Sept. 7, 2014

Vol. 9, Num. 1

Kalimba Magic NEWS

Adding Chords to Melody on the Kalimba
An Exploratory Discussion with Vlad

This article explores how to add chords to melodies. A chord is made when you have more than one note playing at the same time. Most classical chords are triads, or three notes (the 1, 3, and the 5). Richer chords have other notes added, but we will skip over that today. In order to play a triad on the kalimba, you may need to arpeggiate (play the notes one at a time) or play a glissando (swiftly drag the tip of your thumb nail over three adjacent tines).


Back in March 2013, we published an article in the Kalimba Magic newsletter authored by Vlad, an engineer who had devised an excellent alternative tuning for the Sansula that maximizes the number of melodies the Sansula can play. Well, Vlad is back stirring up information in a way that will be useful to many kalimba players! He wrote me this message recently asking for advice on how to add chords to melody on his new 17-Note Hugh Tracey Treble Kalimba...

Vlad: First let me say that I love my new 17-note Treble Kalimba from you :-) Its complexity opens some new musical horizons (and hurdles too) for me. That's perfect, I can learn a lot more on it than on the smaller one.

Please excuse me for bothering you with another long-ish e-mail :-). Here is my problem/question: I started by re-learning the few tunes I knew on the B9 (pocket sansula). During the process I ended up playing two variants of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy": the melody-only version (from another source) and your arrangement from the Treble Fundamentals book.

Ode To Joy
Melody and Chords for "Ode to Joy"

Your version is enriched with some harmony: chords and chord-like polyphony. I think that it's the same principle as in accompaniment. My problem is that I can't really figure out the system behind it.

I understood that you generally add a chord, containing the expected note, most of the times on the beat. If I try something similar with another tune I don't know which chord to choose!

Could you please refer me to some information about how accompaniment is done? I only found this article, but it goes the other way around: starts with the chord progression and builds the melody.

Since I am not a talented by-ear musician, I tend to get lost when experimenting and never find a good solution. Some theory could give me a good starting point for exploration and a way to correct mistakes.

Thanks again!!

Kalimba Magic: I'm sorry to say that I cannot give you hard and fast rules for adding chords to melody. Many songs follow standard progressions, yes, and one can learn to recognize these; however, just as many songs are not standard. But I am happy to do my best to provide you with some background towards strengthening your understanding about this very intriguing subject!

As only certain notes will be found on your diatonic kalimba, only certain chords can be made with it. Those chords are listed below for the Alto kalimba. Fortunately, these are also the most useful chords in the key of G, which means you can play a very large fraction of music in the key of G with just these chords, as long as you stay away from heavy classical and jazz.

The basic chords available to the Hugh Tracey Alto kalimba.

General rules of thumb about chord notation and chord formation:

The fact is though, there is no single formulaic method for putting chords behind a melody. There are many possible ways to add chords to melody, many will sound good... The mood of the melody guides chordal choices, as much as general rules of harmony, i.e., this is as much art as science (I would say more).

Vlad: Although you say there is no standard solution, I will follow your ideas:

Maybe after I know the progressions, I will be able to say "oh, that's how it goes" about some songs that I know notes-only for now.

I find your directions (i.e., try the standard progressions) useful in order to have a place to come back to when my "by-ear" experiments start to sound bad :-/.

Kind Regards,

Melody for Mbube
(The Lion Sleeps Tonight)
Progression: I IV I V

Kalimba Magic: Vlad, Start with Mbube = Wimmoweh = The Lion Sleeps Tonight, it is in the Fundamentals book, but the chords are not there. Lines 1 and 3 are melody based, and lines 2 and 4 outline the chords (lower and higher chords respectively). Line 1 is shown below, and you can click on the image to download the PDF for all four lines.

The progression is not explicitly stated, but it is: I IV I V. This is a very common chord progression. In the key of G that is G C G D. It goes around in a circle over and over again, and in the end should come back to I to resolve.

Interestingly, this is essentially the same progression Beethoven used for the first four measures of "Ode to Joy"! My arrangement of Ode to Joy uses an A minor or ii as the second chord, which is a substitute for C, or IV.

Try adding the chords in the lower notes along with the melody in Line 1. In this case (and in many cases) the chord changes come with the first beat of each measure, and it is very supportive to play a kalimba chord right with each change. You can write in the notes for each chord on the tablature alongside the line 1 melody. Try different voicings - even try different chords, as alternative chords can also work. You will hear some work better and some don't sound as good to you. There are no correct answers, there is just what sounds good TO YOU, and hopefully it will sound good to others as well.

The I IV I V progression of Wimmoweh goes kind of like this: It starts at I, goes to IV (vacations away from I), then returns to I, then goes to V (the ultimate GET AWAY from I). And now we are so far away from I that we yearn to GET BACK to I, which you do by repeating the entire phrase.

You can download a chart with chords for Alto, Treble, Pentatonic, and 8-Note kalimba.

Top of page

To sign up to receive the monthly Kalimba Magic newsletter by email,
enter your email address below:

Check out our past newsletters in
The Kalimba Magic Newsletter Archives

Discover the world of kalimbas at

Shop for kalimbas and accessories at