147 Tunes to Harmonize: Traditional, Popular, and Christmas (Free Download)

Over my years of teaching, I’ve encountered 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 heads 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 that only use a tonic chord to those that use four chords (I, IV, V, vi). They are mostly in major tonality (of course, because we live in the Western World), but there are also some minor tunes.

They are also not tied to any particular chord progression (such as I-IV-V-I or I-vi-IV-V). It will be up to you and your student(s) to determine when the harmonic changes occur within each tune.

Besides sharing this free download, I thought we could chat briefly about what it means to “harmonize” tunes.

 

Harmonizing vs. Playing by Ear

First of all, what is the difference between “harmonizing” and “playing by ear?” The way I look at it, harmonizing is about accompanying a melody using chords, and playing by ear is more about playing the melody of a tune without music notation (which may or may not include adding accompaniment).

In this post, I’m

 

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. As long as you don’t make a big deal of it, most students 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 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 tells you what to play and when.

 

Personal Aural Struggles

It wasn’t that long ago when I could look back and remember what it was like not being able to harmonize. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I could not hear changes in harmony.

As many have, I grew up experiencing music with a reading focus. As my memory serves me, music was 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 the 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 learning to hear chord root harmonic changes.

In piano lessons, we tend to jump right into teaching students tonic and dominant chords using two or more pitches.

 

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 student’s harmonizing tunes.

Some videos include more instruction from me, and others are just playing and singing.

A few things you may notice in these videos:

  • Have students sing the melody on a neutral syllable, such as “bum.” This removes 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). 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.

 

Get the Free Download

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.

 

 

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