10 Best Ways to Harmonize a Chord Progression
After a long day, there is nothing quite like arriving home. In fact, you probably know several different routes to navigate to your home depending on the traffic and weather. When it comes to the piano, does it really make sense to navigate home harmonically with the same chords every single time? Of course not! Fortunately, in today’s Quick Tip you’ll learn 10 different ways to harmonize the world’s most common chord progression. We’ll cover:
- 10 Dominant Chords
- 3 Tonic Chords
- 2 Chord Extensions
- 4 Chord Alterations
If you’re a beginner, you may want to consider tackling just one of the following variations and bookmarking this lesson for future reference. Intermediate pianists will be able to handle several more of the harmonizations in today’s lessons. Finally, advanced players will love the breadth of rich harmonic variety available in each of the options that we’ll cover.
Let’s jump in!
The Worlds Most Common Chord Progression
For the sake of simplicity, today’s Quick Tip is in the key of C Major. You may be wondering, “What is the world’s most common chord progression?” The answer: the resolution from Dominant to Tonic. If those terms are unfamiliar to you, then perhaps you may have learned this progression expressed as V to I (or 5 to 1). For example, in C Major this progression resolves from G to C and it is used to create a senses of closure at the end of a phrase group, section or an entire piece. The following image shows this progression using basic triads.
While this progression is extremely common, we cannot overstate that in actual practice these chords often receive a nuanced touch depending on the genre and era of the repertoire in which they occur.
Let’s take a closer look at some specific examples.
The first way to add more color to a V to I progression is to convert the V chord into a Dominant 7th chord. We refer to this usage here as “barbershop chords” because this sound is a prominent feature of barbershop arranging. However, Dominant 7th chords can be used to harmonize a V to I chord progression in many genres and as a pianist you will want to be familiar with all 12 Dominant 7th chords. In the example below, the note F is the 7th of G7.
You can quickly convert any V chord into a V7 chord by adding the note that is a whole step below the root. Furthermore, our Dominant 7th Chord Exercises course is packed with 17 exercises to help you master this chord is any setting.
French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862–1918) is well known for writing harmonically rich piano and orchestral works. His use of dominant chords frequently include the 9th for additional harmonic color. In the following example, the note A is the 9th of G9.
You can quickly convert any V7 chord into a V9 chord by adding the note that is a whole step above the root. In fact, the 9th is one of three chord extensions that can be added to a 7th chord. For further exploration, check out our Piano Chord Extensions course, which covers extensions in full detail for all major 7th, dominant 7th, and minor 7th chords.
A third way to harmonize today’s chord progression is by using a Dominant 13th chord in place of the Dominant triad. We’ve called these chords “stock chords” here because this is a classic sound that works well to harmonize most melodies found in a fake book. In the example below, the note E is the the 13th of G13.
A fast way to build this chord is to add the note 3 half steps below the root. In addition, you can learn to apply this classic sound to a jazz or blues tune in our Coloring Dominant Chords with Extensions course.
A fourth cool way to harmonize a V to I chord progression is to use the ♭13 sound on your Dominant chord. We refer to this here as “stride chords” because of the frequency with which these chords occur in stride piano playing. Similar to “stock chords” above, “stride chords” also feature the 13th; however, it is lowered by a half-step. This is referred to as a chord alteration and is indicated in the chord symbol with a ♭13 in parenthesis. For example, the note E♭ below is the ♭13 in the chord G9(♭13).
If you want to quickly find the ♭13 for any Dominant chord, look for the note that is 4 half steps below the root. If you want to learn more about how to apply further chord alterations in your playing, you will love our Piano Chord Alterations course.
For our next example, we have a Dominant chord that combines one chord extension and one chord alteration. We’ll refer to these as “dark chords” because of the sonic quality created by the ♭9. In the example below, the ♭9 is the note A♭. In addition, the dominant chord also has the 13th (E).
When you want to make your V13 chord darker, you can quickly add the ♭9 by finding the note that is a half step above the root. If you are a PWJ member, you can download the entire lesson sheet for today’s Quick Tip at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly transpose this lesson into any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Sometimes you may want to harmonize a V to I chord progression with a more dissonant sound. In this case, you’ll find that “twilight chords” are a great option (named after the memorable sci-fi musical theme from the American TV series The Twilight Zone). To create these chords, simply add a ♯11 chord alteration to the Dominant chord. In the example below, the note C♯ is the ♯11 of G7(♯11) .
To convert any V7 into a V7(♯11) chord, add the note 6 half steps above the root.
Bill Evans Chords
For yet another rich harmonization possibility, consider the following ♯9♭13 combination frequently used by American jazz pianist Bill Evans (1920–1980). Evans’ innovations in jazz harmony in the 1950s have reshaped the practice of jazz piano to the present day. In the example below, the note A♯ is the ♯9 of G7(♯9♭13) and the note E♭ is the ♭13 . In many contexts, either of these tones may occur with an enharmonic equivalent spelling. For example, if the A♯ is written instead as a B♭, it becomes much clearer to recognize that this chord can be easily constructed by superimposing an E♭Major triad above a G7 shell. We call this type of dominant chord construction an upper structure triad.
To create a Dominant 7(♯9♭13 ), add the notes 3 half steps above the root and 4 half steps below the root. You can also think of this chord as a V7 shell with a major chord in the right hand built on the ♭6 above the root. If you like this sound, you’ll love our full-length course on Coloring Dominant 7th Chords with Upper Structure Triads.
Another distinctive sound for harmonizing a V to I chord progression is to use “dream chords.” This chord progression applies the characteristic sound of the whole tone scale to the Dominant chord. We call these “dream chords” because of the association of the whole tone scale with flashbacks and dream sequences in popular TV and film. In the G9(♯11♭13) below, did you notice that if all of the chord tones are reduced within a single octave, you are left with a whole tone scale?
You can build a dream chord by starting with a Dominant 9th chord. Next, add the note 6 half steps above the root and the note 4 half steps below the root.
A common device that works great for jazz intros is an ascending Dominant run using an “intro chord.” The proper name for this chord is a Dominant 13(♭9♯11). In the example below, the note A♭ is the ♭9 and C♯ is the ♯11. This chord also contains the note E as the 13th.
You can build an “intro chord” by starting with a Dominant 13 chord. Next, add the note a half step above the root and the note 6 half steps above the root.
Finally, if you want a crunchy jazz sound, you can harmonize your V to I progression using “altered chords.” In the example below, there are 3 chord alterations added to the G7(♭9♯11♭13) as indicated in the chord symbol. The ♭9 is the note Ab, the ♯11 is C♯ and the ♭13 is E♭.
To built an altered chord like the example above, simply add the note 4 half steps below the root, the note 6 half steps above the root and the note 3 half steps above the root.
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you will love applying additional ways to get back home in the following courses:
Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
Get free weekly lessons to your inbox!
More Free Lessons
Learn to master the stride piano techniques that dominated early solo jazz piano styles for nearly half-a-century with this #1 stride piano exercise.
Discover the techniques used by composer Joshua Foy to improvise various moods used in film music on the piano.
Piano students of all levels will learn to improvise effortless and musical lines with the major scale in the contemporary style using these 3 techniques.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Try us out completely free for 14 days!