Harmony Writing Part Six.

Piping Today #90, 2018.

Those of you following along with this mini-series on Harmony Writing may remember the project from the previous article, which involved developing a more involved harmony for the first part of John Walsh’s The Korgi (a reel in the key of A-Mixolydian).  You may or may not have liked that harmony, but perhaps that’s beside the point.  The point may have been more about having the conversation and offering an exercise for crafting harmonies for pipe tunes.  And I’d like to keep this particular conversation going and offer another exercise: harmonising a slow air.

Here is a quick refresher on the approach I’m promoting for composing harmonies:

1. Determine the key of the tune that you’ll be harmonising [see article list below, numbers 1 to 10].  (Feel free to ask an accompanist friend for assistance.)

2. Determine the chords that best match the melody [see article list below, number 18].  (Ditto the above, regarding assistance.)

 3. Choose from the three or four notes of a particular chord to craft basic harmony notes to the corresponding section of music [See article list, number 18 ].

4. Experiment with the different note options available for each measure, and enhance the main harmony notes with added bits of interest: pedal tones, contrary motion, passing tones, octave jumps, unison playing, additional harmony parts, independent rhythms, and so on.  Consider crafting a harmonic line that begins to enjoy its own shape and melodic independence [See article list, number 20 and this article].

The fourth item above may need the most discussion and practice at this stage in the series.  And this is why I’m voting to try our hand at harmonising a slow air, for something new that allows some extra wiggle room for an expressive harmony part.  Given that many pipe bands enjoy slow airs in 3/4 time (essentially a waltz), I hope you’ll permit me to conjure up Lough Erin Shore (a.k.a. Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore).  My guess is that it’s already a familiar melody to most; and if not, it will be a quick study for the rest of you.

What follows below are two full versions of the tune.  The first includes the melody plus a second harmony part containing all of the possible candidates for harmony notes in each bar, based upon the given chord symbols written above the melody, as per the chart below. 

This exercise will be the most effective if you can hear the two examples provided here, which are generated by the Sibelius music software.  The first of the audio samples is designed to imitate Scottish Border pipes.

The second version below features the exact same melody, and a more considered harmony part extracted from the chords of the first version.  This ‘distilled’ harmony features several of the ‘added bits of interest’ mentioned above, which are annotated further below.

The second audio sample is designed to imitate Highland pipes.

Though they use synthesised sounds of orchestral instruments, these samples nonetheless provide a good first impression of the sheet music here.  (They also include a simple accompanying bass line for added interest.)  Listen to both examples, and make note of which parts are the most successful to your ear.  Take a moment to analyse those sections and understand why they might be the most pleasing to you.  Then try borrowing those ideas in your own writing.  (And if you don’t like any of it, try to determine why not.)

Here are the ‘added bits of interest’, annotated for your inspection and consideration (noting the bar numbers that appear at the beginning of each line of the music):

• bars 1-3: feature a low-A pedal tone (i.e., a long, held, drone-like note on the chanter [see article list below, number 16]).

• the last beat of bar 3 through first the two beats of bar 5: features contrary motion (where the harmony moves in the opposite, or contrary, direction to the melody – down vs. up – often a very pleasing compositional tool).

• bars 9-13, among several others: feature several moments involving a harmony-of-thirds [see article 17 below].

• bars 17-19, among several others: feature passing tones (brief notes that help connect, or bridge two notes of a greater interval).  Compare these four bars to bars 9-13.

• bars 25-26: the harmony part temporarily doubles the melody in unison, effectively removing any harmony and providing some contrast – a brief harmonic respite for the ear.

• bar 27, second beat: features an octave leap from low – to high-A, as a means of gracefully clearing new space for higher harmony notes.  (Jumping up or down a perfect octave is generally easier on the ear than jumping from low-G straight up to F#, for example.)

• bars 27-end: features an additional harmony part for more players, thereby enriching the overall harmonic impact and adding a greater sense of energy and excitement.  (Having three-part harmony throughout the entire arrangement may become tiresome for the ear, but introducing three-part harmony for a shorter segment will likely prove to be more effective.)  The three-part harmony also immediately follows the brief section without harmony, thus providing even more contrast.

• bar 29-end: again features contrary motion

• throughout the entire arrangement:  features a harmony part that is heavily based upon the notes prescribed by the given chord symbols.  Also, the harmony part enjoys varying degrees of rhythmic independence from the melody, as well as some semblance of its own melodic ‘shape’ (as opposed to notes that randomly jump up and down without any consideration to shape or flow).  As a general rule, the easier a harmony part is to sing, the more pleasing it will be to the ear.  Ultra-jumpy harmony parts are usually much harder to sing and learn.

With any luck, all of the above combines to help make our harmony part more enjoyable and stimulating for performers and audience members alike.

Please remember this approach to harmony writing is generally not something that can be learned overnight, but rather takes practice and soliciting feedback from others.  Many aspects get much easier over time, I have found, including the intuition about what key a particular tune is in, what chords will best match it, and what type of harmony lines will be most successful for a particular tune (or group of musicians).  It is also helpful to listen to the harmonies used by other pipe bands, ceilidh bands, and the like.  Don’t be afraid to borrow good ideas and tweak them to make them your own!  The very best composers do this kind of thing all the time.

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies
  21. Theory Top-Up: writing chord-based harmonies for slow airs