Christmas Carol Harmony – Part 2

This four step lesson delves into harmonic devices and how to arrange them on the guitar.

Hopefully having fleshed out the basic melodic structure from the Christmas Harmonization Part 1, we are now going to furnish it with some structural components such as cadences, transposition and moving bass lines, which will help create an accompaniment. This lesson will utilise the first section of the Coventry Carol.

Step 1:

We need to create the musical equivalent of punctuation, otherwise known as the cadence. These are generally placed at the end of musical sentences or phrases to solidify the structure, and give it form. (Need some help with cadences? Check out this further post: The Art of the Cadence.)

Coventry Carol - Devices 2

The first two examples across line 1, are a perfect cadence or V – I.

The third example in line 2 is a soft cadence or plagal cadence IV – I.

The last example is an interrupted cadence or V – __ (to any other chord in this case a VI chord).

Each cadence furnishes the music with a particular feel. In the case of the V-I its a full stop, the IV – I is a pause and the V-VI gives a feeling of there being more still to say.

Step 2:

Bass lines are the life blood of any piece, they add movement and anchor the melody to the harmony; Using the bass line to move between chords, creates links and fills out any space.

Coventry Carol - Devices 3

The two examples above use a bass line that in the first example follows the melody’s direction and the second example a bass line that goes in contrary motion or against the melodic direction. There are many other lines and rhythms you could add, it depends on what style or period you are aiming for in your arrangement; and of course your own personal taste.

Step 3:

This next step is important, octave transposition, and it is used a lot on the guitar as sometimes your melody might be too low and does not sit comfortably on the fretboard.

Coventry Carol - Devices 4

Generally it is a good idea to aim to play the melody on strings 1 & 2 (E or B). So here I have transposed step 2’s lines up an octave thus converting their bass line into a middle Alto voice and allowing me to add in a further bass voice.

Step 4:

Here we add the rhythmic interest and convert all our basic ideas above into the accompaniment.

What the hell is that, you ask?

Well using the analogy of a rock band, so far we have worked on the singer (melody), the keys (middle voice) and the bass player (bass lines). What is missing? The drums! By rhythmically splitting the ideas and adding in extra, faster rhythms we create a sense of movement.

Coventry Carol - Devices 5

Example one above is a basic accompaniment in the style of Carcassi, Fernando Sor or Mauro Giuliani. This is a simple off beat pattern on one repeated note that pushes the music along and fleshes out the harmony.

Coventry Carol - Devices 6

Example two transposes this up an octave, the bass becoming a middle Alto voice again, and adds in a further bass line; as well as using intervals of a third, fourth and sixth. The ideas have been crafted to fit the music and its direction and not a slavish copy of ex. 1.

Coventry Carol - Devices 7

Example three transposes most of the ideas of no. 2  into a new key – F minor. It is modeled after Roland Dyens and his style of accompaniment. Be warned: this is not a usual key for the guitar, or even an easy key however it does highlight one of the central tenets of music: Setting up expectations and denying them. Classical music is built on this. Think how boring it would be if you always knew where the music was going to all the time. A surprise now and then is healthy; plus F minor is a surprisingly dark key on the guitar.

Coventry Carol - Devices 8

Example four is really a guitar duo on one stave, it is in the style of a Bach Chorale. Here the melody has been buried in the Tenor line. The aim of this example is to make the soprano and bass voice as independent as possible. It has everything discussed in this article and more within it.


Hopefully this two part lesson proves helpful to understanding how to flesh out a melody and get it up and running as an arrangement. Realistically you are only hampered by your imagination and ears.

So how do you improve then?

Well the more you study other musicians and how they approach arranging the better you will become. I recommend Roland Dyen’s 20 Lettres or his French song arrangements; Leo Brouwer’s works most especially his studies and of course Mauro Giuliani’s 120 right hand exercises found in his Op.1. All can be mined for inspiration.

Classical guitarist who strives to share a little #6stringinspiration.

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