A short note on the principles according to which I assign chords for autoharp melody playing:


[Preliminary remarks for the non-autoharper:


 On the chromatic autoharp, for every note you play you have to engage a chord (only miracle players can do otherwise without producing discord or cacophony); therefore chords are only noted when there is a change. In other words, a chord is meant to last until another one appears.


 On the autoharp, you can play a melody note only if you engage a chord that contains this note. For example, you cannot play an _a_ note against a C chord, which - as you know - consists of the notes _c_, _e_ and _g_.]



I use terminology as follows:


A scale consists of 8 steps, the 8th designating the same note as the 1st, only an octave higher.


For general discussion, chords are denoted by Roman numerals, referring to the step in the scale upon which the chord is based. Upper case numerals indicate major (Dur) chords; e.g. for the C scale, "I" designates the C chord.


An added "7" indicates a seventh (Septim) chord (also called a dominant seventh); e.g. in the key of C, "I7" designates the C7 chord, consisting of the notes _c_, _e_, _g_ and _bb_.


Lower case numerals indicate minor (Moll) chords; e.g. for C, "i" designates the Cm chord, consisting of _c_, _eb_ and _g_. (Since I'm using Equal Temperament tuning, the 'e flat' can be replaced by a 'd sharp' here, spelling the Cm chord as _c_, _d#_ and _g_.)



I work according to these rules:

Rule 0.

When not discussing general ideas, I use concrete chord symbols, e.g. in the key of C a "C" letter instead of a "I" numeral. (Admittedly, this is due to the fact that my music notation software, MusicTime Deluxe from GVOX Corporation, doesn't support Roman numerals as chord designation; on the other hand, the software automatically updates the chords when I transpose the notation to another key.) In rare cases, single Roman numerals can appear, especially if I omit chord symbols according to Rule 1, below.

    The chord symbols are placed above the staff, usually exactly above the note which demands that chord. However, chord symbols appear sometimes between notes or where there is no note at all, as e.g. for the added filler measures in the sheet music for "Look, How on Mountain and Dale", see row with ID "Swiss #1" in the main table.


Rule 1.

Normally I assign to the scale steps 1 through 7 the chords I, V7, I, V7, I, IV, V7. (Note the V7 for step 4!).  So I normally DO NOT indicate these "trivial" chord assignments (except for the sake of completeness).

    An example of an "autoharp arrangement" with, according to this rule, no chord symbols at all, because not needing any, is the "Badnerlied", the anthem of the former Grand Duchy Baden, see row with ID "Baden" in the German songs sub-table.


Rule 2.

Of course, deviation from Rule 1 is called for sometimes, e.g. if the chord progression demands a IV chord for the 4th step note or, for another example, a V7 seems most suitable for a step 5 note or a IV chord for a step 1 note. Then I explicitly indicate such a chord.

    (Concrete instances of the last two examples can be found (in row with ID  "Klage" in the German songs sub-table) in the arrangement of "SchŠfers Klage", cf. measures 6 and 7.)

Giving chords explicitly is sometimes necessary when the tune contains out-of-scale notes, but here often applies Rule 3 below.

    And last but not least there is the aspect of "colouring" a tune by using chords other than the usual I, IV and V7. (An example is the use of Am instead of D7 in measures 13 and 14 in "SchŠfers Klage".)


Rule 3.

With the designation of a key its scale is also referred to, and so are the notes within that scale. This tautology translates to concrete operational help when applied to playing a chromatic autoharp with a 3-row chord buttons layout where the chords within a row are sequenced according to the Circle of Fifth and a proper relationship is provided for among the rows of majors, sevenths and minors (whatever the rows' relative position might be).

    In other words, the key designation determines where I position the fingers of my chording hand. And this is particularly so, when the key designation changes within a tune.

    Cf. for example the tune "Schlaf wohl, du Himmelsknabe du" (in row with ID  "undet #2" in the Christmas sub-table): The tune is in the key of G but for the measures 7 (where the tune jumps to the key of A) and 8 (where it returns with a stopover on the key of D).

   With explicitly pointing out the tune's intermediate modulation (or tonicization, the shifting of the tonic) it is, according to Rule 1, clear beyond any doubt that the chord for playing the _b_ notes in measure 7 must be the E7 chord and, for the _a_ and _c#_ notes, the A chord. Designating the key of D for measure 8 has double effect: It demands the D chord for the _d_ notes and, equally important, it suggests using the "tonic finger" for pressing the D chord and thus enabling with just a one position move of that finger pressing the G chord for playing the _d_, the first note in measure 9. (The G chord is here exactly the right one, following Rule 1.) And the tonicization in measure 11, the shift of the tonic to C, has a double effect: It causes the _b_ and _g_ notes in the measure to be played from the G7 chord and the _c_ note to be played from the C chord. (Without that tonicization marking those notes would be played from the G and D7 chords, respectively.)


In general, designating the key properly, particularly for temporary key changes, may save doubly: accidentals in the staff as well as chord symbols above the staff. While not all accidentals and, consequently, the chord symbols can be discarded this way, recognising and acknowledging tonicization is, according to my observation, the remedy for at least 80 % of accidentals in the Western (popular) music of the past 400 years.

    An example, where the recognition of a temporary modulation actually introduces accidentals in the staff, can be found in the sheet music for "Mountain Song" (in row with ID "Italian #1" in the main table): By changing the key designation for the staves beginning with measures 33 and 37, respectively, a natural sign became necessary in measure 38 -- and thus we have a logical explanation for the feeling that the Em chord is most appropriate for the _g_ notes in that measure!


Summarising, Rule 3 together with Rule 1 provides an extremely good guess which chords are to be assigned for melody playing a tune with out-of-scale notes.


Rule 4.

Modal tunes tend to be rather tricky, and this is true especially for the minor modes (natural, harmonic, melodic). So I do not rely on giving the mode, instead I always explicitly assign all the chords for modal tunes.



And this concludes my short (!) note.




Photo by Nicolai Meyer, June 2009