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Thread: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

  1. #1
    Registered User Narayan Kersak's Avatar
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    Howdy,

    Is it easy to figure out chords that would go with music by looking at the sheet music?

    Or is there like a formula to it that you could share?

    So if I go to thesession.org and find some sheet music, and I know how to read music well enough, what do I look at to determine the proper chord or chords for each measure?
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  3. #2

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    A lot of things factor into chord selection. Style of music, rhtyhmic elements, accompaniement style, etc. Some guidelines for relatively straighforward tonal music like bluegrass and fiddle tunes could include:

    -Knowing the key/mode of the piece. This will generally give you a set of typical chords from which to choose (i.e. I IV V chords, etc.).

    -Determine what the rhythm of the chord changes can be. Usually a fiddle tune will have at most one or two chords per bar. So your chord choices should examine melodic phrases of at least that length. Otherwise you'd be tempted to put a chord with every note. (If you're playing a fiddle tune really slow, that could work, but otherwise...)

    -Observe the important melody notes. For example, how does the phrase end? On the root note? Then probably the root chord would be a good ending chord. Look at any long notes and see how they fit into the phrase.

    -Scales and arpeggio fragments can outline chords within the melody.

    -Use your ear. Play the chords against the melody, and usually you can tell when something is not right. Also, there are usually many chord choices for any given tune, depending on how much you wish to extend the harmony. That's where chord substitutions come in.

    Cheers
    Mark RT
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  5. #3

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    Thought I'd try to illustrate my previous post. Went over to thesession and picked a random reel:
    http://www.thesession.org/tunes/display/7958

    Key is D major, which you figure out from the key signature and looking at the melody.
    So the most simple accompaniment will use I, IV, V chords which are D major (D F# A), G Major (G B D), and A major (A C# E).

    First bar looks like D major, with D and A notes.
    Second bar is up for grabs. Stay on the D major, or play A major for the first half, and D major on the second half. Depends on the sound you want. The melody would work with either. (The E note on the third beat I take as a grace note, so that's why I would go to a D on the second half.)

    Third bar has some strong G chord notes (G D G B a G a) so G major it is. Fourth bar has stong B's on the first half, but cadences on an A. I'd go with G major on the first half, and D major on the second half. A major on the second half would be another choice, but I don't think I'd like that as much since there's the C natural right before it.

    Bars five and six are like the first two. Bar 7 outlines a G chord nicely, so G would work on the first half. The second half of the bar could go two ways. D major, since you have the D F#, or A, since you have the E C#. (You could play both in succession, but up to reel speed it may be to busy. Sometimes using partial chords of bass runs to imply fast chord changes is good in these parts.)

    The last bar of the A part would depend a little on what you did in bar 7. If you played the D major, then I'd go with A major and D major. If you played the A major, then a whole bar of D would work. Or, D for one beat, A for one beat, D for 2 beats. Again, that could get busy with full chords, so maybe implied chord switching.

    Hope that helps a little.

    Cheers
    Mark RT
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    Registered User Laurence Firth's Avatar
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    Thanks for that detailed explanation with an example. This will help me greatly as I can read music but I'm often in a situation where only the melody is given and I have no idea of the chords. My accordion player can figure out the chords from the melody but I usually have difficulty. This will definitely help me improve my reading skills.
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    In the example given, the appropriate chords are a matter of style, personal preference and/or tradition (in one of 7 combinations) - they can't be inferred unequivocally from the melody. Another example is St. Anne's Reel, in D major, which has the notes b and g in the second bar. #Almost everybody seems to hear a G chord here, because G is the IV chord of D and g and b belong to the major G triad. But I hear an A7, the dominant chord, which is smoother and a little more sophisticated. In fact, I believe that's the way Tommy Jackson recorded it on Dot records. Also, some people play a G in the second bar of the B part - this is really crude, no question at all that em is the better choice. Then again there are some who substitue a bm (relative minor) for the D in the 5th bar, and I don't need that at all.

    Sometimes reinterpretations of harmony can vitalize a tune, very often they turn you into a hip cornball, to quote Miles Davis.




  9. #6

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Mark: wow, I just found this, it is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time.

    I have a small favor to ask. Since the new year, I have resolved to improve my theory so I can read music and not just tablature and chords. However, I was hoping I would be able to get up to speed to learn a song for a loved one to play for her birthday next week. I have worked on this song since the new year, but I am struggling with it. Would you be willing to get me started on it, or point me in the right direction with the chord progression?

    Here is the sheet music.

    Click image for larger version. 

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  10. #7
    Registered User DSDarr's Avatar
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    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by Peter Hackman View Post
    Then again there are some who substitue a bm (relative minor) for the D in the 5th bar, and I don't need that at all.

    Sometimes reinterpretations of harmony can vitalize a tune, very often they turn you into a hip cornball, to quote Miles Davis.
    Sometimes it is fun to be a hip cornball (in my opinion), I have been known to play the B-part as Bm7-Em7-A7-Bm7 Bm7-Em7-A7-D6 just to see if anyone is paying attention...

    David

  11. #8

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by beeftrain View Post
    Mark: wow, I just found this, it is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time.

    I have a small favor to ask. Since the new year, I have resolved to improve my theory so I can read music and not just tablature and chords. However, I was hoping I would be able to get up to speed to learn a song for a loved one to play for her birthday next week. I have worked on this song since the new year, but I am struggling with it. Would you be willing to get me started on it, or point me in the right direction with the chord progression?

    Here is the sheet music.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    This one is quite straightforward, because the chords are written out in the piano staff. If you can read standard notation, you can simply look at the stack of notes on each melody note and see what the chord is.
    The first full chord has four notes from top to bottom:
    Eb
    C
    Ab
    C
    An Ab, C, and Eb make an Ab major chord, so that's the first chord. In fact, all the chords in that first phrase except the second to last note are Ab chords, just with different order of the stacked notes. That second to last chord is:
    Bb
    Db
    Bb
    G
    G, Bb, Db makes a G diminished chord.

    On the whole, the piece is in Ab major (determined by the key signature and a glance through the melody to see that the phrases often end on Ab notes). In Ab major, I'd expect to see a lot of Ab chords, Db chords, and Eb / Eb7 chords: the old I, IV, V. The G diminished chord is simply the Eb7 chord without the Eb:
    Eb7: Eb G Bb Db
    G dim: G Bb Db
    So, they are very close relatives and a common substitution, especially in hymn-type music.

    Hope that helps!

    Cheers
    Mark RT

    P.S., I thought I was losing it when I saw my posts above and had no recollection of writing any of that, until I realized the date of the original post!
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  13. #9

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Mark:

    That is so great, thank you. I will have plenty of time to learn it and your example will help me with future projects.

  14. #10

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Robertson-Tessi View Post
    This one is quite straightforward, because the chords are written out in the piano staff. If you can read standard notation, you can simply look at the stack of notes on each melody note and see what the chord is.
    The first full chord has four notes from top to bottom:
    Eb
    C
    Ab
    C
    An Ab, C, and Eb make an Ab major chord, so that's the first chord. In fact, all the chords in that first phrase except the second to last note are Ab chords, just with different order of the stacked notes. That second to last chord is:
    Bb
    Db
    Bb
    G
    G, Bb, Db makes a G diminished chord.

    On the whole, the piece is in Ab major (determined by the key signature and a glance through the melody to see that the phrases often end on Ab notes). In Ab major, I'd expect to see a lot of Ab chords, Db chords, and Eb / Eb7 chords: the old I, IV, V. The G diminished chord is simply the Eb7 chord without the Eb:
    Eb7: Eb G Bb Db
    G dim: G Bb Db
    So, they are very close relatives and a common substitution, especially in hymn-type music.

    Hope that helps!

    Cheers
    Mark RT

    P.S., I thought I was losing it when I saw my posts above and had no recollection of writing any of that, until I realized the date of the original post!

    Mark:

    After I played the original version you helped me with, a family member gave me the attached arrangement. After plucking it out on the piano, I liked it better and have tried to implement your lesson to figuring out the guitar chords.

    It seems to be the key of C major, so I used C, F, and G as the primary chords. It has worked for the most part, but there are a few parts of the song where none of those 3 chords seem to fit. The first one is in the fourth measure. I'm a bit hung up there, if you could help.

    I tried to take the notes that are in the measure and figure out the chord, but each chord I tried didn't seem to fit. This is likely due to the limit of my knowledge, but I tried B, E, and a variation of D.

    Anyway, if you have time to help, I do appreciate it.Click image for larger version. 

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  15. #11

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by beeftrain View Post
    It seems to be the key of C major, so I used C, F, and G as the primary chords. It has worked for the most part, but there are a few parts of the song where none of those 3 chords seem to fit. The first one is in the fourth measure. I'm a bit hung up there, if you could help.Click image for larger version. 

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    As written, the whole piece uses only C and G chords. I'd look at the Left Hand part to choose chords, if you want to match the piano arrangement. 4th bar looks like C major all the way. Even though there's a B in the melody, the written accompaniment is not harmonizing that note with a chord change. If you wanted to harmonize it, you could play a G chord on that B note (3rd beat), and back to a C chord on the following C note (4th beat). How often to harmonize notes depends on the style, tempo, etc. For example, it would be very out of place to harmonize every note of a fiddle tune with a matching chord, of course. In a hymn, you might harmonize almost every note. So, it varies.

    Cheers
    MRT
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    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Best music notation joke ever!Click image for larger version. 

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  18. #13

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    I admire your knowledge, Mark. I've seen online several people like you who have studied and accomplished then so generously share with no other motive than to help, and I really appreciate this.
    I took lessons long ago and chords were never mentioned so I started again, now find reading chord symbols easier than standard sheet music. I really want to be able to play without sheet music so trying to learn what chords to put with tunes.
    I have the standard sheet music for a tune now, no chords added, and don't know how to convert it so I'm looking for a pattern, or a guide to change both treble and bass groups to chord symbols. I can use the melody note to ensure I'm in the right place but don't know what to name the rest of it.
    Example sets of chords, key of Ab: treble: FDC, bass: AB, then to FDB and GB. What would they be called if in a bass chord each?

  19. #14

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Hey Janet,
    You know if you can post a copy of the tune or song that you’re working on, even as a new thread, then you’ll often get a whole diverse range of helpful responses.
    Welcome to the Cafe!

  20. #15

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    I'd be happy to take a look as would others on the board, but as atsunrise says, a visual of the tune would be the best way forward.

    Cheers
    MRT
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  22. #16
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    If I am not in a hurry I play the tune and listen and try and hear the chord changes. At first this skill was totally lost on me, but gradually it is getting there. Have someone play the sheet music over and over.

    Start on simple tunes, cowboy songs etc., that you may be too familiar with. Play the tune and listen for the chord changes. Likely every chord is one of three choices. Maybe four.

    After a while doing this, some how, magically, you know the chord, and maybe even the chord coming up.


    If you are in a hurry, ask a guitar player to listen to it.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
    funny....

  23. #17

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by atsunrise View Post
    Hey Janet,
    You know if you can post a copy of the tune or song that you’re working on, even as a new thread, then you’ll often get a whole diverse range of helpful responses.
    Welcome to the Cafe!

    I've just loaded a few bars in attachments below but not sure it's where it should be. Let me know.
    Are there rules to go by when converting standard notation to chords and what about II V I, etc?
    Thanks
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Click image for larger version. 

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  24. #18

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by Narayan Kersak View Post
    Howdy,

    Is it easy to figure out chords that would go with music by looking at the sheet music?

    Or is there like a formula to it that you could share?

    So if I go to thesession.org and find some sheet music, and I know how to read music well enough, what do I look at to determine the proper chord or chords for each measure?
    My answer is yes it’s easy to figure out...if you are familiar with how music works and know your scales. Lots of good advice in this thread and it will get you started but you need to put in the time with scales and theory in order to be good at this. Some people have a very good ear and just know that it’s a G - or whatever chord/key it is - that way.

    The formula for me is know the key, know the 1 2 4 5 6 chords of that key and know the scales.

    Know the genre - bluegrass is mostly 145, Janet has a jazz standard in Ab so for that know your jazz keys, scales, tendencies, etc.

    For instance most fiddle tunes begin on the 1 chord but sometimes they don’t...like Beaumont Rag it starts with the 5 chord. Some tunes change keys for the B part like Flop Eared Mule, some are model so that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

    When I get music with no chords I think...first, what key is it in then as I’m playing the notes I’m thinking about..oh yeah that looks like the 1 chord...here comes the 5 and now back to one.

    This was very hard for me at first but now that I’ve been playing for about 4 years now, practice my scales and arpeggios (chord tones) and double stops, and know many, many fiddle tunes I can pretty much figure it out quickly.

    It’s hard work and you’ll probably get discouraged but keep at it, it’s worth it in the end if you want to add another tool to your playing.
    Northfield F5M #268, AT02 #7

  25. #19

    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Quote Originally Posted by JanetH View Post
    I've just loaded a few bars in attachments below but not sure it's where it should be. Let me know.
    Are there rules to go by when converting standard notation to chords and what about II V I, etc?
    Thanks
    Just want to add that, thing is, almost all chords can be more than one chord, perhaps a few. Is there a guide for this?

  26. #20
    Registered User mmuussiiccaall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Figuring out chords from sheet music?

    Wow starting with jazz would befuddle the vast majority of musicians. The first two chords here are typical jazz chords, Bbm9 and Eb9/Bb. I would suggest starting with the study of guide tones as described here

    https://www.thejazzresource.com/guide_tones.html

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