A lesson from the December 2014 issue of KEYBOARD.

When I was a budding young musician, one of the joys for me was sitting down at the piano with no particular regimen and discovering harmony. Playing basic chords and plopping an unused finger on an in-between note would create a sudden “jazzy ninth” sound. Moving my thumb over two notes at once made things sound more like Steely Dan. Suddenly, I felt I sounded sophisticated.

One exercise I find rewarding is taking a simple melody and seeing how to tweak its harmonic and stylistic backdrop. One song I often end up playing in this manner is the jazz standard “Blame It on My Youth” by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman. In the following examples, I’ve come up with a simple melody of my own and reharmonized it in different ways.

1. Bare Bones

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Ex. 1 illustrates our lesson’s melody/song idea. Here I’ve written single notes for both the right and left hands, along with basic chord symbols like you’d see in a “fake book.” Note that this melody is diatonic, so it will be easy to stretch it harmonically.

2. Pedal Point

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In Ex. 2, try pedaling our entire four-bar phrase over the tonic of D. This harmonic scheme works well and gives the piece a pastoral, “Americana movie score” quality. This is just one of a thousand ways you could approach this melody with a pedal point. (You can even try moving the pedal point to B, the key’s relative minor). Particular points of interest here are the dominant chord in beat 3 of the third bar and the min6 chord in bar 4.

3. Modal Plus

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Sometimes a nice challenge is to see if you can base a melody on a different mode. In Ex. 3 I explore the Aeolian mode. I really enjoy exploring this mode, as there’s something grey and “ECM Records” about it. Here, the first two bars stay in this mode and then we branch away from it. In the last two bars, we see the V/I chords that I absolutely love and affectionately call “Todd Rundgren chords.”

4. Total Jazzplosion

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In Ex. 4 things just start to get silly! Jazz geeks like me love to see if we can alter the harmony of each chord, almost like doing a puzzle. The jazz vocabulary often utilizes ii-V-I progressions, and we see versions of this in bar 1. Beats 2 and 3 are a mini V-I resolution, and there’s a deceptive quick ii-V in beat 4 in a different key. (These “mini modulations” can be fun when reharmonizing a song). There’s also a ii-V progression in beat 4 of bar 2. Note that the chord voicings here are rich and reflect the jazz sensibilities of this example. Also pay attention to the descending chromatic motion in the left hand.

5. Parallel Surprises

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Ex. 5 explores a particular harmonic “shape” and follows the melody exactly with it. Here we have a min11 chord, another favorite of mine. The minor 11th flavor also juxtaposes with the very major and hopeful-sounding melody. It’s interesting how a tune can take on such different character with parallel chords like these, and each note has a different relationship with that chord shape. The “surprise” here is that the last chord is a different shape, but still a min11 chord as well.