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10 Techniques to Reharmonize ANY Song

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

In this series, you will learn how to reharmonize any song in 10 different ways using Chord substitution and embellishment techniques.

You can use these methods on pretty much any diatonic song (genres like folk, ballad, pop, or even rock). To demonstrate these techniques, Jason Zac uses Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah". Originally, the song is at a 6/8 feel and the chord progression is listed below:

Chapter 1: Add and Sus Chords, Seventh Chords, and Jazz Extensions and Passing Slash Chords for Jazz Tensions

1. Add and Sus Chords:

Quite simply, an “add” chord is simply an interval added to an existing triad. We could add a 2nd, 4th, or 6th diatonically to spice up a chord. For example, with a C major, you can add an M2, the D or you can add the perfect 4th, the F, you could also add the sixth, A.

You can also go with an exotic or modal flavor by adding b2 (m2) and the tritone (#4). The b2 makes the sound very eastern and the tritone gives the harmony a “Lydian” vibe

Add chords should not be confused with Suspended chords in the sense that we are not removing any notes from the existing triad. A suspended chord removes or “suspends” the third and provides a nice sense of anticipation which can eventually lead back to the 3rd. You should thus use both add and suspension chords in conjunction with each other while you reharmonize a song.

2. Seventh Chords and Jazz Extensions:

It could be quite daunting to learn seventh chords along with their inversions. However, using a simple trick by Jason Zac, you can find the seventh with respect to the root of the triad - Major or Minor. For example, C major can be extended with its minor 7th, C7, or major 7th, CMaj7. And C minor can be extended with its minor 7th, Cmin7 or major 7th, CminMaj7

There are generally three types of chords - Major, minor and Dominant. A pro tip to add those 9th, 11th & 13th jazz extensions would be to play a triad up a perfect 5th as a “Slash” chord. For example, G/C adds the tension notes B (Maj7) and D (Maj9) to the vanilla C major chord. An Em with A bass also works beautifully. Pretty much a chord root with another chord triad (usually up a 5th) in the right hand will sound great.

3. Passing Slash Chords:

By nature, “Slash Chords” are chords that are unstable. They are ideal for sneaking themselves in between Major & Minor triads and almost “announce” or present the target chord better. Slash Chords can be used in between an existing chord progression using a simple strategy. Let’s take C major as an example. It has the notes C, E & G. You can use the slash chord concept to play C/E (E bass) or C/G (G bass).

C/E for some reason seems to resolve to F major or F minor while C/G wants to resolve to G major. So you can precede each of the chords in your progression by using Slash Chords. In this lesson, we use them in “overkill” mode, however, you can use them tastefully and as you see fit in the song you are rearranging or composing.

Chapter 2: Plagal Cadence, Borrowed Chords, and Bass Walk-ups and Walk-downs

4. Plagal Cadence:

A Plagal Cadence is one of the most popular harmonic resolutions. It’s the IV chord going to I (Major/Minor). This technique can be used as passing chords or to precede any chord of a progression. With the C major chord, for example, the plagal is the perfect fourth of C, F major.

You enter what we could call "Elton John territory" when you play your chords freely and precede each of them with the Perfect 4th Major/Minor triad while keeping the target chord root in the Bass. This is common in ballads, where chords take their time to flow. You can use the Circle of Fifths and count anti-clockwise to figure out all the 12 plagal cadences

5. Borrowed Chords:

The concept of borrowed chords involves choosing chords from a parallel minor scale or a mode and temporarily stealing chords from the other scale. This adds a lot of harmonic interest as the music is not 100% diatonic but has other chromatic elements and uses a variety of intervals. For example, the iv min the IIIb major, VIb major, and VIIb major. We could also combine these chords together in a cadence and use them tastefully during our reharmonization process.

6. Bass Walk-ups and Walk-downs

In a chord progression, each chord is played for a specific duration of time (4 beats/6 beats/ a whole bar). Let's consider the movement from one chord to another, for example, C major to A min. During the shift, you could identify a ladder-like process which either goes down from C to A or you can go up from C to A (but then you find that C down to A is a much shorter distance (down 2 scale steps) and while going up from C to A is a much longer distance.

Thus, to go from C major to A min, you can walk down C, B, A, and when you're going from A min up to C major you can walk up A B C, and when you're going F to G you can go F, F# G. Note that even though F# is not part of the C major scale, it still works as F# can function as a secondary dominant chord (which will be explained later)

Chapter 3: Secondary Dominants, 2-5-1 Jazz Embellishments, Common Tone Chord Substitutions, Tritone substitution, and Diminished 7th chords

7. Secondary Dominants

Secondary dominants are chords that resolve to a Major or Minor triad and are a 5th apart from the target chord, while not being a part of the Diatonic family of chords. Learn the theory in detail here. The circle of fifths is a great tool to understand how perfect fifths work.

Every clockwise movement is a fifth from the target note. For example, Cs fifth is G and Bs fifth is F#. To resolve back to a triad, let's say, C major or C minor, you can play its fifth chord as a dominant 7th- 1357b. This will be G7 resolving to C.

It's advisable to prepare a list of all secondary dominant chords before you engage in the process of reharmonization. Ideally, you would precede each target chord with its respective Secondary dominant.

The "secret chord" that Cohen is probably referring to is the E seventh (the five of the A)! We've also covered the usage of this chord in an infamous song that uses this concept in the best possible way- Do Re Mi.

8. 2-5-1 Substitutions:

By adding one more chord to precede the V chord, we have another fascinating reharmonization approach. Along with the 5 going 1, you can also go 2-5-1. You must figure out what the 2s and 5s are of each target chord. For example, Dm7 is the ii of C major while G7 is the V of C major

Generally, when you're resolving to a minor chord, it is recommended to do a ii minor 7b5 (half-diminished chord) resolving to the Dominant 7th (5th degree) of that scale and that eventually goes to the tonic. The ii of Am is B min7b5 and the V is E7. This also outlines the Harmonic Minor scale.

In conclusion,

ii - V7 - I Maj (Major Chord resolution)

iim7b5 - V7 - i min (Minor Chord resolution)

9. Common Tone Chord Substitution

Using the concept of common tone substitution, we learn that triads have notes in common with other triads. For example, C major paired with Am or Em have at least two notes in common between them. The idea f this chord substitution technique is to consider using these other chords which have common tones with the existing chord.

A great way to reharmonize using common tone substitution is relative minors. For example, F major could be replaced with Dm, and to create a more washy, you can make it a seventh extension- Dm7. With C major chord, for example, you'll find that an Am chord has two notes in common with C Major- C & E.

If you find a dominant chord (5th degree) in the song, you can play that dominant chord a tritone away, An excellent place to do this in the song "Hallelujah" is with the "you don't really care for music do you" line. G is a dominant chord, if you want to substitute it with a tritone, the chord has to be a Db.

Diminished 7th chords

When you precede a minor chord, you could sometimes add a diminished 7th chord, especially in a harmonic minor context. For more on diminished chords, click here.

Below, is a handy study guide to learn all your musical intervals using a variety of resources. Knowledge of Interval Theory is the foundation to learn about Harmony.

These 10 techniques could be used for any popular song or compositions which you are working on. If you study Jazz standards, these ideas are embedded in the actual piece of music. Also, listen to Bach, Elton John, and Queen for incredible Secondary Dominant usage

Download the handwritten notes for the whole series and support us on Patreon! - https://www.patreon.com/posts/71641158

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