One way to brush up on your composition and melodic skills is to write new tunes over “standards” changes. Many standards are written in AABA form, and writing new melodies over forms such as this can really help hone your melodic construction and phrasing chops.
I have written a handful of tunes using chord changes from well-known standards. A few of my 4 horn combo charts were written in this manner.
There are a number of things you can do to help get you started writing new tunes over classic standards changes. These are the things that help me get started writing a new tune over an existing chordal structure.
1) Identify the main key structure, basic outline, and harmonic rhythm of the chord changes. What keys does it move to during the tune? What key does the bridge go to? Sometimes the bridge will move to a remote key away the A section, and other times it will move to the relative minor. The harmonic rhythm of the tune will play an important part in determining a tempo or style of your new tune.
2) Play the chord changes at the piano in different tempos and styles. If the original tune is a bebop tune, try working through the changes as a ballad, or an easy bossa nova. Changing the style of the original will help jump start your creativity and help you to think of new melodic fragments you could implement into the new melody. Oftentimes the “standard” is so closely tied to the chords, the only way to get the original melody out of your head is to change the style or tempo.
3) Start with a few simple melodic fragments that would fit the chord changes at strategic spots in the tune. Depending on what standard changes you are working with, you may be able to write the entire tune with a simple melodic idea as the basis. (Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance would be a good example of this)
4) Write a number of rhythmic phrases (2 or 4 bars) that you can find notes for later. Oftentimes tunes are memorable by their rhythm alone. (many examples such as: Cute, Moment’s Notice, So What, In a Mello Tone, etc.) You would be surprised how quickly a melody can come to you if you work on only rhythmic phrases first – then “find” notes that work with that rhythm and the original chords.
Below you will find a tune I wrote that closely follows the chord changes to the standard tune Georgia on My Mind. Notice how I changed the style from a slow walking ballad to an uptempo bebop tune.
Once I got into the tune, I did alter some of the changes as I saw fit. Print out the tune and play it with your small group. The changes are fun to blow over and its a good key for almost any instrument.
I’ll be doing a combo arrangement for 3 and 4 horns of this tune very soon. I may even do a big band chart on it. 🙂
Questions or comments are welcome as always.
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