Thinking about how melody and harmony intertwine

For a long time I have struggled to understand the relationship between harmony and melody.  I’ve rarely heard it explained well.

I play a single-note-at-a-time instrument.    When I play a solo, the other musicians play a-chord-at-a-time instruments.   (These chordal musicians can,of course, play a single note at a time, but I cannot do the reverse.

These chord changes define the form of the tune.   So does the melody, but it seems a lot easier get off-base with the melody than with the chords.

Pianists amaze me because they are capable of playing chords and tunes simultaneously.

Drummers also tightly follow the form of the song with neither chords nor melodies. But melodies contain rhythms.

Putting it the other way around:  There’s a phrase that melody trumps harmony, that he melody is the song.   The melody defines what chord changes are plausible, will work together effectively.   The melody defines the harmonic alternatives.

So melody, rhythm, and harmony are interlocking circles.

In soloing, a note-a-time instrument plays a melody, is guided by the melody of the song, melody that defines the harmony the other instruments are playing.   As a guidepost, the “chart” a musician uses shows the melody and the chord that parallels that melody.   But the note-a-time player is not attempting to play a harmony.   The chordal instruments are already doing that.


What does it mean to me that a chord is one thing and not another?   I’m not talking about literally knowing what the chord symbol means, but how a musician uses this information in creating an improvised solo.    It’s one thing to know that, okay, this is a minor third and this is a ii-V7 progression and this chord has a 9th in it.   But how do I use this information in real time, as I’m playing?


Yet the largest challenge is that what has to emerge from this miasma is a sequence of notes that is melodic, that is musical.




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