Part 1: Decoding the Chords
Hymns are written in four-part harmony. This is the style of writing you see in most hymnals. The four notes are played or sung together creating the harmony or chord. The melody is most often found in the highest pitch. The altos (lower female voices) sing the lower pitch on the treble clef staff. The tenors (higher male voices) sing the higher pitches in the bass clef staff, and the basses (lowest male voices) sing the lowest pitch in the bass clef. The stanzas or verses of the hymn are printed between the two clefs so that both parts can easily read the notes and the words. Since much of our historic hymnody is recorded this way, they are only available this way. There are publishers that are making lead sheets for hymns, but it is possible to create your own.
The first step is to take the top note of the each chord and write it on blank staff paper. Here is the first line of Praise To the Lord, The Almighty.
On blank staff paper, write in the treble clef, the key signature and the time signature. Then copy the top note of each chord for the entire hymn. (It can be helpful to write in the words under each pitch so that you can keep track of where you are in the song.)
After you have written out the melody line of the hymn and copied in the words, then go back and look at the other notes that are being sung or played at the same time. Identify all the pitches in the first beat. From the top note down, we see F – C – A – F. As we look at these pitches we ask ourselves, “Is there a way for these pitches to be organized so that they are all thirds apart?”
Bring the notes up from the bass clef and pencil them into the treble clef. When we bring the F up we find that we already have an F, so there is no need to rewrite that pitch. Now from top down we have A, C and F.
Since we are trying to have all the pitches a 3rd apart, we observe that the F and A are already a 3rd apart, so we don’t want to change those. The next question to ask is, “Is there a way to move the C so it is a 3rd from the F or the C?” The answer is yes!
When we move the C up an octave it is a 3rd above A. Now we have a triad. The root, or lowest pitch, names the triad. This is an F triad. Now we must determine if this is a major, minor, diminished or augmented triad. To do this we will count how many half steps are between the bottom two pitches and the top two pitches. Be sure and check your key signature to know what notes have flats and sharps as that will effect the size of the 3rds.
|Minor Triad||Diminished Triad||
|Top 3rd||Minor 3rd||Major 3rd||Minor 3rd||Major 3rd|
|Bottom 3rd||Major 3rd||Minor 3rd||Minor 3rd||Major 3rd|
F-A-C is an F Major triad. The lowest pitch in the bass clef staff is an F, so this triad is in root position. Over the first note on our new lead sheet, we will print a capital letter F.
Often in 4-part writing the chord changes on every beat, so you will need to work through this process for each note. Follow the steps below for each note.
- Step 1: Identify the chord letter: put as many of the pitches into 3rds. The root pitch will be the name of the chord.
- Step 2: Determine the quality of the triad: Count half steps between the 3rds to determine if the triad is major, minor, diminished or augmented.
- Step 3: Identify the lowest sounding pitch in the bass clef: If this pitch is the same as the root of the chord in step 1 then this chord is in root position.
- Step 4: Write the chord letter over the melody note: If the pitch is different than the root, then this chord is a slash chord. Write the chord then a slash and write the lowest sounding pitch on the right side of the slash.
Create a lead sheet from the 4–part setting of Praise to the Lord the Almighty using the steps above. Click the link below for a 4-part setting.