Keyboard players are naturally good arrangers. We do it every day while we’re writing, tracking, putting chords to melodies, and mixing our music. All of these activities involve selecting textures, achieving balance, and sustaining interest from beginning to end. But arranging jazz for live instruments presents a world of challenges all its own. How do you choose from among the myriad options for voicing, rhythm, accompaniment, instrument combinations, and harmonic possibilities? Below I’ve outlined a few harmonic and textural devices that can develop a simple tune, create interest, and vary the harmony and sound to raise your writing and arranging to the next level. I use these techniques constantly while writing for small and large jazz ensembles alike.

Click images below for larger versions, and scroll to the bottom for audio examples.

1. Melodic Beginnings

Image placeholder title

The melody in Ex. 1 is a good demonstration of a theme with a beginning, middle, and end. It begins on the I chord, then moves to the V, then resolves back to the tonic with a strong ii-V-I cadence. This melody has strong harmonic motion, and presents many possibilities for experimentation.

2. Melodic Development

Image placeholder title

Ex. 2a takes the melody from Ex. 1 and arranges it with parallel moving, diatonic, close-voiced five-note chords under each melody note. This technique is sometimes referred to as “planning” or “thickened line,” and it’s a good way to write for a sax section or small horn band. Remember to stay within the chord tones and let your ear be your guide.

Image placeholder title

Ex. 2b could be called choral style open voicing, with added re-harmonization. The secret here is to discover the desired harmony and then construct the voicings under the melody. Remember to keep the intervals farther apart the lower you go.

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 2c, I decided ahead of time to experiment with the use of fourths and chromatic motion. Don’t worry if you can’t describe every texture you create with chord symbols. This is linear harmony, with the motion of the melodic lines dictating tensions and resolutions. My goal here was simply to start and finish on the I chord, providing strong linear movement both away from it and back to it.

3. Harmonic Experimentation

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 3 I’ve moved our melody up to the key of Bb to give me more room underneath it for voicing possibilities. I’ve also doubled the note values to give me more space. This time around I’m harmonizing each note with a jazz chord. (The famed arranger and trumpeter Thad Jones used this technique often, as did many others). I’m also using the venerable tritone substitution, as well as numerous chords that just sound pleasing.

4. Swinging Shout Chorus

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 4 I wanted to create musical excitement by making a swinging “shout chorus.” The melodic contour is still there, but it has developed into a jazzy top line melody that includes block style chords. This example starts with a top line, two-note melody with syncopated accompaniment before moving into the “thickened line” and large chords. Notice the contrary motion in the spread-out ensemble voicings: When the melody moves up, the bass moves down, and the ensemble splits out into more notes as the space between the top and bottom widens.

5. Cinematic and Classical Sounds

Image placeholder title

In Ex. 5, I’m no longer thinking about harmonizing a top line with chords. What’s now left of the melody starts in the middle staff, with counterpoint above and below. Then our theme moves to the top staff in a high register in bar 5 with a descending line below. I like how the texture thins out and then builds as the lines move downward, setting its sights on a strong chordal cadence. This type of texture would sound great scored for a woodwind quintet, chamber ensemble, jazz band, studio orchestra, or symphony. The key words here are simple and direct.

Listening List

“Don’t just write what your fingers can already play—always experiment and listen,”recommends Scott Healy, longtime keyboardist for TV’s Conan O’Brien. He’s also performed and recorded with Tony Bennett, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, and Christina Aguilera, and here are some of his recommendations for getting to know great jazz arranging.Scott’s own album Hudson City Suite is out now. Visit him at

Image placeholder title

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Central Park North

Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead

Bob Brookmeyer, Clark Terry, and Mel Lewis, Live at the Village Vanguard

Frank Sinatra with Count Basie and the Orchestra, Sinatra at the Sands