Silent Night

Taking a simple tune consisting mostly of diatonic chords and making it sound like a jazz standard is pretty easy if you know how to apply a small handful of basic techniques:

  1. Identify target points
    A song is made up of a series of harmonic phrases. A typical phrase length is two bars, although phrases of one and four bars are common as well. Target points are the chord that anchor these phrases – generally, the first chord of each phrase. A chord progression can be seen as a series of harmonic journeys from target point to target point.
  2. Substitute compatible chords at some of these target points
    The I chord is often interchangeable with either iii or vi in that either of these chords can potentially work as a substitute for the tonic (and vice versa). Similarly, the ii and IV chords are also often interchangeable. If any of these chords occur at a target point, you can use make one of those substitutions at your discretion. If the V chord appears as a target point (common in very simple songs), you are almost always better off replacing it with a ii-V, because this is a more idiomatic choice of target in the jazz language. Also, while you are at it extend all chords to (diatonic) sevenths if they are not already – major seventh for I and IV, dominant seventh for V, minor seventh for ii, iii, and vi.
  3. Replace the approaches to the target points
    Each of these possible target point chords have a handful of common idiomatic approaches – the chords at the end of the previous phrase that lead to the target. Assuming it works with the melody, you can normally swap out one idiomatic approach to a given target for another. In the phrases where you have already substituted a different chord at the target point, it can sometimes work to keep the old approach and allow the resolution to be deceptive, but normally you will want to use a secondary dominant (or secondary ii-V) or other approach that leads directly to the new target.

It takes a certain amount of experience to get a feel for how to apply these approaches. Most of it comes down to getting familiar with the various idiomatic phrases in the harmonic language of jazz standards. Of course, everyone who plays even a little jazz is familiar with ii-V-I, but there are dozens of other common phrases, such as IV-bVII7-I, I-IV-iii-VI7, etc. Elsewhere – such as in my book, The Harmonic Language of Jazz Standards – I provide more information on this. For now, I will show you how these techniques can be applied to the reharmonization of simple songs, beginning with Silent Night.

Here is the original version I am starting with:


Identify target points

For the most part, each phrase is two bars, and the target points occur at the beginnings of each of these. The one exception is bars 1-4. While it would be possible to see this as two phrases of two bars each, my sense is it might be more useful to see it as a single four bar phrase.

So basically, every single chord ends up being a target point except the G7 in bar 22.

Substitute compatible chords

The target points in this song are all I, IV, or V chords. As mentioned, we should definitely replace the V chords with ii-V’s, so measures 5-6 become Dmi7-G7. Same with measures 17-18. Because that gives us two places where the target point is the ii chord, I don’t feel the need to also replace the IV chords in bars 9 or 13.

We can replace many of the I chords. The first and last chords should stay as they are, but we can consider replacing the I chords in measures 7, 11, 15, and 19 with either iii (Emi7) or vi (Ami7). For measures 7 and 19, Ami7 is a better fit for the melody, whereas Emi7 fits better in measures 11 and 15. Realistically, I could make all of none of those substitutions and still find interesting things to do at the next stage.

Note that the I chord in second inversion (C/G ) in measure 21 actually functions as a dominant chord according to classical theory, so it isn’t clear how best to treat it here. But the melody so clearly outlines the I chord that I am reluctant to change this at all.

Replace the approaches

The first four bars need to create a route from I to ii – a type of progression I call a precadence (since it precedes a cadence like ii-V-I). A common precadence in jazz standards is I-IV-iii-VI7, so I will use that.

I will go ahead and use the Ami7 in bar 7. While I could keep the ii-V I now have in bars 5-6 after the previous stage (creating a deceptive cadence), I have decided to instead replace the G7 (which approached the original C chord) with an E7 (secondary dominant approach to Ami7). I will further expand that secondary dominant into a secondary ii-V (Bmi7b5-E7), and also use tritone substitution to replace the Bmi7b5 with F7, since the melody note (B) fits this so beautifully.

For the route from vi to IV in bars 7-8, I use a secondary ii-V in bar 8 to approach the IV (Gmi7-C7-F), and a tritone sub passing chord (Ab7) in the middle of bar 7 to connect the Ami7 and the Gmi7.

For bar 11, I have elected to keep the I chord but place it in second inversion (C/G), thus allowing me to insert a passing diminished chord (F#o7) in bar 10. I continue the chromatic motion by using a Gb7 (tritone substitution for secondary dominant) to approach the Fma7 in bar 13.

In bar 15, I am using the iii chord (Emi7), which begins a basic circle of fifths iii-VI7 approach to the ii chord in bar 17 that for some reason sounds especially satisfying to me here with the melody. Since bar 14 will sound pretty plain if I don’t put something there, I will simply use the diatonic substitution ii for the original IV chord.

In bar 19 I am using the vi chord (Ami7). I am leaving the ii-V that now approaches it mostly alone to yield a deceptive cadence, but I have added a passing diminished chord (G#o7). I also have added a tritone substitution approach to the V chord (Ab7, leading to the G7).

Since the C/G chord in bar 21 is really functioning as a V chord, it seems logical to assume a II7 chord would work in bar 20. It also fits the melody nicely, and it makes sense coming from the Ami7 in bar 19. A number of other harmonizations I have heard use F#mi7b5 here, which is largely the same sound.

The only change I make to the final cadence is to delay the final resolution to I by adding a IV chord in bar 23. Somehow the plagal cadence here seems appropriate.

Here is the finished reharmonization:



Here is a second reharmonization. See if you can figure out for yourself how I applied the same process to arrive at this one!


Some hints/observations:

  • I treated bars 1-4 as two separate phrases of two bars each.
  • My first reharmonization lacked a minor plagal cadence, and I missed it, so I forced the issue in bars 21-22. The logic being, since the original C/G in bar 21 functions as a dominant, I can change it to a ii-V, and then substitute IV for ii, and then use the backdoor dominant Bb7. This also created an interesting approach in bars 19-20.
  • The only phrase that is the same in both versions is bars 15-16, because as I mentioned before, I really like how that parts works. I will confess this is not original; I have heard other arrangements you this.

Mastering MuseScore: the definitive guide to MuseScore 2

Mastering MuseScore

I am incredibly pleased to present Mastering MuseScore, the definitive guide to MuseScore 2.  I have been working on this book for the past two years, in conjunction with my contributions to the development of the software plus my teaching and whatever gigs I could fit in.  If you are a MuseScore user already, or are interested in learning about what is possible with free and open source music notation software, you will love this book.  I wrote it to be as comprehensive as I could, covering every feature, every option, every trick I could think of, and yet I start with the absolute basics, so beginners can get going right away.  Sales of the book directly benefit the further development of MuseScore.  Please check it out!

MuseScore 2.0.1 Released

So much was happening around the release of MuseScore 2.0 in March that I neglected to post the news to my blog here.  Nonetheless, response has been amazing!  For more on the MuseScore 2.0 release, see the original announcement at

Now, I have two other important bits of information to share.

First, we have now released the first update: MuseScore 2.0.1.  This fixes over 100 bugs and illustrates our commitment to keeping MuseScore fresh.  To download, go to

Also in that spirit, I have release a new version of my MuseScore Example Manager extension for LibreOffice.  This extension greatly simplifies the process of inserting musical examples into text documents.  Simply click the MuseScore icon that the extension adds to the LibreOffice toolbar, select the MuseScore score you wish to insert, and it is automatically converted to a graphic (PNG), trimmed to remove margins, and inserted into your document.  What’s more, the graphic is linked to the original score, so that if you Ctrl+click the example in your document, the original score is automatically opened in MuseScore for further editing.  Clicking the MuseScore icon on the LibreOffice toolbar then automatically regenerates and updates the graphic.  You can download the extension at

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

My involvement with the MuseScore (open source notation software) project continues to deepen.  At first I just helped with documentation and support.  Then I dusted off my programming chops and wrote some plugins, and then started bug fixing.  Last summer I went further and implemented a whole new flexible chord symbol parsing and rendering system, and I’ve continued with bug fixing since in preparation for the big 2.0 release, which is getting closer and closer (no, there is no official date to announce).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone in and overhauled the basic note layout algorithms.  I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but more importantly, I’m excited for what it will mean for users of MuseScore 2.0 – better looking scores with much less need for manual adjustment of notes, chords, dots, ties, or accidentals.  You can read more here:

Improved Note / Accidental Layout In MuseScore 2.0

The Accessible Music Notation Project

An important announcement!

Some of you may know that I have been working on and off over the past few years on tools and methodology to support blind musicians as well as educators working with them.  I have managed to put this work to good use in my own teaching, but so far, I have not developed anything really polished enough to be ready to share it with the rest of the world.  Recently, I became inspired to try to change that.  After engaging in discussions with some blind musicians and educators – including some of the experts in the field – I have come to believe strongly that that there are some real needs here and some real opportunities to address them.  While I am sure there are any number of people more qualified than I to be dealing with these issues, the universe seems to be telling me that I need to take the initiative to start making some things happen.  So, I have launched The Accessible Music Notation Project:

Right now, the “we” referred to throughout the site is the “royal we” – that is, it’s really just me speaking for myself (albeit with the support of some people I respect).  But I hope to see the project grow over time.  I hope to find musicians and educator willing to share their ideas regarding what is needed, programmers willing to help address these needs, and perhaps people and organizations willing to help fund these efforts.

I honestly do not know where all this might lead, but I have ideas of what I think is possible, and I intend to be setting forth as time permits.  Please feel free to share this and if you have ideas for me, please let me know.  Replies on the site itself would probably be best for any substantial comments.  One of the whole reasons for creating the site was to make sure there was a permanent record of some of the ideas being tossed around via email over the past few weeks.

Solo Piano Concert at the Denver Public Library

This Thursday – June 13 – I will be performing a solo piano concert for the new “brown bag” lunch series at the Denver Public Library. I will be playing a numch of my original compositions that I think work especially well for solo piano. Maybe a standard or two as well. It’s a great space on the 7th floor. See for more information.

Gift of Jazz Presents Graduation Concert for Jazz Education Courses

The students of the Gift of Jazz spring courses are proud to present their graduation concert at Dazzle ( on Wednesday, June 12, at 7 PM. The concert will be hosted by the instructor for these courses: professional pianist, composer, and educator Marc Sabatella ( . Tickets are $10 and you are encouraged to buy them online ( .

The theme for this series of courses has been Latin Jazz. We have been working on the rhythms and styles of Afro-Cuban music, and I think you’ll be impressed be how deeply we have gotten inside this music. In addition to performances by the Gift of Jazz ensemble and improvisation students – in which you’ll hear classics like Manteca, Mambo Inn, Afro Blue, and El Manisero – a professional ensemble will be premiering original pieces by the composition students.

The Gift of Jazz ensemble consists of David Atkinson, Bill Germain, David Nelson, Tom Germain, Gayle Mace, Jeff Tomlan, Jack McCutchan, and Robert Lipscombe. The improvisation students are David Land, Gayle Mace, Casey Barnett, Alan Rogowski, Thomas Windham, Lee Ann Gott, Tom Germain, Bill Germain, and Cindy Williams. The composition students are David Land, Charlie Vavra, Gayle Mace, Thomas Windham, Bob Wesley, Alan Rogowski, and Nili Abrahamsson. The professional ensemble that will perform the composition students’ pieces will consist of Tim Libby (trumpet), Sam Bittner-Baird (trombone), Marc Sabatella (piano), Jon Cullison (bass), Manuel Lopez (drums), and Eric Trujillo (percussion).

Other Scale-Based Voicings

There are other logical ways of constructing voicings; too many to describe individually here.  Most approaches are similar in that they they associate a scale with each chord and construct the voicing from notes in that scale. By using a scale approach, you can devise your own patterns for voicings. For instance, a second with a third stacked on top is a somewhat dissonant but not too cluttered sound that many pianists use extensively.  For a chord such as Fmaj7, you can apply this format at any position in the associated F lydian or F major scale.  Since the F major scale contains an avoid note (Bb) in this context, one would normally opt for the lydian scale and the B natural, so that none of the generated voicings would contain any avoid notes.  The particular pattern described above yields “F G B”, “G A C”, “A B D”, “B C E”, “C D F”, “D E G”, and “E F A” over the F lydian scale.

Most of these voicings are very ambiguous, in the sense that they do not readily identify the chord.  As with the 3/7 and quartal voicings, however, you will find that the presence of a bass player, or just the context of the chord progression being played, will allow almost any combination of notes from a given scale to make an acceptable voicing for the associated chord.

You may wish to experiment with different patterns and different scales to see if you can find any voicings you particularly like.  Often, the goal is not to find a voicing that completely describes a given chord, but rather to find a voicing that conveys a particular sound without seriously corrupting the chord.  You may find that at a given point in the music, you may wish to hear the characteristic authority of a perfect fifth, or the characteristic dissonance of a minor ninth or of a cluster of several notes a second apart, but without the characteristic wrong note sound of a completely random selection of notes.  Thinking of the associated scale and putting your sound into that context gives you a logical and reliable way to get the sound you want without compromising the harmony.

Close Position and Drop Voicings

The simplest voicing for a four note chord is the close position voicing, in which all the notes in the chord are arranged as close together as possible.  For example, a C7 chord might be voiced in close position as “C E G Bb”.  This is referred to as root position, since the root, C, is at the bottom.  The chord might also be voiced in close position as “E G Bb C”, which is also called the first inversion, since the bottom note has been inverted to the top.  The second inversion is “G Bb C E” and the third “Bb C E G”.

A drop voicing is created from a close position voicing by dropping one of the notes down an octave.  If the second note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 2 voicing; if the third note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 3 voicing.  For a C7 chord in root position, “C E G Bb”, the corresponding drop 2 voicing is “G C E Bb”.  The second note from the top, G, has been dropped down an octave.  The corresponding drop 3 voicing would be “E C G Bb”.  Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings can be constructed from any of the inversions of the chord as well.  On the piano, the dropped note must normally be played in the left hand, so these are almost always two handed voicings.  The intervals in these voicings make them perfectly suited for guitar.

Close position and drop voicings are effective when used to harmonize a melody, particularly in a solo setting.  Each melody note may be harmonized by a different drop voicing, with the melody note on top.  Pianists and guitarists often use this type of approach in their own solos.  A phrase in which every note is accompanied by close position or drop voicings is said to be harmonized with block chords.  Red Garland, Dave Brubeck, and Wes Montgomery all regularly played block chord solos.

Polychord and Upper Structure Voicings

The basis of a polychord voicing is to play two different chords at the same time, such as one in the left hand and one in the right on a piano. The relationship between the two chords determines the quality of the resultant chord.  These are always two handed voicings on a piano, or five or six string voicings on the guitar.  They produce a very rich, complex sound compared to the voicings presented so far.

The simplest style of polychord voicing is to play two triads; for instance, a C major triad in the left hand on a piano, and a D major triad in the right.  This will be notated D/C.  This notation is overloaded in that it is usually interpreted as meaning a D triad over the single note C in the bass; it is not always clear when a polychord is intended. Polychords are seldom explicitly called for in written music, so there is no standard way to notate them.  You must normally find your own opportunities to play polychords.

If you take all the notes in this D/C voicing and lay them in a row, you will see that this describes either the C lydian or C lydian dominant scales.  Therefore, this voicing can be used over any chord for which those scales are appropriate.  If you experiment with other triads over a C major triad, you will find several combinations that sound good and describe well known scales.  However, many of these combinations involve doubled notes, which can be avoided as described below.  Among the polychords that do not involve doubled notes are Gb/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, Bb/C, which produces a C mixolydian scale, Dm/C, which produces a C major or C mixolydian scale, Ebm/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, F#m/C, which also produces a C HW diminished scale, and Bm/C, which produces a C lydian scale.  These polychords may be used as voicings for any chords that fit the corresponding scales.

You may have noticed that Db/C, Abm/C, Bbm/C, and B/C also involve no doubled notes and sound very interesting, although they do not obviously describe any standard scales.  There are no rules for when these polychords may be played as voicings.  When your ear becomes accustomed to the particular nuances and dissonances of each, you may find situations in which you can use them.  For example, the last polychord listed, B/C, sounds good when used as a substitute for Cmaj7, particularly in the context of a ii-V-I progression, and especially at the end of a song.  You may resolve it to a normal Cmaj7 voicing if you wish.

You can construct similar polychords with a minor triad at the bottom. Db/Cm produces a C phrygian scale; F/Cm produces a C dorian scale; Fm/Cm produces a C minor scale; A/Cm produces a C HW diminished scale; Bb/Cm produces a C dorian scale; and Bbm/Cm produces a C phrygian scale.  In addition, D/Cm produces an interesting, bluesy sounding scale.

I mentioned before the desire to avoid doubled notes.  One way to construct polychords that avoid doubled notes is to replace the triad at the bottom with either the third and seventh, the root and seventh, or the root and third of a dominant chord.  Voicings constructed in this fashion are also called upper structures.  They always imply some sort of dominant chord.

For example, there are several possible C7 upper structures.  A Dbm triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9#5 chord.  A D triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#11 chord.  An Eb triad over “C E” yields a C7#9 chord.  An F# triad over “C E” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An F#m triad over “E Bb” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An Ab triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#9#5 chord.  An A triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9 chord.

You will find it takes a lot of practice to become familiar enough with these voicings to be able to play them on demand.  You may wish to choose a few tunes and plan ahead of time where you will use these voicings.  It is well worth the effort.  The richness and variety introduced by these voicings can add a lot to your harmonic vocabulary.