Over my years of teaching, I’ve come across several lists of tunes to harmonize using primary chords. Often, however, they’re either not very comprehensive, or they include a lot of tunes that students these days have never heard because they only include folk tunes and a couple of Christmas songs.
Last summer I started a studio-wide harmonization focus that lasted through the summer and fall. After continually having students look at the song list and shake their head that they didn’t know many of the songs, I finally decided it was time to compile my own list.
This comprehensive list includes 147 tunes (traditional, popular, and Christmas). The list progresses from tunes you can harmonize using only the tonic chord, to tunes that use four chords (I, IV, V, vi).
The tunes are, of course, mostly in major (because, well, we live in the Western World), but there are some minor tunes as well.
Keep in mind, these are not tunes tied to any particular chord progression such as I-IV-V-I or I-vi-IV-V. It’s up to the person harmonizing to figure out what chords to use and when.
First, let’s talk a little about what it means to harmonize and how to teach harmonization.
Harmonizing vs. Playing by Ear
Teaching students to harmonize and play by ear was one of my biggest challenges as a teacher for years. Mainly, because it was a skill which I did not possess myself. It’s hard to teach someone any skill if you don’t know what you’re doing yourself!
Harmonizing and playing by ear are two really different skills. To harmonize is to accompany a melody using chords and playing by ear is more about playing the melody of a tune (which may or may not include chords along with it depending on your skill level). At least that’s the way I see it.
In this post, we are focusing more on the former. Playing melodies by ear is another topic for another day!
Two Ways to Approach Harmonization
There are two ways we can harmonize. The first way is to play the melody with your right hand and harmonize using chords in your left. The second way (and the way I like to introduce harmonization to my students), is by using your voice to sing the melody while harmonizing on the piano.
Screech! I can hear the breaks squealing in some of your minds as you are already anticipating certain students who may refuse to sing.
That’s OK! I either ask those students to sing quietly under their breath (and I promise to sing louder than them) or ask them to at least hum along with me while I sing. Most students, as long as you don’t make a big deal of it, will eventually forget their worries. I also find that not looking students in the eye while we sing helps alleviate their self-conscious feelings.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so important for students to be really comfortable with and know the song they are harmonizing. You can’t focus on the harmony when you have to learn the melody.
When I think of harmonizing, I also tend to think of it as more ear-based playing rather than simply reading a chord chart or lead sheet that is telling you what to play when.
Personal Aural Struggles
It wasn’t that long ago when I feel I can look back and remember what it was like to not be able to harmonize. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could not hear changes in harmony.
I grew up experiencing music as many have, with a reading-focus. As my memory serves me, music was, to me, lots of pitches put together to form melodies and rhythms. The idea of rhythmic or tonal patterns or the way chords function to create tonality (such as the dominant chord feeling “alive” as Bradley Sowash would say), never really clicked with me (especially aurally).
I’ve probably told this story before, but the first time I played keyboard on my church worship team (around 2003), the bass player would stand behind me and whisper to me when to change to the next chord.
I had just graduated with a Bachelor’s in Music Education. True story.
Hearing Harmony Changes
It wasn’t until I was introduced to Music Learning Theory, and what it meant to truly “audiate” music (see this article I wrote for Alfred Music Blog on audiation), that my world was opened to finally begin to hear music with a deeper aural/oral understanding.
Without going into too many details about MLT, I’ll just say that one of the things I’ve taken away from it is the importance of practicing and learning to hear root tone harmony changes in primary chords.
Teaching my students to harmonize and hear changes in the primary chords has done wonders for my own ear.
Watch Some of My Students in Action
Here is a link to an album of videos in Google Photos where you can watch clips of my students harmonizing tunes. Some videos include more instruction from me and others are just playing and singing.
(At the time of this post there are only three loaded, but more videos will be added to the album as time goes on and I will try to remember to announce when more become available!)
A few things you may notice in these (and future) videos:
- Have students sing the melody on a neutral syllable such as “bum.” This takes away the distraction of words and allows our ears and mind to focus more on the sound.
- Have students determine whether the first note of the melody is the “resting” or “home” sound (such as DO for major or LA for minor in moveable DO with LA-based minor). I do this by having them sing the beginning of the song, think quickly through the rest of the song, then sing the last note of the song they hear in their head and compare it to the first note of the song. The melody note we sing may, for example, be the dominant pitch but the first chord may be the tonic chord. (Such as in “O Christmas Tree.”)
- Always, always, always have students transpose into at least one other key, if not more. Most of my students (except very beginners), transpose into all 12 keys.
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The transformation I’ve seen in my students (and myself) from doing these harmonizations has been extraordinary. Each week you can see how their ear begins to notice the chord changes more quickly and naturally.
Studying harmonization also gives us an opportunity to talk about playing on the “big beat” and how we may repeat a chord for several big beats before a change to the next chord.