How to Reharmonize a Song

Q: I’ve heard jazz musicians talk about “reharms”, which are just reharmonization of a song (or so I’m told). Can you explain how to “reharmonize” a song?

A: There was a time where I was also mystified by whatever the process of reharmonizing a tune might be. I figured that it must require some deep, deep level of understanding of chord construction combined with a deep, dee understanding of jazz harmony.

It turns out that it can, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. A reharmonization doesn’t need to be any more complicated than the original changes, for example.

The process is really just one of taking an existing melody and coming up with your own chord changes. It can have more or fewer changes. They can be more complex or less complex. It’s entirely up to you. If it sounds good, it’s successful.

I’ll speak about my process. I’ll also include a “reharm” that a student and I just did during our lesson last week (great timing on the question, by the way!)

He is doing the tune “Invitation” for a recital he has coming up at school – a tune made popular (to us bass players) by Jaco’s iconic version. Generally, it’s played at a pretty good tempo, but the original doesn’t have many changes. We decided to slow it down and see what sounded good to us.

Here is a look at my process, which is admittedly a bit of the “hunt and peck” variety (meaning that I start with a simple idea and then keep dinking with it until it sounds good).

1. Use the melody as your guide

I generally start by looking at the melody for a bar (or a few beats anyway) and see what other types of chords it could be outlining. Bar 1 of the original has a C-7 chord and the melody is a very pretty 2 – ?3 – 2 – 6 from the C dorian scale (or 9 – ?3 – 9 – 13 for those of you who were about to correct me). We started by looking at the notes and imagining other chord shapes and scales and noticed that the first notes, D and E?, could just as easily be the 6 and ?7 of and F dominant chord. The line ends on an A, which helped to solidify that idea. I then played the melody against the root and decided, yeah, that’s a good place to start.

Looking at bar 2, we are already holding an A and I love the sound of a minor 9 chord, so I thought I’d try and put a G-9 there, which also works well with the melody. Makes sense on paper, so then I had my student play the melody while I played chords. Sounded good to me!

And so on… We’d sometimes just experiment with different root motions against the melody and find something that we thought sounded cool and then figure out what chord types they should be. The 2nd and 3rd bars of the B section are a good reflection of that.

2. Pay attention to all of the notes your chord suggests

I often have students experiment with reharms and they, quite often, will find roots that they like against the melody and then just call them major or minor based on how the natural 3rd sounds vs the flatted 3rd, for example. This often leads to some funkiness. You really have to think about how all of the chord tones are going to work against the melody (1 3 5 & 7) and then consider any extensions that might clash or enhance the sound.

3. Don’t forget about context

Work on a bar-by-bar basis, but don’t forget to go back and play all of the chords by themselves in time to make sure that the motion makes some kind of aural sense. If your chords are jumping all over the place and one chord doesn’t sound like it leads to another, you should reconsider your chord types, root motion and flow.

4. Don’t forget about voice leading

Voice leading is the practice of moving notes (voices) in a chord as little as possible. If a note can stay where it is, keep it there. If it needs to move, move it as little as possible to reflect the next chord. This isn’t a rule for coming up with your chord changes, but it can be a useful device when trying to bring cohesion to your changes. Notice how bars 5-7 all have a D in the top voice and then, when it does move, it moves up one whole step. Similarly, I kept a C# for the first two bars of the B section and then moved it down a whole step for two bars. These were conscious choices we made while looking at out changes. We would frequently play one chord we liked and then try and capture the essence of the next melodic statement while changing our current chord as little as possible. You can literally just start moving one voice or another around until you land on something that catches you ear. It doesn’t have to be scientific. Just play around and move notes in chords until you find something you like (but don’t forget to pay attention to how the melody sounds against it and then how the chordal movement sounds when you put it all together).

5. Start simple and dig as deep as you need

Don’t worry about coming up with the hippest thing right off the bat. Come up with a sketch of chordal ideas and then go back and listen. Then tweak a thing here or there until it sounds better. Stop and listen. Rinse and repeat until you are happy! That’s basically what we did here and what I do when I play with this idea.

Here’s the chart and sound clip for the original form of “Invitation”:

Chart (PDF)

Here’s the “reharm” versions – chart and audio:

Chart (PDF)

NOTE: This isn’t actually the complete form of the tune! This is just the first 32 bars and that’s how far we got during our hour lesson. The form of this tune is actually ABA and the last A is different towards the end. But I thought that I’d use this as an example of something I’ve worked on as a reharm (with a lot of help from my student, Alex). I just wanted you to know that I know that it’s not complete.

I made these charts in Sibelius so you could look at the chords and the melody and then decided to export some audio so you could hear it. I repeated the process with the original changes so you could here how different that melody sounds against these new changes.

The chords I put in there are pretty much how I’d voice them on the bass although there are a few in there with an added note to help convey the function of the chord, so don’t freak if one or two chords seems unplayable. I would also play these chords up one octave on my bass but I wanted to keep the notation in bass clef and didn’t want to clutter it up with lines and 8va notes, etc… Just pump those chords up an octave on your fretboard if you want to experiment playing them on your bass.

I’d love to hear from you all. Whether you have insights how to be more scientific in the process, any questions or share any experiences you have with reharmonizing some chord changes to fit a melody! I tend to just plow ahead and see if I can make it sound interesting. Let me know how you think Alex and I did with this. We might just have to finish it! Share your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Seb

    Great article Damien. My follow up question would be – what’s the best way to reharmonize in a live environment? I’ve played with a load of keyboard players that have an incredible ability to do it but it’s never clicked for me. Surely they’re not doing your process in their head every time they substitute? Is it just practice and familiarity with the changes?

    • Changing the bass note can have drastic effects on the way chords sound (one reason why the bass is such a powerful instrument). Pianists have an exceptional understanding of how any note may sound underneath a chord. Keyboardists don’t often play in root position and therefore have pretty good intuition when it comes to slash chord style reharms. (PS – I don’t play piano at all so I may be off base. I’m making assumptions here). I would imagine that this carries over into full chordal reharminizations. Guitarists and pianists also both practice playing every conceivable inversion of a chord (including with extensions), which is often what is happening. The chordal qualities of what they are playing may not change but they may move through a few variations of voicing for that chord. I also know a lot of great keyboardists who have explored substitutions on their own and have a deep well of chord substitutions to draw on in the moment. Basically, those folks practice playing that way from the get-go. It’s relatively un-certain territory when it comes to most bass players until they’ve put in that same time experimenting on they own.