Creating Chord Melodies

Hey Jazz Guy,

How can I construct an interesting chord melody from a lead sheet? –Building in Boulder


Dear Building,

The ability to create a great chord melody, or solo arrangement can really take your playing to the next level and is a very important addition to your jazz arsenal. Although this is a deep topic that you can spend years perfecting, there are ways to break it down that can be useful and lead you in the right direction. The most important thing to consider is the given melody and harmony that form the basis of the song. The first example, typical of an A section from a jazz standard, will function as our “practice song”. The single notes [Ex 1] represent the melody and the chord changes are as written. Step one in any chord melody is to pair each important melody note with a chord voicing that includes that note as the highest voice [Ex 1, chords]. It is also critical to remember what each note tells us about the accompanying chord, for example the Bb in the fourth bar dictates that the G7 must have a #9 in the chord. For songs with a rhythmically active melody (like a bop tune) one must identify the most important notes, however for songs with a lyrical melody, such as our example, the key melody notes should stand out. Next we must examine our chosen chords from the perspectives of melody, bass, and inner lines. The melody was our given, so that we keep. The bass line is also dictated by the chord changes, so we have kept most of our voicings in root position for now. The inner lines become interesting, because there is much room for motion [Ex 2] that can enrich the harmony, and add tensions that put the chords in more interesting inversions. This brings us to the final two crucial concepts, solo melodies and chord splitting. Solo Melodies [Ex 3] can be parts of the melody that have no chord or passing tones in the bass, melody and inner lines. In addition, they can include actual improvised moments that serve to fill space between chords. Chord splitting [Ex 4] refers to distributing one chord over multiple beats in many voicings to create depth and texture. So now we can apply each of these concepts to our “practice song” [Ex 5] and analyze how they work together (chord symbols are the original, for reference). The first two bars have some chord splitting and solo melodies as passing tones. Notice how the actual melody notes are emphasized and sometimes held on top of inner motion. The third bar includes octaves to accent the melody and anticipation of the Bb. In bar four, we side slip down to the G7 and throw in a solo melody that targets the G melody note of the next bar. Style is always a consideration with chord soloing, and although most of this example is in a more traditional style, we throw in some more modern voicings in bar five. Bar six places the melody note on the down beat of one, then follows a descending diminished series targeting the next melody note (F) for BbMaj7. The final two bars are improvised, to show that, when there are natural gaps in the given melody, there is much opportunity to fill them with solo lines and chord figures. Creating chord melodies are always a challenge, but practicing them can drastically improve every aspect of your playing. These basic concepts will give you a good place to start, but you can follow them anywhere. Remember to think of themes like sparse, dense, inside, outside, in tempo and rubato. As always, listen lots, practice patiently, and jazz hard!


Categories: Chords, Harmony, Uncategorized

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