arranging Harmony reharmonisation

Coming to an arrangement

A friend of mine recently commissioned me to write an arrangement of Happy Birthday. It could use any instruments that he plays and he would be playing all the parts in a multi-track recording. The result was to be a present for his friend and therefore had to complete in two weeks. This article is about the process I adopted to meet these constraints and the resulting arrangement.

Listen to the draft recording made by ace London reedsman, Shaun Thompson, in his garden shed using Garage Band. A studio resording will be coming soon!

EDIT: Studio recording is now available with screech trumpet added on the end.

The plan

The instruments available were the usual collection of clarinets from Eb soprano down to Bb bass together with the the usual saxophones from soprano through alto down to tenor, but not including the baritone sax, because he no longer has one.

I decided that, since no rhythm section were available, and there was no baritone sax, I would have to rely upon the bass clarinet to carry the bass line.

Happy Birthday, is eight bars long and originally in 3/4. I decided to write it in 4/4 for ease of conventional jazz swing writing. In terms of the form of the arrangement I chose:

  • A: Starting with a duo rendition with Bb clarinet and bass clarinet. I wanted to practice my counterpoint writing.
  • B: Building to a quartet rendition with a couple of supporting saxes. Since only woodwind were available, I was trying to contrast the clarinets with the saxophones, in the way that you might contrast woodwind with brass in a big band.
  • C: Building again to a saxophone soli using five saxes supported by bass clarinet bass line (i.e. sextet).
  • Some sort of DS al Coda to make maximum use of material already written. Probably dropping back to the quartet section.
  • Some sort of Introduction and Ending (Coda) sections using the same material as each other, to be determined, but derived from the Happy Birthday theme.

Eight bars is not very long for a tune, so I repeated sections A and B. This makes good use of material written, while giving the listener the familiarity of something they have already heard.

Listen to the draft recording. That was the plan, but what about the harmony?


Happy Birthday is a pretty boring tune and the conventional harmony even worse, so I decided to do some reharmonisation. On the score, I wrote the chords on the bass clarinet part, just for somewhere to put them and so I could remember what I was doing when writing the other parts.

The usual chords, in F, might be:

  • F | C7 | C7 | F |
  • F7 | Bb | F C7 | F |

In order to add some interest, I dispensed with the return to chord I at bar four with a diatonic substitution of VI (relative minor) and appropriate approach chords.

Once at chord VI (bar 4), I took the opportunity to drop to Vm7 at bar 5 (usually thought as the II to V/IV ) via a bVIdim7, like Jobim did in Wave and also Corcovado (which I had been playing a lot at the time of writing this arrangement).

I dislike the bit at bar 6 where the melody is traditionally a suspension on chord IV. So I used sideslipping ‘II Vs’ to dispense with chord IV altogether.

My resulting chords are:

  • F | G-7 / C7 B7 | Bb7 A7 | D-7 Dbo7 |
  • C-7 F7 | B-7 E7 | A-7 D7 G-7 C7 | F |

That is pretty much the harmony that I used for the A and B sections. I chose to modulate up a minor third between these sections (A is in F and B is in Ab) to add more interest.

When it came to the C section, The harmonic framework is essentially the same, but I added yet more substitutions to recognise that this as the climax of the arrangement.

If you haven’t already, listen to the draft recording.

A section: duo counterpoint

A section is a duo. Clarinet takes the tune and bass clarinet weaves a counterpoint line.

I decided to write the A section as a statement of the melody only using two instruments (see the image above). This is a bit like when a horn plays the melody with only string bass. The approach as as follows:

  • Write the melody for the clarinet in swing phrasing using characteristic bebop mechanisms such as enclosure and chromatic approach tones.
  • Write the countermelody for the bass clarinet in the style that a string bass might play.
    • Because this is not a duo over a walking bass, the bass clarinet part has to include roots, especially when they are not in the upper part.
    • The bass clarinet line should phrase along with the upper part, but supplies complimentary movement when the upper part temporarily halts.

Listen to the draft recording.

B section: homophonic arrangement

For the B section I chose to add two saxes to the clarinet. I used the bass clarinet to state an independent walking bass line. The clarinet carries the melody, as before, but in the new key. The two saxes add homophonic chords under the melody, meaning that they move in time with the melody. The voicings used for the saxes are like bebop pianist ‘Bud Powell shell voicings’ consisting mostly of roots and third or root and seventh. Occasionally, I uses third and seventh and relied on the bass clarinet for the root.

For variety. at the end of the first time, I used the turnaround common in bebop times I bIII bVI bII as can be found in Tadd Dameron’s Ladybird.

B section is a quartet. Saxes join the clarinets.

Listen to the draft recording.

C section: a linear approach

The C section is the sax soli and is the climax of the arrangement. Five saxes led by soprano sax are arranged over the faithful bass clarinet, playing the role of the string bass, as ever.

A linear approach was taken voicing the saxes:

  • Firstly I reharmonised the chord progression again. ensuring that sufficient landmarks remained such as chord I in bar 3.
  • Next I composed a melody for the soprano sax lead. I had in mind the fantastic sax solis of the arrangement in the Thad Jones big band arrangments.
  • I identified the harmonic arrival points where the melody and chord changes line up. And then decided what voicings to use.
    • I decided to start with upper structures which have a supporting tritone in the lower two saxes and usually only apply to dominant 7 chords only.
    • The B-7b5 is voiced as rootless D-/G7.
    • Bb7 is voiced as rootless C/Bb7 creating Bb13(#11).
    • A-7 is voiced as F/A7 creating A7alt. I decided a dominant 7 would be more fun here, than the planned A-7.
    • Abdim7 is voiced as rootless E/G7 upper structure.
  • Between the A7 and Abdim7 chords, a linear approach was taken:
    • for each part, choose a note that lead to the next note, looking for contrary motion to give the impression of part independence (this is not block chording per se).
    • it does not matter whether the resulting notes form a conventional chord; the ear will hear it a making sense as routes between harmonic desinations on the main beats of the melody.
C section sax soli part 1
  • This same linear approach was taken with the sixteenth notes in bars 2-4, ensuring the whole sax section has a good chord voicing on the quarter-note beats where the chords change:
    • G-7 voiced in fourths A D G C F, a sort of G-11.
    • Db7 voiced as rootless upper stucture Eb/Db making Db13(#11).
    • C7alt voiced as rootless upper stucture Gb/C7making C7(b9, #11).
    • Gb7 voiced as rootless upper stucture Ab/Gb7making Gb13(#11).
    • F voiced as rootless fourths, E A D G C.
  • Between each of these destination chords, there are three sixteenth notes which were chosen as before using a linear approach, seeking contrary motion. In addition, repeated notes were also avoided because woodwind instruments find them hard to articulate at speed.

Listen to the draft recording.

The same approach was taken with the second half of the C section, the analysis of which is left as an exercise to the reader:

C section sax soli part 2

Stitching it all together

The three main sections (A, B and C) were written, I just needed to glue it all together.


I decided to write an introduction based on a fragment of the melody going through a few keys. Because I had chosen a modulation of a minor thirds between sections A and B, I decided that the minor thirds would be used again. The transitory keys implied by the harmony are B and D leading to F ready for the A section.

The melodic fragment I chose was from bar 7 of the melody where the words “birth-day to” occur:

The introduction is based on a fragment of the melody rising through keys a minor third apart.

I imagined that if this were arranged for vocal choir with words, the opening would go: “birth-day to, birth-day to, birth-day to … A Happy Birth-day …”. By choosing a three-beat phrase and changing key every three beats, I hoped to confuse the listener from the outset regarding meter and key.

I chose the biggest band the arrangement uses for the opening so as to be stark contrast with the duo to follow immediately after. The voicings I chose this time were drop-2s with the soprano lead doubled on the second tenor sax. For extra crunch I tonicized the minor 7 initial minor 7 chord by given them major 7s but falling to minor 7s on the second chord of each phrase.

The final chord of the opening spreads out to an upper structure for C7alt as Ab triad over C7.

Listen to the draft recording.

Joining section B to C

I need a way of joining the B section into the Sax Soli C section while also modulating from Ab back to F. I decided to re-use the appropriate 3-beat phrase from the introduction which also served to say “listen up, the sax soli is about to start!” Or maybe just “Birth-day to …”:

The modulaiton from section B to C uses a fragment of the introcution's material.


The Outro is a copy of the intro, but with the extra suprise that it starts a bar early before the melody has completed. The whole arrangement ends on a chord I7 with clarinet added above the soprano sax to mimic the lead trumpet of a big band. Seven horns playing at the same time, the biggest chord of the whole arrangement. Where is Animal from the Muppets when you need him on the drum kit?

Listen to the draft recording. For more, see my link tree. If you like this article, please like, comment, share etc.

Further reading

  • Dobbins, B, Jazz Arranging and Composing: A Linear Approach, Advance Music, 1986.

By jaelliott24

Jazz musician, author and teacher.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s