Silent Night Jazz Ballad
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Some things in life are better together. And when it comes to the holidays, lush jazz piano colors are the perfect texture for those timeless Christmas melodies. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn to play an intermediate jazz ballad arrangement of the beloved holiday classic, “Silent Night.” PWJ co-founder Yannick Lambrecht will walk you through this jazzy piano arrangement note-for-note. He’ll also teach you foundations of jazz theory that you can use to play other holiday favorites in a jazz style. You’ll learn:
- 7th Chords
- Chord Extensions
- Sus Chords
- Reharmonization & Tonicization
If you love jazz and Christmas music, then you’ll definitely want to dig into this piano tutorial on “Silent Night” in the jazz ballad style.
“Silent Night” Traditional Setting
Before we get into today’s jazz ballad arrangement, it’s important to have an understanding of the melody and harmony for “Silent Night” in a traditional sense. Most traditional tunes can be harmonized using primary triads—the tonic (1-chord), subdominant (4-chord) and dominant (5-chord). The following diagram shows all the diatonic triads in C Major with functional labels indicating the primary triads.
Diatonic Triads in C
Let’s look at an excerpt of “Silent Night” in lead sheet notation harmonized with primary triads. You can download today’s complete lesson sheet which includes both the traditional setting and the jazz ballad arrangement in full grand staff notation. The lesson sheet PDF appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
“Silent Night” Harmonized with Primary Triads
You might be thinking that this sounds pretty plain, right? So why is it important to start with this framework? Actually, there are several reasons. Firstly, melodies like “Silent Night” that contain frequent leaps are harder to memorize as compared to tunes that contain more stepwise motion. Therefore, understanding the harmonic framework helps you to relate the leaps to a memorable chordal structure. For example, leaping from the “E” in measure 4 to the “D” in measure 5 can be difficult to recall. However, understanding that you are going to the dominant chord (G major) in measure 5 helps you view the melody of measures 5 and 6 as an arpeggiation of the dominant triad—memory problem solved!
Another reason it is important to start with a basic harmonization using primary chords is that we never really get too far away from this framework. As we apply the jazz ballad stylization, the primary chords serve as destinations to which we’ll add 2-5-1 progressions. Again, this aides in memorization, enabling you play the tune, solo over the form and even transpose to another key all without the need for sheet music. You might be thinking, “I’m not there yet.” And that’s okay. The point is that it would be nearly impossible to memorize the tune, take a solo and transpose it without understanding the basic harmonic structure.
Applying Jazz Harmony to Christmas Favorites
So how do you get that classic jazzy piano sound on a traditional Christmas favorites like “Silent Night?” It’s actually not too difficult. First, you’ll need to substitute jazz chords in place of regular triads. Secondly, you’ll want to expand the basic harmony with jazz chord progressions, especially 2-5-1 progressions. Let’s look at these considerations one at a time.
“Silent Night” Jazz Ballad Piano Chords
The foundation of jazz harmony is built on 7th chords. Therefore, the first step to playing “Silent Night” in a jazz ballad style is to review your diatonic 7th chords in C Major.
You probably noticed that by playing diatonic 7ths chords you’ve already come a long way toward getting a jazz piano sound. However, many jazz piano chords include more than 4 notes. In fact, in our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide, Jonny breaks down over 30 different chord constructions. Among the most common jazz piano chords are those that include chord extensions (9th, 11th, 13th) and alterations (♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13). The diagram below from today’s lesson sheet shows the most common extensions and alterations for major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords.
Great, now that you have an overview on jazz piano chord construction, the next step is to review the most common jazz chord progression. However, if you need additional support understanding jazz piano chords, then be sure to check our our guided learning tracks on Intermediate Piano Foundations (Part 1, Part 2).
“Silent Night” Jazz Ballad Chord Progressions
The focus of this section is to view each major 7th chord and minor 7th chord in C Major as a potential target for a 2-5-1 progression. This will introduce chords from outside of C Major into our arrangement. However, each 2-5-1 progression will resolve to a diatonic chord. Each 2-5-1 progression gives the impression of a mini-modulation. However, since the harmonic emphasis is only temporary, the proper term for this is tonicization. If you are already familiar with secondary dominants, this is a closely related technique. The distinction is that tonicization includes additional secondary chords besides the secondary dominant (in this case, a secondary 2-chord). We’ll begin with 2-5-1 progressions that resolve to major 7th chords.
2-5-1 Progressions Resolving to Major 7th Chords
In any major key, the 1-chord and 4-chord are a major 7th chord quality. While the 5-chord is a dominant quality, it too is often the target of a 2-5-1 progression (sometimes an incomplete 2-5-1; i.e.: only the ii-V). The diagram below shows a 2-5-1 progression for each major 7th chord target in C Major (I Maj 7, IV Maj 7, V Maj 7).
In each case, these chords are drawn from the major scale that corresponds to each target chord. Be sure to notice the chord qualities for 2-5-1 progressions resolving to major 7th chords:
- the 2-chord is a minor 7th chord
- the 5-chord is a dominant 7th chord
- the 1-chord is a major 7th chord
In the next section, will examine 2-5-1 progressions resolving to each of the minor diatonic chords in C Major (ii, iii, vi).
2-5-1 Progressions Resolving to Minor 7th Chords
Each of the minor chords in C Major (Dm7, Em7, Am7) can also serve as a target for a 2-5-1 progression. The chord qualities for a minor 2-5-1 progression are slightly different since they are drawn from the minor scales that correspond to each minor target chord:
- the 2-chord is a half-diminished 7th chord
- the 5-chord is a dominant 7th chord (frequently an altered dominant)
- the 1-chord is a minor 7th chord
The diagram below shows a 2-5-1 progression for each minor 7th chord target in C Major (ii7, iii7, vi7).
Fantastic! You now have all the necessary ingredients needed to arrange “Silent Night” or any other holiday favorite in the jazz ballad style.
Arranging “Silent Night” for Jazz Piano
In this section, we’ll work with the same excerpt of “Silent Night” that we examined earlier in the traditional style. However, we’ll now insert diatonic 7th chords, chord extensions, secondary dominants and tonicization. The score below simultaneously shows the traditional setting versus a jazz harmonization so you can easily see the adaptations. (Note, the multimedia player below is only performing the jazz portion of the score.)
Did you notice the chord extensions that occurred in the melody? Understanding which extensions work which each type of 7th chord gives you more options to chose from when reharmonizing a tune.
Using the sketch above, we can now flesh out a final arrangement. We simply need to spread the chord voicings across both hands and add a few finishing touches.
“Silent Night” Jazz Ballad Finishing Touches
Once we have applied jazz harmonization to our melody, the majority of the arranging labor is complete. Now we simply need to voice the chords and add any desired melodic or harmonic ornamentation.. Let’s compare the first two measures of our harmonic sketch to Yannick’s final arrangement.
What differences do you notice? While the changes are minimal, they significantly improve the overall sound. Firstly, the final arrangement has the chord voicings spread across both hands which helps open up the sound. Also, did you notice that C Major 7 in our sketch has been replaced with a C Major 9? In addition, Yannick has added a tasteful slip note to the Dm9 in measure 2 which sounds beautiful.
Let’s examine some additional finishing touches.
Wow, what a remarkable difference! In measure 4, Yannick has skillfully used an A9(sus4) combined with an A7(♭9) altered dominant to add beautiful colors and tension. He has also opted to arpeggiate the A9(sus4) which helps propel the phrase.
Let’s take a closer look at how the suspension in measure 4 works. The diagram below from today’s lesson sheet demonstrates how to add sus chords to your arrangements.
The first measure shows a regular A7 dominant chord similar to what we had in our sketch. The 2nd measure above shows a 4-3 suspension in which the 3rd of the chord (C♯) is delayed by preceding it with the 4th (D) instead. As a result, the chord on beat 1 of measure 2 is an A9(sus4) which resolves to a regular A7. Now, let’s look at the example in measure 3. We still have an A9(sus4) on beat 1. However, now our sus chord resolves to an A7(♭9). The ♭9 alteration sounds especially great when the resolution chord is minor.
Score References for Jazz Piano Skills
You’ve now learned all the jazz piano techniques used in today’s arrangement of “Silent Night” in the jazz ballad style. You can use the references below to explore additional examples of each jazz piano skills on the lesson sheet:
- Diatonic 7th Chords
- measures 37, 39–40, 43–44, 47, 49, 51, 53 and 56
- Chord Extensions
- measures 35–36, 41, 44–45, 54 and 56
- Chord Alterations
- measures 38, 42, 48 and 50
- Secondary Dominants
- measures 38, 42, 46, 48, 50, 52 and 54
- Major 2-5-1 Progressions in the Primary Key
- measures 39–40 (incomplete), 44–45 and 56–58
- Tonicization with Secondary Major 2-5-1 Chord Progressions
- measures 41–43 and 53–54 (incomplete)
- Tonicization with Minor 2-5-1 Chord Progressions
- measures 52–53
- Sus Chords
- measures 38, 42 and 50
- Slip Notes
- measures 36 and 40
We’ll conclude by enjoying the first 12 measures of Yannick’s “Silent Night” jazz ballad arrangement with all the finishing touches. However, be sure to log in with your membership to access the complete arrangement.
Congratulations, you on your way to playing an accessible, jazzy arrangement of “Silent Night” just in time for the holidays! You can also easily transpose this arrangement to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Hopefully, you’ve also picked up some important jazz piano arranging skills from today’s lesson. If you want to dig deeper into the jazz ballad style, be sure to check out our Jazz Ballad Piano Learning Tracks (Track 1, Track 2).
You may also enjoy the following PWJ resources:
- Silent Night Rhumba (Level 2, Level 3)
- Silent Night Bossa Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
- Hark the Herald Angels Sing—Jazz Ballad (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jazz Standard Analysis (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for joining us today. We’ll see next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Yannick Lambrecht
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