Block Chords – The Complete Guide
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If you’ve been studying jazz piano for sometime, you’ve probably learned some jazzy chord voicings, especially for your left hand. But what about the melody? For instance, how do you go beyond playing the melody as a single note? The answer is block chords. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn how to harmonize a melody using block chords in 6 steps. This sound is most notably associated with pianist George Shearing (1919–2011) who popularized the sound in the 1940s and 50s. This Complete Guide to Block Chords includes:
- 7 block chord voicings for major chords (1 for each note in the major scale)
- 6 major chord symbols to use with block chords
- 3 backing tracks
- Theory & application for harmonizing a melody with block chords
You’ll find that this classic jazz piano sound is just right for the timeless melodies of your favorite jazz standards.
Intro to Block Chords for Jazz Piano
In the jazz language, block chords refers to an arranging technique in which a melody is harmonized in 5 parts. Specifically, this technique voices the melody in octaves with 3 notes in between. Usually, the right hand plays the top 4 notes while the left hand plays 1 note (see example above). The excerpt above is a tip of the hat to “Fly Me to the Moon” from our Play Piano Leads Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones course. Many players also refer to this arranging technique as locked hands. Sometimes, the term “block chords” is used more broadly to refer to any melodic harmonization of 4 or more notes. However, for the purpose of this lesson, we’ll use the term with reference to the specific “Shearing-style” five-note harmonization practice.
Block Chords Step 1: Melody
The first step to capturing that signature Shearing sound is to understand how and when to apply this technique. First, you must understand that this is a melodic harmonization technique. In fact, if you come from a classical piano background, the term “block chords” means something entirely different. In that setting, it primarily refers to a left hand accompaniment technique, which is usually contrasted with “broken chord” patterns.
Bottom Up vs Top Down
Students trained in classical music theory tend to think of chords from the bottom up. The “bottom up” perspective views chords primary through the lens of their root and bass note for the purpose of identification and function. However, in jazz, when we approach melodic harmonization with block chords, we are thinking from the top down. In other words, the melody note dictates the chord voicing. In fact, it would be antithetical to approach a mere chord progression with the block chord method. This technique requires a melody first.
The example below shows an ascending C Major scale over a C Maj7 chord. The significance of the block chord technique is that it allows a jazz pianist to harmonize any melody note of the C scale in 5 parts. This even includes chord extensions and non-chord tones, all while preserving an overall harmonic implication of C Major. In the following steps, you’ll learn how to harmonize each of these scale tones.
Block Chords Step 2: Double the Melody One Octave Down
To build out our harmonization, we’ll start by doubling the melody an octave below with the left hand. This is a fundamental distinction of the Shearing-style block chord technique as compared to drop 2 voicings. In drop 2 technique, the left hand generally plays a 10th below the melody. Another important distinction is that block chord voicings use five notes as compared to drop 2 voicings which only use four.
Block Chords Step 3: Add Inner Harmonies
Now that you have your melody in octaves, let’s fill in the inner harmonies. The diagram below shows which notes to add to complete the voicing for each melody note.
Wow, what a gorgeous sound! But how should you go about memorizing all these voicing formulas? At first glance, all these numbers appear somewhat random. However, it helps to recognize that the melody notes 1, 3, 5 and 6 all use a C6 chord to fill in the harmony. Or, as an alternative, you may also think of scale notes 1, 3, 5 and 6 as using an Am7. That’s because C6 and Am7 contain the same 4 notes (C-E-G-A vs A-C-E-G).
When the above insight is taken into consideration, that leaves only 3 voicing formulas to “memorize.” Specifically, the remaining voicings to memorize are for melody notes 2, 4 and 7 shown below.
As you can see above, these formulas are not so random after all. In fact, your right hand is playing familiar chord shapes. However, keep in mind that regardless of whatever internal shape your right hand is playing, the harmony is still some type of C Major (ie: C Maj7, C 6/9 etc). Even when harmonizing the 4th scale tone, this should not be thought of as a chord change to Dm7. Instead, the F in the melody would likely be a passing tone that occurs and a weak beat. Since the E in C6 would clash with the F, we harmonize the F with Dm7 in passing.
Practice Suggestions for Block Chords
In order to master the block chords sound, you will need to drill them extensively to get them under your fingers. This is not a performance technique that you execute by reading the notation. Keep in mind, George Shearing was born blind. Therefore, to aid you in mastering these chords, today’s lesson includes 3 backing tracks at various tempos. You can download the lesson sheet and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to another key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Practice Suggestion 1
First, play the C major scale in block chords ascending and descending with the backing tracks.
Practice Suggestion 2
Next, try playing the C Major Scale in block chords with different melodic patterns. For example, 1-2-3, 2-3-4, 3-4-5. The example below uses a pattern of ascending 3rds (ie: 1-3, 2-4, 3-5, etc). You may that find playing skips or leaps is more challenging than stepwise motion. Therefore, it is important that your practice routine includes more than just the stepwise motion of the previous example.
Practice Suggestion 3
Finally, try making up your own small melodic figures and converting them into block chords. Here is an example.
Block Chords Step 4: Major Chords Symbols for Harmonization
In this step, we will cover the six major chord types that work with the voicing formulas from step 3. Remember, in this lesson, we are focusing specifically on how to harmonize any melody note from the C Major scale that you may encounter over a C Major chord. The following six C Major chords variations each work with the major block chords voicings from the previous section.
Great job! You’re ready to practice adding block chords to a sample melody in the next section.
Block Chords Step 5: Sample Melody
In this section, we will use steps 1 through 3 to harmonize a single-note melody with block chords. The following sample melody makes for great practice because it contains all seven scale tones.
Let’s review each step. In step 1, we begin with the melody and think top down. If necessary, you may find it helpful to pencil-in the scale degrees for each melody note. For step 2, simply double the melody an octave below with your left hand. Finally, in step 3, add the inner harmonies in your right hand to complete the harmonization. After working through the example above, you can check your results in the next section.
Block Chords Step 6: Apply to Melody
In this section, we’ll show the complete harmonization for the sample melody from step 5. Did you get the following results?
Nice work! You may be wondering how to harmonize a melody that includes chord changes with minor and dominant chords. Great question! There are separate block chords harmonization formulas for minor and dominant chords. You can learn those formulas in our Block Chords course, which includes major, minor and dominant voicings in all 12 keys!
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on block chords. If you enjoyed this lesson, you will love the following resources:
- Block Chords Smartsheet
- 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 1 (Level 2)
- 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches 2 (Level 3)
Thanks for joining us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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