Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Beginner
Intermediate
Advanced
23:03

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Lead Sheets
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
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One of the mysteries that jazz piano students often face when playing from a lead sheet is “How do I add harmony to the melody?” If you’ve ever wrestled with this question, then you’ve come to the right place. In today’s Quick Tip, Add Harmony Notes to a Melody: 6 Levels from Beginner to Pro, John Proulx shares how students of all levels can approach this common playing challenge. You’ learn:

Many of these techniques are easier than you might think. In fact, after today’s lesson, the only time you’ll need to play a single-note melody is when you want to.

Introduction

If you open any fake book, you’ll find that two main elements are included: the melody and the chord symbols. Of course, the song form is also inherently implied and sometimes you may even get the lyrics. However, the melody and the chords are generally what piano students focus on. After all, that’s what will make their performance of the song recognizable.

Often times, it is the chord symbols that get most of the student’s attention. That’s because there is a lot of information packed into those few abutting characters. Not only do students need to know what notes are implied by the chord symbols, they also need to know how to voice them. As a result, the melody can sometimes be an afterthought for students.

Yet the melody of a song is its most distinguishable and memorable aspect. Therefore, it is worthy of students’ intentional consideration. Just because a lead sheet notates the melody in a single-note texture doesn’t mean that a pianist has to play it that way. Instead, pianists can add harmony notes to the melody to create intriguing melodic colors and textures. This topic is often called melodic treatment or melodic harmonization. In fact, the unique melodic treatment techniques of jazz legends like Red Garland, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson are a big part of their signature sounds.

Today’s lesson explores 6 different melodic treatment techniques and applies them to “Fly Me To The Moon.” If you are a PWJ member, please be sure to visit the Smart Sheet Music companion to this lesson for value-added content. You can also download 3 backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. However, due to publisher’s restrictions, the printable PDF lesson sheet for this lesson must be obtained through our partners at MusicNotes.com.

Reasons to Add Harmony to a Melody

There are several reasons why pianists should learn how to add harmony notes to a melody. Perhaps the most important reason is that a harmonized melody has a thicker texture. This is especially important for pianists who play with an ensemble. Even though a single-note melody can be beautiful, in many ensemble settings a single-note melodic treatment will sound too thin.

Another great reason to add harmony notes to a melody is to create variety throughout a song performance. This pertains both to solo piano playing and ensemble situations. In either case, using a persistent single-note treatment for an entire song can sound a bit monotonous. Instead, changing up the melodic texture for different sections of a song is a great way to keep listeners actively engaged.

Melodic harmonization techniques are also important for jazz piano students because they contribute to achieving a more mature, authentic jazz piano sound. If you are already familiar with some of the various chord voicings techniques that jazz pianists use, then you understand how valuable it is to have a variety of options and skills available to you. The same is true of melodic voicing techniques.

6 Ways to Harmonize a Melody from Beginner to Pro

Now that we have considered why you might want to harmonize a melody, let’s examine how to actually do it! We’ll start with some basic harmonization techniques for beginner students to try. Then, we’ll gradually increase the intensity as we introduce melodic treatments for more experienced players. These examples also feature left-hand techniques that have been similarly tiered to match each playing level.

The examples in this section are excerpted from the lesson sheet PDF that appears in the featured Quick Tip video. All of the examples are in C major and are based on the first two measures of “Fly Me To The Moon.”

Level 1: 6th Intervals

One of the prettiest ways to add harmony to a melody is to include the note that is a 6th below it. There are a couple different options with this technique. One approach would be to add these harmony notes sparingly by opting to only include them on the strong beats (beat 1, or both 1 & 3). Alternatively, you can add a 6th interval below every melody note as in the example below. We call this latter approach parallel 6ths.

Level 1 - 6ths

Jazz melody harmonized with parallel 6ths.

One thing to notice with this approach is that some of the intervals will be major 6ths and others will be minor 6ths. So how do you know which 6th to use? Just be sure to use a harmony note that comes from the scale that is implied by the current chord symbol. In most cases, this note will be a note that is naturally found within the key signature. However, if the current chord requires an accidental, then your harmony note may require an accidental as well. For example, when you get to the E7 in measure 7, this chord contains a G♯, which is not in the key of C major. Therefore, when you have the melody note E over an E7 chord, your 6th below the melody must be a G♯.

Level 2: 3rd Intervals

Another simple way to add harmony to a melody is to include a note that is a 3rd below the melody. Just like we discussed in Level 1, you can add these 3rd intervals sparingly on the strong beats, or you can opt to harmonize each melody note in parallel 3rds.

Level 2 - 3rds

Jazz melody harmonized with parallel 3rds.

If you are familiar with intervals, then you’ll notice that some of these 3rds are major 3rds while others are minor 3rds. Remember to choose the 3rd that is supported by the chord symbol, which will most often come from the parent key.

Before we move on to the next level, we should mention that Levels 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive. In other words, you can use a combination of 6ths and 3rd intervals to harmonize your melody. For a great example of this, check out Lesson 7 of our full-length course The Jazz Ballad Challenge 1 (Int).

If you need more help understanding the concept of intervals in music theory, then our Ear Training – Interval Crash Course (Beg–Adv) will bring you up to speed.

Level 3: Chord Pops

Level 3 uses a technique called “chord pops” to add swingin’ harmonies to a jazz melody. With this technique, most of the harmony notes are not played simultaneously with the melody. Instead, this technique inserts soft, rhythmic stabs that are generally placed in spots where the melody is less active, such as on long tones or rests. If you are familiar with the concept of “comping” in jazz music, these “chord pops” are basically like comping for yourself.

Add Harmony to a Melody - Level 3 - Chord Pops

Jazz melody harmonized with “chord pops.”

Chord pops are almost aways comprised of either 2 or 3 notes. These notes can be chord tones, such as the root, 3rd 5th or 7th. However, “chord pops” may also include any of the common chord extensions (9th, 11th 13th) or alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13) that are available for the given chord symbol.

The easiest way to choose which notes to include in a chord pop to view the melody note as part of the overall chord voicing that is involved with the chord pop. For instance, in measure 1 of the example above, the chord pop includes the notes E–G-A (from the bottom up). If you include the C in the melody with this chord pop, you have the notes E–G-A–C, which is an Am7 chord shape in 2nd inversion. The reason why E–G-A works as a chord pop here is because these 3 notes can be easily reached while playing the C in the melody with the pinky finger.

For a more thorough exploration of “chord pops,” check out the following courses:

🔎 Fly Me To The Moon – Challenge 2 (Int)
🔎 Fly Me To The Moon – Challenge 3 (Adv)

Level 4: Red Garland Style

Our Level 4 melodic harmonization technique is known as “Red Garland Style.” This technique delivers the perfect jazz piano sound when you’re looking for a melodic texture that is big and bright. Other names for this approach include big band voicings or shout chorus voicings. As these names imply, jazz pianists use this melodic treatment when playing in a jazz combo or a big band.

Add Harmony to a Melody - Level 4 - Red Garland Style

Jazz melody harmonized in the Red Garland Style.

The Red Garland melodic treatment style places the melody in the upper register of the piano while simultaneously playing rhythmically-synchronized rootless voicings with the left hand. Advanced players will frequently opt for an even bigger sound by doubling the melody in octaves with the right hand and adding another chord tone in between the octaves.

A obvious prerequisite for playing a melody in the “Red Garland Style” is to have a firm grasp on all your rootless voicings. You can master these skills in the follow learning track:

🔎 Late Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track – Level 6

Level 5: Block Chords

Our Level 5 melodic treatment is for those times when you’re playing solo jazz piano and you want to get a thick, dense melodic texture, but you need to do it exclusively with the right hand because your left hand is already busy playing a bass line. For this playing scenario, we use a voicing technique known as block chords or 4-way close. This approach adds 3 harmony notes below the melody for a total of 4 notes altogether in the right hand. With this technique, the 4 notes always span less than an octave and there are no doubled notes.

Add Harmony to a Melody - Level 5 - Block Chords

Jazz melody harmonized with block chords using the 4-way close arranging technique .

There are a variety of considerations that go into harmonizing a melody with block chords. For example, when the melody note is a chord tone, we can harmonize it with chord tones only, or we can include chord extensions. To use chord extensions, we can replace the root with the 9th and/or the 5th with the 13th, depending on the chord type. Moreover, when the melody contains a non-chord tone, we can use one of Barry Harris’ 6th-diminished scales, as in the example above. This approach harmonizes a non-chord tone in the melody with a fully diminished 7th chord that resolves to the subsequent chord.

For a deep dive on how to harmonize a melody with block chords, check out the following learning track:

🔎 Early Advanced Piano Foundations Learning Track – Level 7

Level 6: Drop 2 Voicings

Our Level 6 melodic treatment presents another professional approach for harmonizing a jazz melody. In this level, we’ve used drop 2 voicings (aka drop 2 chords). Drop 2 voicings are like the big brother to 4-way close voicings in that they share the same notes, albeit over a wider span. Specifically, drop 2 voicings are based on  the intervallic span of a 10th. However, depending on which note is in the melody, sometimes the span will be a 9th instead. Compared to blocked chords, drop 2 voicings have prettier, more contemporary sound. The drop 2 technique is most commonly used in an ensemble setting because it requires both hands.

Add Harmony to a Melody - Level 6 - Drop 2 Voicings

Jazz melody harmonized with drop 2 voicings.

To play a melody with drop 2 voicings, we start by harmonizing it with the 4-way close arranging technique. Next, we remove the 2nd-note-from-the-top and play it an octave lower with the left hand. Hence, the name “drop 2.”

For a deep dive on drop 2 voicings, check out the following learning track:

🔎 Mid Advanced Piano Foundations Learning Track – Level 8

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Add Harmony Notes to a Melody: 6 Levels from Beginner to Pro. Now you can approach your favorite jazz standards with fresh melodic possibilities!

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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