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How To Develop An Ear For Harmony?

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It can be hard to sing one thing and play another but it's OK playing the melody plus harmony - this is less likely to put you off. As someone else hinted, it does depend a lot on the system you play. The lay out of your instrument will lend itself to certain types of semi-automatic harmony - playing in thirds, for example. For certain types of song, you can play a kind of drone under the melody for some short passages, playing the fundamental or fifth of the relevant chord. But essentially its about experimenting and listening.






Although I used to cope with singing and playing chords on a guitar, on the concertina I prefer to play the full melody on the right regardless of what is happening on the left!


When I was learning the Anglo I used to play in parallel octaves, and thirds are easy too as on a melodeon.


I like drones and I've tried them, but as I mentioned in another reply, they're quite loud on my particular machine. However, short drones should be OK. I've actually done this accidentally (by forgetting to move my fingers) and it does sound very effective.



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Anglo is fine for playing in 3rds and 6ths, basic campfire harmony. But to hold the same note, drone bass, or chord while changing the melody note, a Duet or EC is better. In fact, I consider the Duets superior since you can think about harmony notes and chords without worrying that the melody will reverse the bellows on you, or suddenly require the fingers that were holding the chord on an ENglish.


Rich (Frogspawn), your avatar shows a Crane Duet. Is that the box you're working with?

--Mike K.




This is basically why I went from Anglo to Duet. The 'tina pictured is my very own. I would like to use bass drones but they're quite loud and overwhelm the melody. I need to experiment with using them on their own.




I have found that the bass drones do that for me as well, I plan to install at least one baffle for my Crane duet (for the left side), but may go so far as to do both sides and use some of that soundcloth suggested in the long article on Baffles for MacCaan duets.


The single note drone can be very efective if you are playign Celtic style songs, for example, the song "Scotland the Brave" really doesn't sound quite right without that drone, but thats bagpipe music where drones are pretty much expected.

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The first thing to remember is that chords occur in sequences, and those sequences are governed by rules. Don't look for chords in isolation. Look for the sequence that fits the phrase.


The note G in the melody could be part of the chord G major, G minor, C major, C minor, or E minor (that is not a full list).


It is only when you put the note G into context that it becomes part of one chord or another. It's a quantum thing: the note G is potentially part of C major or G major, until you actually play it, then it becomes part of that chord!


The three chord trick uses the major chords built on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. In C major, the chords are:

C (C , E , G)

F (F, A, C)

G (G, B, D)


Notice two things:

1) All 8 notes are included at least once in that set of three chords.

2) Only C and G feature in more than one chord.


This makes everything seem a little easier. Sticking to the three chord trick:

A will only harmonise with F major

B will only harmonise with G major

D will only harmonise with G major

E will only harmonise with C major

F will only harmonise with F major


That only leaves C and G to worry about!


A simple tune in C will nearly always start with a C chord.


A simple tune in C will nearly always finish on the C chord.


Sometimes at the end of a phrase part way through the tune, the tune sounds like it is "hanging" there, unresolved. Very often in the key of C, the tune will "hang" on the note G. Those are the occasions when the G chord will sound right.


When to use the F chord instead of the C chord? This only "matters" on the note C.


You should normally harmonise the notes on the strong beats. Look at what the other notes are. They may give you a clue.


For example, if the bar goes, |C, B A, A| then you have two notes of the F chord (F A C) so that suggests the F chord will fit.


If the bar goes |C, D, E, C| you have two notes of the C chord (C E G) there, so that suggests use the C chord.


But your question was how to develop an ear for harmony. I think the answer here is to play lots, and to play several tunes in the same style. You will find that certain chord patterns are common within a style. They will be your starting point.


I see you play English. I am learning Anglo. On the Anglo, I am developing a "mental map" of which buttons go best with which chords. If I play a new tune, I have a default accompaniment that goes with a particular set of notes. If it sounds wrong, or leaden, I try something else. On English, the mental map will be different (I imagine you will think in chord shapes on the keyboard) but the principle will be the same.

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Although I used to cope with singing and playing chords on a guitar, on the concertina I prefer to play the full melody on the right regardless of what is happening on the left!

I do that while I'm working out a melody and a "left hand," but only tend to play the melody for the first verse, with variations for the others, once I've got it worked out. There's no drone buttons on my tina, but I like the effect of creating a kind of drone by using those notes that are repeated on the push & pull. Sort of gives a fiddle-type effect. Easy to over-use though, rather than as a "special effect."


As for developing an ear for harmony, it's early days for me on the tina, and I do mostly play songs that I've known for years & years, so the harmonies are there in my head, it's just a question of persuading them to travel down as far as my fingers. :blink:

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This was all very helpful. Especially the parts that did not involve singing. Since my music teacher in fifth grade told me not to sing, I haven't.


Although I am considering it. Well no. The world has enough problems without me singing. :(

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This was all very helpful. Especially the parts that did not involve singing. Since my music teacher in fifth grade told me not to sing, I haven't.


However bad a singer you were, your teacher was a worse teacher.


Very few people cannot sing, but only a few have the natural talent to be able to sing "just like that". The rest of us have to practise it, like any other skill, and choose the right songs. I was in my early 40s before I started to believe I could sing. Then I started practising. I don't claim to be a brilliant singer now, but I can at least enjoy leading a song at a folk club or pub session, and I enjoy it.


Give it another try.

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  • 8 months later...

Thanks to advice here, I think I've made some progress with applying chords.


I'm playing the full melody on the right and triads on the left, but instead of a regular rhythm, I'm just touching the chords lightly here and there to coincide with long notes in the melody. I got this idea from another thread which described this style as a vocal technique.


This approach seems to work very well for some slow songs. It's obviously less applicable to tunes that demand a strong rhythm, but my point is that this seems a very good interim training approach for easing in use of left hand chords and of getting a feel for which chord sounds right. I'm also beginning to associate particular right-hand buttons with particular left-hand chords, at least in my main key (G).


Obviously I need to progress to being able to play a proper oom-pah accompaniment, but I prefer to avoid trying to do everything at once.

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Another thing to consider is that the three chord trick is a little bit of a myth. Most people use at least 4 chords, because G7 is a different chord from G. (Example chosen using C as a the default key.) And then of course each chord can be played in different "inversions".


Then there are the alternatives. C is made of C E G, and if you add an A to that you get A minor 7th. Then take off the G and you get A minor.


Or start with C E G, remove the C and and the B and you get E minor.


So for each chord of the 3 chord trick there are other chords that share two of the three notes. These are the chords that add colour and texture to the music. In Morris music, for example, an Am instead of a C, or an Em instead of a G will often add depth - but only in the right context.


But taking away all the "maths" from that, the important thing is that harmonies do not appear in isolation. They appear in sequence. A piece of music has a "harmonic rhythm". The more tunes you hear and play, the more you will understand intuitively that patterns of chords repeat from one tune to another. Then you can construct your harmonies not one note or bar at a time, but for a whole phrase.


I confess my theoretical knowledge here runs ahead of what my fingers can actually achieve (as the Bishop said...) but as my playing develops, the understanding of harmony develops naturally. Like all things musical, it's practise practise practise - but thoughtful practise rather than simple repetition of what you did last time. I only wish I'd realised that 25 years ago.

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The important thing is to listen to yourself. The three-chord trick works well enough for most simple tunes, so even by guesswork you've got a 1 in 3 chance of being right.


If you're playing in the key of C, the chances are that you'll want to start by playing a C major chord. It should sound good against the melody. However, after a few bars the melody will change and C will no longer sound so good, so try one of the other chords, F or G7. If the one you've chosen doesn't sound right, try the other one. Rely on your ears to tell you which sounds best.


Listen to other music as well. Don't worry about trying to work out what chords they're playing, but try to get a feel for when they're changing the chord, and why - what has happened to the melody to make a change of chord necessary? After a while you should get a feel for it. It will also help you to get a feel for the chord sequences which will improve your chances of picking the right chord first time.


I learned 3-chord trick when I learned guitar, but nowadays I seldom think about it in those terms. I let my ears tell me which chord will give me the sound I want - sometimes by slow trial and error, note by note, while I am learning the tune.


Trust your ears!

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Obviously I need to progress to being able to play a proper oom-pah accompaniment, but I prefer to avoid trying to do everything at once.


In the specific context of the Crane duet, there are a few basic chord shapes that can be moved about the left-hand keyboard to give the "most wanted" major and minor triads. They are no more difficult than guitar chord shapes - in fact, I find them easier (even after messing with the guitar for decades before taking up the Crane. Very akin to the 5-string banjo, actually, because chord inversions are physically easier than on the guitar).


Brian Hayden gives an introduction to them in his all-system duet workshop tutor. This helped me to get started.


Once you've got the chord patterns you need - e.g. G, D, C and Em - you can decide whether to oom-pah-pah, arpeggiate, or hold complete or partial chords.


Hope this helps,



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