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About chords and melody

jools28

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Hi all, I've got a question that I can't find the answer to anywhere because I don't really know how to phrase the question (I always have this problem when it comes to theory)-and everyone on here probably won't know what I'm on about either but I'll try and explain...so when I used to play the piano as a kid, if there were 2 or 3 notes played together and they were a bit difficult for me to play, my mum would just say "play the top note" and it would sound like the melody so there was no need to play the chord/s as the chord only filled the song out. I'm wondering why this is though, because I'm essentially playing a chord if I'm playing 2 or 3 notes together so why would the last note of the chord be the one that sounds like the melody line? Does anyone know what I mean and can explain? I've just started learning the basics of theory again (I posted on here ages ago asking about chord progressions then stopped learning anymore) so I understand a bit about how chords are formed 3rd and 5ths etc. but I'm unsure why the top note is the one that sounds like the melody-it's probably ridiculously obvious. I guess I'm saying if I had the chord of C then the G would sound most like the melody and the C note alone wouldn't work for the melody even though the C is the root and the name of the chord. Anyone any idea what I mean? I hardly did any theory when I was learning and I've not had lessons in several years, I only play piano very rarely but looking to get back into it so excuse my terrible ignorance!
 
I don't think there is a universal answer to this. The notes that are making up the melody will usually belong to the chords of the underlying harmony. They could be any valid note of the chord - root, third, fifth, seventh...
However, in most 'straightforward' music following 'standard' harmony rules, the bass line will be playing the root of the chord. Someone will have the third (which gives the 'colour' of the chord i.e. major/minor). A basic harmony rule is to avoid doubling the third in another part. This means the likeliest note for the melody line is the 5th of the chord.
However... this refers to chords in root position. You can double the root, and the 7th is available for some chords.
So, short answer is that is 'simple' music the odds are quite high that the melody is often the 5th of the chord... but not always.
I'm sure there are loads of cases where this is not true at all, even in 'simple' tunes.
If you do ABRSM theory exams, for Grade 5 you will be required to harmonise a given tune using the harmony rules of the baroque era (i.e. like a Bach chorale). You will then understand how this works.
 
Lots of written piano music for popular songs has the melody line in the right hand / treble clef that is harmonised (or thickened up) with two or three or four "nice sounding notes". The melody note would be on top, so that would be the one to play on its own. The harmonising notes would change every time the melody note changes, but that doesn't mean the chord of the tune necessarily changes at the same time.

Here the piano isn't just playing an accompaniment to the melody or the melody line alone, but a "thickened up" version of the melody line.

Rhys
 
As a guitarist I often invert chords to change the position of the "melody" notes in a chord. It is used in a technique called voice leading and means that the melody isn't necessarily the root note but could be the fifth or another note within the chord. Is that what you are asking?
 
As others have said the melodic line can be played anywhere. It is however most often the top line. There is a very basic reason for this: Higher pitches are more easily heard with less volume. It's easy to distinguish the highest pitch as the melody. When a Bass has the melody he must play very loudly over all the other lines to distinguish being the melodic line. I just completed a request from a singer to accompany her. I'm playing sopranino but find it almost impossible to slide into the background because my pitch is higher than hers. Tenor would have been a better choice, but the arrangement has too much mid and bass already, so needed higher pitch to balance the track.

Using the top pitch for the melody is simply working with physics and how we hear. Most composers recognize this and work with it instead of against it.
 
As a guitarist I often invert chords to change the position of the "melody" notes in a chord. It is used in a technique called voice leading and means that the melody isn't necessarily the root note but could be the fifth or another note within the chord. Is that what you are asking?

I think so! I will do some reading up on that technique.

Tenorviol-thanks so much for taking the time to write such a detailed and helpful response. Yeh it didn't matter to me if it was a rule or not, just that I'd noticed it in some songs and wondered why this happened. I hadn't even considered 7ths! I haven't taken any exams in theory as it was always optional up to a certain grade on the piano and I didn't reach that grade and had zero interest in theory back then, it's only since I've come to want to analyse songs, play by ear (on the piano) and maybe write my own songs that it's become such a big interest and I'm really regretting not putting in the work before. But better late than never I guess.
Rhysonsax-yes I think I'm getting a bit confused over chord progressions and multiple notes played at the same time as a melody and that may be part of my problem understanding.
Wade-ah yes of course I never thought of it that way (Science not a strong point for me either haha). I see your problem there playing sopranino, gosh it's all getting so technical for me the more I read and ask questions (I know it's really simple for most) my tiny brain will get it eventually! Must say just bombarding myself with theory and thinking about it non-stop I have learnt loads (in comparison to what I did know) in quite a short space of time and it's very fun.

Thanks for the replies, it's really invaluable and has helped me understand so much better.
 
It's just that the top note is easiest to hear so the melody is usually on top. It can be any of the notes in the chord and often includes non-chordal tones known as passing notes.

When I was a kid my dad gave me the exact opposite advice on playing the piano. When I was struggling to sight read I was repeatedly told to "read from the bottom up".
 
Was that because it's an easier way to read the notes or something Dibbs? My mum probably knows less theory than me, that's just something that sticks in my mind her telling me for some reason. Probably doesn't do me any favours to take the easy way out and just play the top note though! This was way back when I was little but if there are 4 notes together and they are difficult ones I will still sometimes cheat :eek:
 
Was that because it's an easier way to read the notes or something Dibbs? My mum probably knows less theory than me, that's just something that sticks in my mind her telling me for some reason. Probably doesn't do me any favours to take the easy way out and just play the top note though! This was way back when I was little but if there are 4 notes together and they are difficult ones I will still sometimes cheat :eek:

I don't really know why he said that. Probably because that way you recognise the harmony early and the higher notes are less of a surprise. He could play from figured bass so I guess he was used to thinking bottom up.

I think that advice was probably way too advanced for me at that time. He did that a lot. He'd witter on about French 6ths, deceptive cadences and stuff when I was still struggling to figure out how many sharps there are in D major. Someone pulled me up for doing something similar on here a few weeks ago. I must have inherited a "confuse beginners with music theory" gene.
 
Wow I can see how that would be confusing and overwhelming! On the other hand though how awesome to have someone know so much that you can just ask them anything about theory-I have no one at all I can ask in my family or friends-only the very basics about how long notes lasted etc. as a kid, but now I'm getting into more of it I'm having to learn it all myself. In fact I tell my mum now what I've learnt-whether she wants to know or not! (I find it helps me to explain it out to someone else, even if I'm not 100% on it myself.) Thank god for youtube and forums like this which is where I am learning all my theory from. I did take music at GCSE from age 14-16 but I can't tell you what I learnt at all, not much of anything and because I did so bad in that class I could never really pursue music academically.

I'm always thankful for replies on here even if they go way over my head at the moment, i can always go back and read it again once I've learnt a bit more and then it'll become clearer, better to have all that info I think. Even simple concepts are difficult for me to get at first, then there's a lightbulb moment where it all goes in (usually when I'm trying to get to sleep and it's going over and over in my head!) then it's like "Oh yeh, I totally get it now!"
 
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Theory is just a way to use English (or other) to describe sonic events. The most important part is to hear what is going on.

Django Reinhardt couldn't even read or write language and had not interest in theory. Birelli Lagrene wouldn't know a Dom7flat9 chord name to save his life. Both of the m played all kinds of complex harmonic structures without having a clue as to the name. The jazz world has lots of famous highly regarded players who didn't read. Even a few of them (as above) wouldn't even know the names of the chords.
 

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