Understanding Melody Harmonizing in Jazz Piano
When any traditionally trained pianist encounters the wonderful, even
perplexing, improvisation and textured tones in jazz piano, their response can sound like “Wow. How do they do
Many pianists commonly learn the comfort of a clean sounding C, E, G triad and the simplicity of major and
natural minor scales. Therefore, the spontaneity and twangs of jazz’s unique
scales and chords structures, not to mention its syncopated rhythm, catch a pianist’s ears as quite a distinct
However, understanding the basics of jazz, including melody harmonizing in jazz piano, relies on a simple set of
fundamental principles that anyone can learn.
Harmonizing a melody means the same in jazz as it does in any other style of music; it means to take a melody
line and add corresponding notes and chords around it that fill out the sound, adding layers of color and depth to
In any style of music, this is typically done by playing chords that have the melody’s note within it. These
corresponding chords usually feature the root or inversions, or simple IV or V chords that accompany the
Sometimes at certain points in songs, melodies will find harmony with an appropriate dominant seventh chord or suspended fourth chord that resolves to the root. However, while jazz
piano relies on these basic chords, there is also more opportunity for adding uncommon notes, like sixths,
sevenths, and ninths.
It is essential for aspiring jazz pianists to understand chord structures and progressions so that, instead of
guessing at the next appropriate chord, he can quickly identify the chord that presents the right quality tone for
that moment in the song.
One way to practice identifying potential chords is to simple play a
scale with the right hand while finding chords that fit those scale notes in the left. For example, if you
want to play a descending F major scale, begin by play F in the right hand and an F chord in the left. Then,
play an E with the right hand and an A minor chord underneath it.
Try to play a major or minor chord underneath each of the notes that your right hand plays. The more scales you
play with chords underneath them, the more you’ll discover the types of chords that correspond to certain notes and
certain scales, and the types of chords that don’t.
The more comfortable you grow with finding the right chords, the more you can begin to experiment doing the same
thing with actual melodies. Keep the melody as the highest note you play, and let you right hand thumb and your
left hand supplement that melody with the chords that you feel match each piece of the melody.
Keep your harmonizing simple at first – you’ll find that you’ll play plenty of chords that don’t sound quite
right in context. Simply focus on finding chords that correspond to the melodic note that you’re playing, and if
you experiment with enough chords you’ll find the ones that fit together the best.
Of course, there’s no substitute for chord study. Force yourself to improvise the chords that you play until you
can regularly find the right ones. You’ll also notice that certain chords tend to follow one another or tend to
sound appropriate at certain moments of a melody.
Understanding melody harmonizing in jazz piano comes slowly, but eventually your experimenting and second
guessing will transform into instinct and you’ll be playing amazing harmony chords – complete with jazzy sixths,
sevenths, and ninths.
For more jazz piano lessons, visit
the website listed below for a full-fledged DVD course.