GBol Arts

Music Notes Archive

Reharmonizing a Chord Progression

George with Guitar

This time let’s put together some of the concepts that we worked on in several of the past articles in a real world example. Often when playing a piece of music, you may be looking for a different way to harmonize the melody. Several of the past articles have talked about some substitutions you can make, and this time I would like to show how to use them to reharmonize a chord progression.

We will use some short chord progressions found in standards to apply a formula to reharmonize these progressions. Our first example chord progression will be:

Fm7 - Bbm7 - Eb7 - Abmaj7

The idea is to find alternate chords that take us to the Abmaj7 chord, so that chord will be our starting point. The formula that we will use, is to use a strong root progression to reharmonize our progression. A strong root progression refers to two types of movement, up a fourth, (or down a fifth), or down in half steps. Starting with the Abmaj7, we will start by going down a half step to get there. This would change our Eb7 to an A7 chord. Let’s continue, and come into the A7 from an E7 chord, using our up a fourth, (down a fifth if you prefer), thinking. Again going up a fourth, we can replace the Fm7 with a B7.

Our end result is:

B7 - E7 - A7 - Abmaj7

At this point you may have noticed that we are using dominant chords for our reharmonization. This is a good place to start, and easy to see as an example, but in a real world situation, there are two determining factors as to to the type of chord that you will use. First, is the melody note that you are using the chord under. If the note in the melody that you are harmonizing ends up being the flatted third of the chord that you choose, then a minor chord type may be more appropriate. Keep in mind also that a flatted third could also be considered a sharped ninth, so you may have a second choice to try. The point here is that "melody is king", and should be your first determining factor.

The second factor is, how does it sound. Even if all other choices fit, you always have to let your ear be your guide. Too many times I have seen students play what is theoretically right, but it does not work in terms of how it sounds. Theory and musical rules are just guidelines. If no one ever tried to go outside the lines, then a lot of very interesting, creative music would never have been written. I always tell my students that there are no bad notes, only notes put in the wrong place. You can make a lot of things work that you would never have thought of. The idea is to experiment and try to find what sounds best, all other considerations aside.

Let’s finish with a second short progression, and look at the melody to see how this might affect your choices. For our chord progression we will use:

Cmaj7 - Cm7 - D7 - Dbmaj7 - Cmaj7

We will then look at the starting melody note associated with each chord. For this example we will use:

B - Bb - A - Ab - G

As before we will leave the Cmaj7 with a G melody note alone as our point of arrival. This time we will start going up a fourth, and replace the Dbmaj7 with a G7 chord. Looking at the melody here, we see that it is an Ab note, which would be the flatted ninth, making our chord G7b9. Now for our next chord, we will use half step motion, and choose an Ab7 chord as our starting point. Our melody here is an A note, which once again, is a flatted ninth. Now we will go up a fourth again to Eb7. The Bb melody note is no problem as it is in the chord, but let’s make it an Eb9 chord, just to add some color. We will finish by going with half step movement again, but add another complication. Instead of just a B note in the melody, we will also consider a G note too. With both of these notes in there, the B is no problem, as it is in the chord, but the G could be a flatted third, or sharped ninth. That will give us two choices, Em7 or E7#9. Here you ear will have to guide you as to which sounds best.

This will give us:

Em7 or E7#9 - Eb9 - Ab7b9 - G7b9 - Cmaj7

To really get the hang of this, try doing a whole song start to finish in this manner. You will find some really interesting harmonizations for songs in this manner, that can really breathe new life into the most over-played of standards. These are but a few of the many types of things that you can try, and the more you experiment, the better you will train your ear to hear new and interesting harmonies. The idea is to expand beyond what you normally do, and open new harmonic and melodic paths in your playing.