of chords on guitar.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for stopping by. If this guide helped you out, here are a few more articles that you may like: