Reharmonization: Play Any Note with Any Chord
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Have you ever wanted to take a popular tune and make it your own? Or maybe you’d like to play a traditional tune in a contemporary style. If so, then you are in the business of reharmonization. Some common reharmonization techniques include:
- Modifying Chord Progressions
- Applying Chord Substitutions
- Adding Passing Chords
- Using Borrowed Chords
- Changing Chord Voicings
- Using a Bass Pedal Note
However, in today’s Quick Tip video, PWJ instructor John Proulx demonstrates modern jazz piano reharmonization techniques that you may have never before considered. You might even call it extreme reharmonization! In fact, with the tools in today’s lesson, you’ll be able to harmonize any melody note over any root note! Today’s lesson covers:
- What is Reharmonization?
- Examples of Reharmonization
- How to Reharmonize a Song
- Modern Reharmonization Techniques
- Harmonization Charts
- Appendix: Reharmonization with Common Chord Progressions by Genre
What is Reharmonization?
Reharmonization is simply changing the chords to an existing melody. The most common reason to reharmonize a tune is to make it sound more interesting.
Examples of Reharmonization Techniques in Performance
Another reason musicians like to apply reharmonization techniques is to make their performances unique and personal. Check out the following clips of “Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz by six legendary jazz pianists. In each example, the presence of reharmonization is immediately noticeable, even to the untrained ear.
The key to reharmonization is vocabulary. The more chords and chord progressions you can play on the piano, the more options you have!
“Harmony is like language. As with any language, the more words you’re capable of speaking, the more you can say.”
In fact, you’ll definitely want to download the printable PDF lesson sheet and harmonization charts that accompany this lesson. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.
Reharmonizing a Familiar Tune
Let’s preview an example of reharmonization on piano with notation so you can follow along. First, we’ll consider a traditional presentation of the English lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in F major.
Our next example presents the same original melody. However, in this example, John Proulx has applied a modern jazz reharmonization technique.
Wow! That is definitely some extreme reharmonization! How was John able to use so many chords from outside the key of F Major? The answer is by including some other type of structure to guide the listener.
Analysis and Explanation of Reharmonization Techniques
Did you notice that the bass line descends chromatically throughout the entire excerpt? This is a modern jazz harmonization technique. In fact, this harmonization was reverse-engineered. In other words, John decided he wanted to end on some sort of F chord because the melody is in F. Next, he worked backward to determine what starting note would allow him to end on an F in the bass. Therefore, he determined that by beginning on a G♭ in the bass, he would be able to descend chromatically to F. Lastly, he selected chord qualities that are compatible with the relationship of the melody note to the bass note. In cases in which more than one chord quality was possible, he used his ear as a guide.
It’s worth pointing out that the majority of the chords in John’s reharmonization are dominant chords. This is not surprising. As you continue in today’s lesson, you’ll discover that dominant chords are the most versatile chord quality for reharmonization. In fact, a dominant chord is cable of harmonizing up to 11 different melody notes! By comparison, a major chord can only be used to harmonize 7 melody notes. Don’t worry—we’ll illustrate this principle in detail in the section of this lesson on harmonization charts.
How to Reharmonize a Song in 4 Steps
The are many different reharmonization techniques you can use to personalize a song. However, no matter which technique you use or what style you play, the starting point is essentially the same.
- Be certain of the original melody
- Learn the original chords
- Decide how frequently to change chords
- Engage in harmonic exploration
Now, let’s look at each step in detail.
Step 1: Be Certain of the Original Melody
Melody is the glue in the world of reharmonization. Or, in scientific terms, it is the independent variable in the experiment. Therefore, it’s important begin with absolute clarity on the original melody that is to be reharmonized.
You would think most musicians would not set out to remake a song they don’t know very well, but this is not always the case. A certain amount of homework should be done beforehand. Often times, errors are introduced through overdependence on secondary sources, such as The Real Book. (You do know it contain errors, right?) It is recommended that you search for several recordings, especially early or original recordings whenever possible. It is also helpful to consult multiple scores or lead sheets.
Another common source of error involves failure to comprehend the overall song form. Therefore, consider mapping out the form on paper like the example below. This can help you visualize how to plan your reharmonization to include rising tension like a good story.
Step 2: Learn the Original Chords
Before you start adding and swapping chords, it’s a good idea to learn the original chords. The goal is to get an overall sense of the basic harmonic structure. For example, many melodies can be harmonized entirely with primary chords—the I, IV and V. This is an excellent starting point before applying any specific reharmonization techniques. In addition, give close consideration to cadences. A musical cadence is a point where the melody and harmony come to a sense of pause or closure. Examine what the resting chord is and how it is prepared. These are areas you may wish to change through the use of suspensions or tonicization.
The next step is to decide how frequently you will change chords. For example, John Proulx’s reharmonization of “Twinkle Twinkle” changes chords on every beat. However, this is not the only option. You could also changes chords every two beats…possibly even once per measure. The rate at which you change chords is called the harmonic rhythm. Generally speaking, you should consider changing chords with a consistent harmonic rhythm. One exception to this principle is that it is common to adjust the harmonic rhythm as you approach a cadence—either slackening or accelerating the rate of change. Another factor that affects harmonic rhythm is genre. For example, you may want to examine the harmonic rhythm or “rate of change” for the chords of typical song in your target style.
Quarter Note Harmonic Rhythm
Half Note Harmonic Rhythm
Step 4: Engage in Harmonic Exploration
Once you have completed steps 1 through 3, you are ready to begin reharmonizing your tune through harmonic exploration. Here are several common methods you may consider.
Apply Jazz Chord Voicings
Many times, you may simply want to make a song sound more jazzy. In this case, your reharmonization may only require applying jazz chord voicings to the original chords.
Add Chord Substitutions & Passings Chords
More often than not, you will need to change some of the original chords. In this case, a little music theory goes along way in knowing a handful of hip chord substitutions that sound great. In addition, passing chords are a great way to create tension and add momentum. You can take a deep dive on this topic in our full-length courses on Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3).
Apply Chord Progressions by Musical Style
Another method to reharmonize a tune is to examine if the melody is compatible with a different chord progression. This is particularly relevant when you want to adapt a tune to a specific musical style since each style generally has its own collection of harmonic conventions. For example, the vi–IV–I–V progression is common in contemporary pop music. Similarly, the cycle of 5ths progression frequently occurs in jazz.
Be sure to check out the appendix to this lesson—Common Chord Progressions by Genre—for a curated list of free resources on specific chord progressions in over a dozen musical styles.
Change Chords by Treating Melody Note as a Different Chord Tone
Each of the previous harmonic exploration techniques discussed draw on common sources such as voicings, substitutions, and stylistic conventions. In essence, each of these methods applies a “chords 1st/melody 2nd” approach. In other words, the previous methods try to see if a familiar voicing, substitution or progression works with a preexisting melody. However, you can also use the opposite approach—”melody 1st/chords 2nd.” John Proulx has dubbed this method The Reharmonization Game. The video below demonstrates the spirit of this approach, which often leads to less obvious and more interesting harmonic choices.
How to Play the Reharmonization Game
- Start by comparing the relationship of the original melody note to the original chord. Often, the melody will be the root, 3rd, 5th or 7th of the chord. For example, if the melody note is E and the chord is C major, then the melody note is the 3rd of the chord.
- Discover additional harmonic options by treating the melody note as a different chord tone. For example, ask yourself, “What if the melody note was the 5th of a chord?” That would give you a root note of A. Using this method, you could use any A chord that contains E as the 5th: A major, A minor, A7, Asus4 and so on. You can repeat this process by considering each possible chord tone (root, 3rd 5th, 7th) and extension (9th, 11th, 13). You can even explore what chords are possible if the melody note is treated as a chord alteration (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13)!
Modern Reharmonization Techniques
In this section, we’ll examine some modern jazz harmonization techniques than you can also use to reharmonize a tune.
Parallel harmony, also called planing, is a modern harmonization technique that uses strict transposition to treat each melody note with an identical voicing.
Circle of 5ths With Dominants
The following example demonstrates another modern reharmonization technique. In this method, the melody is harmonized with dominant chords moving counter-clockwise around the circle of 5ths.
Stepwise Bass line
John Proulx’s sample reharmonization that we looked at earlier is an example of another modern technique. Keep in mind that modern reharmonization techniques do not necessarily follow traditional harmonic rules. However, structures such as stepwise bass lines that ascend or descend by ½ or whole step give a sense of resolution to the listener. In addition, the relationship between the melody and the bass note is very important. The use of upper structure triads is one voicing technique that allows for a good balance of tension within each chord.
How to Practice Modern Reharmonization Techniques
In this section, we’ll share a helpful way to practice reharmonization. This exercise will help you envision a target melody note as any potential chord tone, extension or alteration.
In the following exercise, the bass line descends chromatically while the melody remains on the note F. As a result, the interval between the bass note and the melody becomes a ½ step larger with each successive chord. Therefore, the melody note becomes a different chord tone, extension or alteration with each chord—Root, ♭9, 9, ♯9, 3, 4, ♯11, 5, ♯5, 6, ♭7, 7. Note, in some cases, more than one chord quality that will work for a particular root. For example, this exercise could start on any F chord.
Often times, it can be difficult to recognize all the harmonic possibilities for a given melody note. That is, until now! The harmonization charts is this section enable you to quickly discover every possible way to harmonize any melody note.
How to Use the Harmonization Charts
- Identify the melody note to be harmonized
- Select the harmonization chart the corresponds to the chord quality you’d like to try first
- Locate the row on the harmonization chart that corresponds to your melody note
- Work out a chord voicing that you like
Remember, each chart presents possibilities for a specific chord type: dominant, major, minor, half-diminished, and fully diminished.
- Each ROW presents a melody note and specific chords that can be used to harmonize it
- The COLUMNS indicates the relationship of the melody note to the chord symbol
- The GREY CELLS indicate roots that cannot support a melody note for the given chord type
Chord symbols presented in the charts provide the simplest voicing that will support the melody note. The printable PDF harmonization charts included with this lesson list chord suffixes for additional voicing options when available.
Congratulations! You’ve completed today’s lesson. The following PWJ courses are available for additional study related to today’s topic.
- Passing Chords & Reharmonization (Level 2, Level 3)
- 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches (Level 2, Level 3)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2)
- Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3)
If you want to explore reharmonization on a familiar song, then check out the following resources:
- All the Things You Are (Level 3)
- Amazing Grace (Level 2, Level 3)
- Danny Boy (Level 3)
- Happy Birthday (Levels 2 & 3)
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Levels 2 & 3)
- Misty (Level 3)
- Ode to Joy (Level 2)
- Silent Night (Level 2)
- The Way You Look at Me (Level 3)
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Levels 2 & 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We look forward to having you back again soon!
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Appendix: Reharmonization with Common Chord Progressions by Genre
The following links of curated PWJ resources contains genre-specific chord progressions that provide useful starting points for reharmonization in each style that is represented.
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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