A student of mine asked about “jazzing” up the Wedding March by Mendelssohn, so I am taking this opportunity to explain how to create an arrangement from scratch using the Wedding March as a springboard.
In this article I am only going to cover the first four measures of the song. Why? Because I want this article to focus on how to create an arrangement from scratch, not just how to learn the song. Using these techniques, you can learn the rest of the song on your own and apply them to countless other songs.
I’ll also give you a link at the bottom of the article to the entire ‘traditional version’ of the song.
Step One – Figuring out the melody
Let’s begin by figuring out the melody of the song. For those who read music, I have provided the first four-measures of the melody below (ex. 1). If you do not read music, play the MP3 file to hear the first four-measures of the song, then pick it out by ear. In example 1, I wrote the note names below the notes.
Step Two – Figure out the key using music
Before we begin putting chords (harmony) to the melody, let’s first review the key signature. The key signature is found between the clef and the time signature. See example 2.
In example 2 we see that there are no sharps or flats in the key signature. This means we are in the key of C major or A minor.
Step Three – Figure out the key using your ears
“What if I don’t read music and just figured out how to play the melody by ear? How would I know what key it is in?”
That is a great question. If you figured out the melody by ear, also use your ear (plus a few tips I’ll give you) to figure out the key of the song. The melody of a song will naturally lead the ear to a key. This means you’ll “hear” the right key after playing the melody a few times. This is how:
- Play the melody of the song 2-4 times
- Next, play a strong octave at the end of the song. So, if you think it is in the key of F, play an F in octaves in the LH after playing the melody. Try it right now with this melody. You’ll notice that it does not sound right at all. It does not sound “resolved”
- Continue step 2 till you find a match. This might require that you step away from the keyboard for a while to “clear” your ears.
- If you went through all 12 keys, you’ll realize that C, A and E probably sound the best.
- Next, play that C, A or E in octaves over the entire melody. E does not sound all that great, so we can remove it from the list.
- We’ve now narrowed the two keys that sound good down to C and A.
Now, tedious as this method may be, it does have its benefits. If you tried this, or listened to the examples, you’ll hear that A sounds good in the beginning, but it sounds better to end the phrase with a C.
So, we start on an A in the left hand, but move to a C at the end of the phrase. This makes sense because A is the related minor to C Major. So, now we know that the song starts in minor, then moves to Major.
Why does this work? It works because songs will often switch between related Major and minor keys. Related keys are those that share the same key signature. C and A both share the same key signature. More on this in the circle of fiths article.
Step Four – Applying basic chords to the song
Let’s start with two helpful tips that will help you figure out what chord to use at the beginning of the song. Remember, these are tips and work “most” of the time but not all of the time.
- “Most” songs begin with the I or V chord. This is an extreme generalization but often works well. So, in the case of the Wedding March, let’s start with C, the I chord in C major. Remember, we do not know if we are in C Major or A minor yet, but let’s assume C Major for the moment. The other options would be G (V chord in C Major), A minor (I chord in A minor) or E (V chord in A minor).
- The melody note will “usually” be the 1, 3 or 5 of the starting chord. Yet another generalization, but a good starting point. In this case, the melody note is C and it is the root of the C chord or flat 3rd of the A minor chord, so it works well with either chord.
Example three demonstrates applying these two tips to the melody.
Now, after listening to example 3, we can it sounds “O.K.” but not quite right. It would work in a ‘pinch’ if you were on a gig though. Chances are, most people would not even notice it sounding ‘off’. But, we know better!
Step Five – Fixing the chords
Example 3 did not sound terrible, but it could sound better. I mentioned back in step four that most songs will start on the I or V chord “most” of the time. I’ll stop putting in my disclaimers as long as you promise to remember that these tips or rules can always be broken and are broken many times in music history!
Back on track…So if I list the I and V chords in C major and A minor, I get: C-G (I & V in C Major) and Amin-E (I minor & V in A minor).
Immediately, I can bump the G and E chords off the list because the melody note is not found in those chords and would sound very tense played along with the melody. We just tried the C chord and found that it sounded good but not great. That leaves the A minor chord. Let’s try it.
Now that sounds more like the Wedding March that we know. But I am still not happy with the first two measures.
Step Six – Harmonic rhythm.
Harmonic rhythm is the rate at which the chords change. Do they change every two beats, four beats or more? Do you have one, two or more chords per measure? In measures one, two and four the Harmonic rhythm is one chord per measure. I personally like the sound of two chords per measure rather than holding out a chord for four beats. But, as always, it depends on the song and situation. For this example, let’s add some more chords to our melody.
To make some room in measure two, I’m going to “push” the F chord from beat one to beat three. In example 5, the green box shows us that we now have a space that we can fill. Now, the reason I knew I could move the chord over to beat three is because if it sounded fine over beats 1-4, then it will sound fine over beats 3-4. Also, notice that the melody note is an F which will sound fantastic on an F chord.
What chord should I fill in the green box? There are many chords that I could use in that area. Just think, “What chords naturally have an A in them, and would also sound nice against the G?” Well, D minor and A minor come to mind. But, I’m going to go in a different direction. I’m going to choose a C chord.
In example 6, I have filled beats one and two in measure 2 with a C/E chord. This means that you play the C chord in first inversion with the E as the bottom note. If you were playing with a bass player, they would play the E while you play a C chord in your left hand.
Now, the question is probably “Why did you choose C, especially with that A in the melody?!?”
The A in the melody is acting as a suspension. This is a 6-5 suspension. You’ll notice that it is tense on beat one, but resolves nicely on beat two when the G in the melody comes in. Other common suspensions are 9-1 (2-1), 4-3 and 7-8.
I chose the C chord because it sounds nice and works well in the key. It helps to “ground” the key of C sound. Also, this is a traditional song so the axiom holds: Just because you can change something doesn’t mean that you should! Sometimes the tried and true sounds better.
I want to draw your attention to the F/C on beat three in measure 2 (ex. 6). Notice that I am now writing this as F/C whereas before I was simply writing it as an F chord?
When writing music for yourself, you can simplify the way that you write your chords. The F/C versus plain old F does not change the harmony. It is still an F chord. When putting chords to a melody it is often necessary to get them out quick while they are still in your memory and ears. So, don’t get bogged down in the details.
Step Seven – Dominant motion
In example 7, you’ll see that we still have some room in measure one to fill in another chord. Of course we have room in other measures to fill in chords as well. We could put chords on every beat, but that would be too dense.
Dominant motion is when you have a dominant 7th chord resolve down a fifth (up a fourth) to another chord. G7 would resolve to C. The dominant chord must be a dominant chord for dominant resolution to work. However, the chord it is resolving to can be a Major, minor or another dominant chord.
This gets a bit tricky, but sounds good. Since the bass motion on the C/E chord makes us hear E as the root of the chord, I’m going to think of this as an E chord for right now. In reality C/E is not too far of a stretch from an E minor chord. We’ll see more of this later.
So, if I am now thinking of C/E as E, the question is “What is the related dominant 7th chord to E?” This is where your scales come in. You should at least learn how to play all 12 Major five-finger scales. This is the first five notes of all of your Major scales. Don’t get me wrong, it would be best to learn all 12 Major scales in full.
The notes of the E Major five-finger scale are: E, F#, G#, A and B. Numbering the notes starting with E as 1, gives us B as the 5th. We now know that the 5th of E is B. That means B7 has a strong dominant motion toward E, or C/E in this example.
Now, let’s check B7 against our melody. The melody notes are B and F#, that’s the root and 5th of a B7 chord. Perfect! See the results of this new chord in example eight.
This now sounds like the Wedding March. However, the accompaniment is kind of bland only using triads. In part two, I’ll talk about how to expand these simple chords into a full blown arrangement in a traditional, jazz and contemporary style.