Saxophones and Rhythm Section
Once you have a handle on how chord progressions work and how to write simple piano voicings, the next technique to master is the ‘thickened line’. This is where a melody has three or four notes harmonizing under it that each move with the melody, most often in parallel motion. Believe it or not, it is much easier to write in four parts rather than three, as with three you have to think more carefully about which chord notes to leave out. With fewer voices, the voice-leading also may not be as smooth. Our piano example had a few examples of thickened line in it, but it was mostly a chorale-style voicing where the melody was independent of the underlying parts.
The thickened line technique is used in all types of jazz arranging. The principals are the same whether you are writing for a saxophone section, trombone section, high strings above a vocal, or a 30’s-style tight four-part vocal. These techniques are the same ones used by the likes of Glenn Miller and Sammy Nestico. As with any technique, later arrangers explored new sounds and expanded on them. Very modern writing may bear little resemblance to what I discuss, but I truly believe that all composers and arrangers should have a firm grasp of the basics. Also, if anyone is going to pay you as an arranger, you need to have these techniques down.
In this article we are going to harmonize our melody for a big band saxophone section. In a big band (also known as a jazz orchestra, stage band, or show band) there are five saxophones: two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and one baritone saxophone. Each part gets its own line in the score. It is also common for players to ‘double’ on flutes and clarinets. The default doubling is that the altos play flute, the tenors play clarinet, and the bari plays bass clarinet; however, seeing as they all usually can play flute and clarinet, you can really use any combination.
We are using the same melody from Part 1, and will go through some of the same harmonic transformations, from simple to more complicated. Make sure you have been through Part 1 before you look at the examples below; the harmonic principals are laid out there. Here is a PDF of all the examples. At the end there is a score video that recaps all of the examples.
Firstly, let’s take a listen to our melody and rhythm section.
This range is almost as high as you want to go with the tenors in unison. This phrase actually works better in octaves.
First we will start by creating a harmonization in four parts. It is actually quite simple. Starting from the melody note, we will fill in the appropriate chord notes underneath.
The first melody note is a G, and the underlying harmony is C major 7. So working (peeling) downwards from the G, the notes E, C, and B fill out our C major 7 chord. When the melody moves to the E, the parts all go down to the next note in the harmony, simply inverting the chord.
We are all good until we get to the F, the next to last note of the bar. It does not fit into our C chord at all. We need a solution that will keep the parts moving under the melody. There are a few ways to harmonize this F, but the most common method (and my default) is to use a ‘passing diminished’.
We then continue harmonizing the melody line using this same basic technique. Identify the harmony (revisit Part 1 to recap how I came up with the harmony), then fill in the matching chord notes below the melody. Note that in bar 3 we have another passing diminished chord.
One thing you will notice, and this is very important in all jazz arranging, is the anticipation of changes in the harmony. In each measure the chord changes on beat 3, but the harmony of the thickened line anticipates it. The bass still moves on beat 3. For effect, one can also anticipate the change in the bass, but that kills the momentum of the walking bass and so is best reserved for the end of phrases. Even then, bass anticipation should be used sparingly. At any rate, the ear is not bothered by this slight mis-match, and it is even possible to have the bass instruments in the band (bari sax and bass bone) anticipate the root while the bass itself plays on the downbeat.
Look at this example again. Notice that the interval between the top two voices is always a 3rd or 4th. This is ideal and correct for the traditional style. It is possible to have a major 2nd in this range but I try to avoid it; in the next octave up it may even sound like a mistake. A minor second should be totally avoided if you are going for a traditional sound. One cool thing with this type of voicing, is that it works in octaves (that is, doubling everything up an octave) or just up an octave itself. It works really well in strings or flutes and clarinets.
There is another option to consider when harmonizing the tonic chords. If you wish to create a really traditional sound, a la Glenn Miller, then use instead of major 7th chords. This is a smoother sound, as there is no minor second in the voicing. If your tune has a major 7th chord, but the melody note you are harmonizing also happens to be the root of that chord, using the major 6th chord avoids the minor second between the top voices.
In Miller’s day, it was quite common to use clarinet on the lead voice. I also articulated the line a little differently and had the players use more vibrato to enhance the older feel.
Extensions and Substitutions
As explained in , the 9th is usually added to chord voicings. You can see in the next example how easy it is. You do not always have to use the 9th, but it is more colorful than just the 7th and allows for more voicing possibilities. It is handy to think of the 9th as replacing the tonic.
In example H I use another alternative to harmonize the F in bar 1, called ‘planing’. This is where you maintain the shape of the chord (same interval structure) and move it under the melody. In this case it is a diatonic movement; the movements follow the scale of the current key. In measure 3 the chord had been changed in this example (see Part 1 for explanation). Here we can use a chromatic plane. The notes of the next-to-last chord are all a semitone above the last (target) chord. This can be used anytime the melody moves a semitone (up or down). When doing any planing you must think backwards; plane INTO the next chord. The unstable chord must resolve via the plane.
The E on beat 2 of the last bar is harmonized using This is the most common use of the technique, as an approach to either a dominant (it functions as a secondary dominant) or a tonic chord (where it may replace or extend a dominant). In this case, the secondary dominant is D7, for which we have substituted an Ab7.
Non-chord Tone Recap
Your options to harmonize a non-chord tone are:
- Passing chords – diminished or planing
- Substitution (most commonly tritone)
You will notice in my examples that often the passing chords are just for the upper parts, and they are not given to the rhythm section. This is very common and you will never perceive the ‘clash’. There are other options that I have not mentioned, especially for substitutions, which I will discuss in Part 4. The techniques covered in this section are still enough to allow you to authentically harmonize any melody, however.
In a drop 2 voicing, you take the 2nd note from the top and drop it an octave. This opens the voicing up, producing a throatier sound. I think due to how easy it is to write, teach, and assess, drop 2 has become way more important in the jazz theory world than it really should be. In fact, personally, I don’t ever think of drop 2 as a separate concept, I just voice chords and sometimes it happens to look like a drop 2. However it is a good idea to understand how it works, as it is mentioned in every other book and is taught at every university. It can be useful if you are in a hurry. One advantage of drop 2 is that when you are doing 5- (different) note voicings, you can come up with the notes by peeling down the chord, and even though you often have a 2nd or cluster at the top, this is then alleviated when you drop the 2.
In this example, I use , or side slipping, in bars 2 and 4. This is possible as the E has been changed to an Eb, thus creating a chromatic movement. See here for an explanation of the melodic change.
So far we have been using four parts; however, the big band saxophone section has five players. How do you come up with the extra part?
The simplest way is to just have the melody played down the octave. This gives you a strong sound. It’s not the most interesting, but it works.
There are a couple of ways to make five parts more interesting. The first thing to do is to try a drop 2 voicing. This opens the sound up and makes it thicker, and as the octave is now hidden in a middle voice, you will have the outside voices a 9th or more apart. There will also be variation in the outside intervals. Maybe one beat a 9th, then a 10th or a 12th, creating a more interesting sound than octaves in parallel. The process for creating this sound is the same as dropping 2 in a 4-part voicing.
Open voicing describes writing where there are larger internal intervals between voices in the chord. I usually do not come up with this by just peeling down from the top, but rather I think of it more like a Bach chorale (without the silly rules). It is possible to drop the 2 and the 4. Open voicings often have the root in the bari sax. Note that it is completely acceptable to have the bari sax and the bass playing different parts. So long as the harmony is the same, the bass can continue walking and the bari can play with the rest of the saxes. This means there will be places where the bari hits the root before the bass, but it does not matter, it is actually correct. It sounds terrible if the bass keeps anticipating with the horns, or if the bari waits for the bass. An example of handling this correctly occurs in the second bar of example K.
You will see how I start the phrase with a drop 2 and then as it gets to a cadence point, I open it up. You do not want the bari on roots all of the time; it drags the feel down and can sound cheesy. Also, the faster the music is, the less you will want the bari down low, as it gets too muddy. I also use some closed voicings, thus creating some very nice voice leading in the bari part. K is how I would do this in the real world, using all the voicing and harmonic techniques discussed in Part 1 and 2.¬†The expanded harmony for this version is explained in Part 1 here.
While it is nice if each part is able to stand on its own as a melody, in this style of writing it is not important. What is important is that they just keep moving. There is also no problem with the sound of parallel intervals like there is in traditional counterpoint, but it can be boring if everything moves in parallel all the time.
Alto Sax – Ann Paterson
Tenor Sax – Mike Nelson
Tenor Sax – Lee Secard
Bari Sax – Ken Fisher
Piano – Alan Steinberger
Bass – Ken Wild
Drums – Tim Davies
Recorded and mixed by Jeff Vaughn
Contracted by Noah Gladstone and Hollywood Scoring
Music preparation by Thanh Tran
Recorded at Sonic Fuel Studio
Thank you to Mike Barry and Mike Patti from Cinesamples for their support.
PDF of all Examples
Video of all examples
Back to the top
Stay tuned for Part 3 where I will discuss the rhythm section and notation.
So far we have kept each chord to just one added note, the 7th. Once you have mastered this it is time to add some more. The next note to add is the 9th. Just as we added the 7th by going up the scale of the key, we do the same with the 9th. This gives a little more spice to the harmony. Remember that the 7th is still always included. Adding the 9th is pretty much done automatically by most jazz musicians. It is always implied and will be often added even if it is not in the chord symbol. Spelling out all the 9ths in these examples is for academic purposes; in the real world, I would write the chords as in example F, knowing the player would add the 9ths. Of course there are higher and altered extensions that add even more color, but I will save them for another day.
(Part 1: Extensions)
The same tritone (C and F#/Gb) exists in the chord whose root is a tritone away, and can function the same as in the original chord. Another cool thing with this is that it gives us a chromatic movement in the bass, a nice variation on the standard V-I and a much smoother sound when moving fast..
(Part 1: Planing)
I found this really useful, i was wondering if you were to add a trumpet section and trombones to this would they just be doubling the saxes? For example, lead trumpet double the Alto top line, then trombone doubles one of the lower harmony lines, bass tromb doubles the baritone etc? or have i gotten that wrong..
Normally it is not quite that simple. Trumpets are usually in closed voicings, trombones and saxes can be either. I also don’t always have the bass trombone down on the ‘bass’ part. It is a color choice, made phrase by phrase.
thanks for the information
I have really learned from the 2 articles…Any chance to see Parts 3 & 4?
The thing that drives me to complete distraction is voicing melodies that are loaded with root notes. If you’re strict about the various “rules” then closed voicing can’t work because you keep getting 2nds in the top two voices. For example:
Ab Ab F Ab Bb
Where the harmony is Fm7 for all the notes except the final Bb which is Bb7.
Assuming 5 parts (tpt/alto/ten/bone/bari), what’s the best solution? Do you just ignore the rule about seconds and voice it all closed? Do you do drop 2 for everything? If you drop 2 for everything, will the seconds on the bottom voices be a problem?
Hi. If it is low, there is no problem with a major 2nd on top. Minor second also OK if it is more of a modern style. I actually voice each chord as it comes, I rarely just peel it down academically and drop the 2, hence my rant about it.
Hi I really enjoyed your article which explained things in such a simple and functional manner. I have two queries. 1) If a melody not is the root of a chord do yo change the chord, use a sixth chord or use a 13th chord. 2) How do you decide when to use #, b or natural 5ths…r are these just a matter of trial and error for beginners?
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Hi Tim! Great Article! Thanks a lot and Congratulation! I have a question. What about with “m7b5”. I have a problem whit a Progression Em7b5 – A7. The melody plays while Em7b5 sounds: g-f-e-f in eight (quaver). My problem is specifically with “f” note
Greetings from Argentina!
Did you try harmonizing the f with A+7?
Exelent! Thanks a lot Jim!
Thanks a lot Tim!
Cool blog entry!
I have a sort of silly question – is “peeling” an actual term used in the music industry, or did you make it up? Either way, I like it.
I am not sure if I made it up or heard it somewhere. It just makes sense to me!
Does this technique works on a fast melody? I’ve tried but it seems to get a little messy, I guess I did something wrong. By the way, I was using trompets and trombones, two of each.
Yes, same principals. You have to be careful though as trombones are not as dexterous as saxophones. Also the blend in brass is not going to be as smooth as it is with saxophones.
You’re not doing anything wrong. In fact, you’re absolutely correct – it does get messy at fast tempos or very fast melodies at slower tempos. In those cases you could opt for melody with one instrument, and ‘stabbing’ the brass to accentuate and syncopate rhythm.
Great stuff again, Tim. What I’m really loving is I’ve taught this subject for a number of years and it’s always great to see someone of your calibre support the exact same principles and techniques that I’m teaching. Way to go, mate. and keep it coming.
That would be because you explained to me first!
Great article – I had never heard of planing so that is much appreciated. I have one query. I remember my Jazz Arranging lecturer clearly and firmly stating “where possible never voice the tonic of a major7 chord as it will create a minor 9th with a walking bass line playing the 7th (and suggesting replacing the tonic with the 9th)”, and being picked up whenever that was created in my tutorials. This is something that was ingrained in me. In your opinion is it something that I should continue to be concious of or is it something that can be disregarded?
Personally, I avoid major 7 chords in this style of music. For the purposes of showing how to build up to extended harmony, I have to start somewhere and use it as a stepping stone. Gary Lindsay does a great job explaining it via the 9th replaces the tonic method. But until I saw a video of him explaining that theory, I had never thought of it like that. I just did not like the sound of it!