The Perpetual Beginner: what Bill Withers can teach you about harmony

August 14, 2017
The Perpetual Beginner: what Bill Withers can teach you about harmony

I’ve become a great fan of soul singer Bill Withers in recent years. His songs have always been familiar, but as with many things I’ve come to a new appreciation lately. There’s the voice, of course, and the songs, and the delivery. But most of all, I love the simplicity of the songs. The arrangements are sophisticated and cool, and groove like nobody’s business. But the songs themselves break down to very simple patterns, and it struck me today how one of his best-known songs makes a great primer for understanding basic harmony.

Lean On Me

The brilliance of “Lean On Me” is in its simplicity. A universally relatable lyric paired with a melody as simple as do-re-mi. Which, in fact, is what it is. The verse melody walks up and down the first 4 notes of a C major scale:

Lean On Me opening melody/chords
If you don’t read music, it’s ok…I bet you know the tune. Besides, except for the last chord of each line, the chord above each note corresponds. C chord with a C note, D minor chord with a D, etc.

This is a great illustration of two concepts:

1. How a melody can be harmonized with a chord to match each note.
2. How one chord can be substituted for another.

The first concept is easy. As we’ve already observed, for most of the melody the chords match the notes. Listen to the piano intro and you can hear the chords moving up and down the scale, just like the melody does. If we number the notes according to how they appear in the scale, we get both scale tones AND an illustration of the Nashville Number System:


Note:   1         1   2    3   4         4   3   2   1          1   2   3        3   2
Chord: 1         1   2m 3m 4        4  3m 2m 1         1 2m 3m     3m 57
Note:   1          1    2    3   4        4   3   2   1          1   2    3       7     1
Chord: 1          1   2m 3m 4        4  3m 2m 1         1 2m 3m      57   1


The Nashville Number System names the chord by its relationship to the corresponding scale tone. This should be very clear in the example above. But you might also notice that the penultimate chord of each line doesn’t match the melody note. This is an illustration of the second concept, the way chords harmonize a melody.


Simple chord theory

A basic major or minor chord is made up of three notes: the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale that corresponds to the root note. In other words, a simple C chord or C triad is made up of the first, third, and fifth notes of a C scale: C, E, and G. (This should be easy to see – just count up the letters of the alphabet from C, with C as number 1). That means that the chord will fit with any of those three notes. So a C chord can be used to harmonize a C, E, or G note. We would call those three notes the “chord tones”, and while they aren’t the only options they would be the most common ones.

Looking at the end of each line, you’ll notice a “57” chord. A “seventh chord” has four notes: the root (first), third, fifth, and seventh tones of the corresponding scale. The 5 chord in the key of C is build on the fifth note of the C scale, which is a G. We then re-number with G as note 1, and proceed with the 1, 3, 5, 7 formula from there. So a “G7” chord is made up of G, B, D, and F.

Here’s where things get a little confusing, because the numbers are being used two different ways. When we build the chord, the numbers relate to the root of the chord. So in a C chord, the note C is 1, while in a G7 chord the note G is 1.

But when we calculate the number for a Nashville Number chart, the numbers relate to the key or scale: so in the key of C, the note C is 1 and so the C chord is a 1 chord. That makes the note G number 5, and so the G chord is a 5 chord. To avoid confusion, just remember that the numbers in the chord formulas relate only to the chord, not the key.


Walkup, walkdowns, and resolution

This one little passage also illustrates one more essential concept in music, the idea of a chord progression. We can think of the tonic chord (the 1 chord) as our musical home in the key of C: the place we begin. When we “walk” up the scale, we feel a sense of movement. When we walk back down, we feel a sense of return. But when we finish the first line on that G7 chord, the music feels unresolved: it’s clear that there’s more coming. This is what a 5 chord does: it creates a need for resolution back home to the 1. You can hear this again at the end of the second line, when the G7 resolves back to C. The “progression” is a sequence that begins at home, moves away to a point of tension at the halfway point, and then repeats the movement again in a way that resolves that tension at the end. This is Western harmony in a nutshell.


Thank you Bill Withers for making it so simple!

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