Reharmonization: It's Not as Tough as You Think

May 8, 2014

Do you ever get bored of the same old chord voicings? Are you looking for interesting ways to accompany a singer or other lead instrument? Reharmonization is the key, but rather than give you loads of historical examples, I want to show you some simple principles that will hopefully set you on your way towards creating your own. The idea at work here is that chords come from scales. So rather than thinking about particular chords, we can find the underlying scale and use that to give us alternate chords.

1. Standard Changes


Let’s look at how to vary the first two chord changes of a song. Ex. 1 illustrates the melody and chords from a bossa nova in the style of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic tune “The Girl from Ipanema.”

2. Mother Scales


If we want to look at the other options for chords for our song, we can look at the underlying scale of the chord for other possible choices. For instance, our first chord is Fmaj7, which comes from the F major scale. Remember that all chords can be traced back to a “mother” scale. Ex. 2 is a simple harmonization of the F major scale using the root, fifth, third, and seventh.

3. Chord Scale Substitutions


Now we can look at the Fmaj7 chord from our song and substitute it with one or more of the chords from our F major scale. The same applies for the G7 chord, i.e., chord V of the C major scale. In Ex. 3, the first chord is chord III from F major and the second chord is chord IV from F major. The third chord is chord II from C major and the fourth chord is the same as the original (chord V from C major). 

4. Alternate Substitutions


Ex. 4 takes this idea one step further and changes the character of the tune. Here, the first four bars are from the F major scale, the next two are from the C major scale, and the next three are from the F major scale again. This application gives the piece a sadder sort of feel. Notice how by using only basic major scales, we’ve managed to create something quite different from our original set of chord changes. We haven’t even looked at minor, altered, or diminished scales yet, but if the same principles are applied we can add many more colors to our reharmonizations.

5. Mother Scale Solos


Ex. 5 is a simple solo constructed using “mother” scales. These same substitution principles apply to improvisation, too. Try experimenting with reharmonization in your playing and soloing. Remember that discovery is the real joy of jazz.

One of my biggest influences is Herbie Hancock,” says Jason Rebello. “He’s a master of reharmonization.” Rebello has worked with Wayne Shorter, Sting, Jeff Beck and Peter Gabriel. His new album Anything But Look is out now. Find out more at
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