The Power of Music Theory in Arrangements Part 1


in Composition

Analyzing and creating your own arrangement of a song.

In this series of posts I'm going to  cover the use of music theory in an application of applied re-harmonization.  I've pulled out a Mel Torme arrangement of the Christmas Song that I worked on a couple of years ago.

Using a sheet of fake book music we're going to step through the process of applied music theory starting with some basic principles and leading through some advanced concepts. I've chosen a jazzed up version of a song so we can explore how important it is to “getting it down cold” concepts can be to your music abilities.


The purpose of this exercise is to show you how knowing music theory can allow you to also take your own music and with that knowledge create hip music on your own.

Let's start with four measures of the song defining the first phrase. The following is the how the melody is presented in Eb major, and is the starting point for Mel's arrangement. I know it's a bit small to read and we'll use more close up sections when we explore further.


To start with let's do a little bit of analysis on the song.  Let's study what Mel started with  and look at the song elements using music theory.


First we see that we have three flats on the treble clef staff which will define our key signature. Knowing our theory the key will be either Eb major or C minor.

Taking a quick look at the chords, I've determined that it is in the key of Eb major. We'll take a look at the scale and harmonic system in a moment, but with the Eb starting the song it's a fairly good bet that we are in the key of Eb major.

Continuing, the song is in common 4/4 time and our beat is 50 per minute using the quarter note. In this case the rhythm speed was chosen to be slow to allow the richness of my arrangement to come out.

The melody is in the center register. With the notes in the treble clef we will be playing the melody above middle C.

Scales and Chords

Back to the key signature we can take a look at the scale and chord system.

For Eb major the major scale is Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D. and the chords for the major diatonic harmonic system are Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm, Ddim. (I, ii, iii, IV, V7, vi, vii dim)

Next the chords are presented at each of the measures with one additional chord in the first measure. Taking a closer look at the chords used for the first four measures the progression is EbM7, F-7, G-7, EbM7 and AbM7.

Showing this progression in the numeric system is IM7, ii7, iii7, IM7, IVM7. We see here that Mel has jazzed up the chords and added the 7th interval to them. We can also notice that he has used the scale notes and the major chords have major sevenths and the minor chords have minor 7ths. Note that the major V chord will use a minor 7th interval rather than the major 7th.

Summarizing First Steps

This is the how I start looking at every song I approach. I become familiar with the first basic aspects of the song so that I have in my head the music theory and can quickly start to digest the song.

First steps to start our exploration of the song:

  • See which clef  the melody is written on.
  • Look for sharps and flats to start to determine the key signature.
  • See where the notes are and what rhythm we will be using.
  • Review the chords to get clues to the key signature. (If the key signature remains the same throughout the song the last chord in the song will usually end on the root chord and will be your key signature.)
  • Write out the scale of the key signature.
  • Write out the basic diatonic harmonic chord system. Extend that out with added 7ths for jazz.

What's Next

We've got a start on the song, next time were going to see how Mel added in chords to create movement in the song and will add a bass line to go with it.

Stay tuned, the fun is just beginning!

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