How to Spice Up a Mundane Melody With Jazz Chords

+ Take your modern jazz piano and hip-hop beat making to new heights with Soundfly’s new course, Elijah Fox: Impressionist Piano & Production!

In this previously published article, we described some basic jazz chords and advised on how to use them. We constructed chords by extending triads with stacks of additional thirds: sevenths, ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. And we talked about how you could choose appropriate jazz extensions by matching the pitches in a melody, especially those pitches that would be dissonant over mere triads.

Now, how about the reverse? Instead of picking chords that most clearly support the tune, what about choosing chords that spice things up by creating dissonance? Chords that barely match the pitches at all?

Why would you do this?

Well, harmony can change the meaning and function of the notes it supports, turning consonance to dissonance, creating new points of tension and release, making the tune tell a new story. This makes harmony a fine tool to spice up a mundane melody. Music that’s harmonically static, that’s continually consonant, can be boring.

Dissonance creates interest. Each dissonance makes the mind think it’s the start of a story that ends when the dissonance resolves, whether it eventually does or not.

Today, we’ll look at two songs co-created by guitarist/songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers:

  • “We Are Family,” which Rodgers and his writing partner Bernard Edwards wrote for Sister Sledge
  • “Let’s Dance,” which Rodgers arranged, generally funked up, and produced for David Bowie.

As a bonus I’ll even tell you how I got this picture!

First, let’s look at “We Are Family.”

“We Are Family”

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards started playing music together in the early 1970s. In ’76, they formed the band Chic, a band with an elegant image that became an icon of the disco era. In ’79, they branched out by writing a song for another act, Sister Sledge. 

“We Are Family” was an international hit, a cultural sensation. Not only did it rise to #2 on the U.S. pop charts, but it became the rally song of the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress!

Here, we’re just going to talk about the chorus — how its jazz chords transform a mundane melody into something thrilling!

Let’s start with the faceless tune.

A Mundane Tune

This is not the way it actually happened; but let’s imagine that it’s 1978. Someone’s just given you this melody, and you need to make it into a hit.

Well, that’s not going to sell records. What do we do? Of course, we’ll back it up with a fantastic rhythm section and get Sister Sledge to sing it. But maybe we can pick chords that make it more exciting.

How About A7?

The tune begins and ends on the note A. Its only other pitch is G. We could harmonize that with a chord whose root is A and which contains a G: A7. This would match the whole tune!

It’s not bad. We could collect our advance and go home. But we’d have to admit that this isn’t the sort of song you need to hear twice. It lacks harmonic motion. The melody’s main pitch, A, is highly consonant over the A7 chord. Our lone chord is doing nothing to give the song energy.

Surely we can do better.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Crying in the Club: Songs Within Songs and Intertextuality in Pop Music.”

Maybe A7 and G?

Maybe we need another chord. With two chords, we’d have some harmonic motion. We could play an A chord during the measures where A is dominant, then switch to a G chord in measure 3.

Sadly that sounds even worse. Now the melody simply follows the chords, as if our singer couldn’t find anything else to sing. It’s less melodic. We’re making our singer look bad!

A7 and D7

Let’s look for chords whose roots aren’t in the tune. The A in the second measure would match a D chord. Why don’t we alternate between A7 and D7?

The D7 would match the A’s in the second and fourth measures. The resulting I-IV progression is common in pop, especially of this era. It’s even a bit funky.

Now we have some harmonic motion. But there’s still a lot of consonance. The main melodic pitch is a unison or fifth over the bass in every measure except measure 3. And there, although the G is a somewhat spicy seventh over the A, that’s hardly novel in a song packed with seventh chords.

I’m starting to doubt that our song will even crack the Top 40. We’re going to have to get jobs at the car wash!

Let’s Get Daring

We’re getting desperate. Instead of looking for harmonies that match the melody, let’s be bold and choose chords that make the melody dissonant. What if the G in the melody’s first measure wandered into the harmony in the second measure – not the third?

What a difference! The stasis is gone. The seventh at the end of measure 1 expands into a ninth in measure 2:

Now the song opens out into a clear sky, a world of pure potential. Ingeniously, by building a chord on a note made familiar by its inclusion in the melody, we’ve transformed the A, the tonic pitch, into a dissonance.

The G chord we were considering earlier proved useful. Weren’t we thinking about D too? Could we deploy that in a way that also creates dissonance? Let’s try it in measure 3. We’ll use a Dsus4, containing a G instead of an F♯, to avoid conflict with the G in the melody. Then, in measure 4, we could return to the G chord, forming a perfectly respectable A-G-D-G progression:

Not bad! But there’s room for improvement. Measure 2 is exciting — but measure 3 feels similar, as both contain the same notes — D, G, and A. And then measure 4 is identical to measure 2. As the harmonic motion slows after measure 2, so does the energy. The promise of that G chord, that vision of endless skies, has fizzled.

Now, here’s what Edwards, Rodgers, and the sisters Sledge actually did.

The Actual Chords

A subtle change changes everything. Switching Dsus4 to D in bar 3 changes just one pitch, from G to F♯. But now the G in the melody is dissonant over the harmony’s F♯:

Our ears expect that G to resolve to F♯, following the ancient 4-3 pattern. Instead, in bar 4 the G heads up to A, where it’s a dissonant 2nd over the G. It rises from a suspended 4th to a suspended 2nd, where it can float in funky eternity over the disco 11th chord.

Making the chord in bar 3 a plain, vanilla D triad has a useful consequence: the extended harmonies of bars 1 and 2 clearly resolve to that D:

It’s like the song has resolved to D major. It would be a stretch to claim the song’s in the key of D. You’d probably say it was in A. But the melody does use the A mixolydian scale, which is the same notes as D major, so it is sort of going home, right there in the middle of a phrase.

In bar 4, the song follows this moment of peace with that disco 11th chord, leaving us hanging weightless in endless disco space. Now, the song’s harmonies tell a story of their own, and the melody is pleasantly saturated with dissonant energy.

Now let’s listen through the song once with its real chords, in slow motion, pausing each measure to hear the music deeply.

Oh and if you’re interested, we recently launched a video on our YouTube channel about the mysterious origins of the triangular symbol that has come to represent the major seventh on jazz charts. Theorists and curiosity-junkies, come one come all, and subscribe if you like that sorta thing!

Measure By Measure

Bar 1

Measure 1 screams: this is the chorus! Its strong melodic rhythm starts with three quarter notes, hitting every beat before pausing dramatically on the “and” of 4. Add in the primal melodic interval the melody’s A creates over an A chord, and it’s positively anthemic. As noted above, we avoid potentially boring consonance by using an A7 instead of a plain A triad. Not only does the G in the Aadd a touch of dissonance and suspense, but it reinforces the melody’s only other pitch.

The melody returns to A, but by then the chord has shifted to G, and it adds suspense and avoids closure by placing that final A on a weak subbeat. And then, there’s a long silence. During bar 2, there’s no melody at all!

This measure introduces all the pitches used in the melody — well, both the pitches: A and G. (An E does appear in the subsequent four bars.) By using G, not G♯, it also tells us the song will use the blues-adjacent Mixolydian scale.

Bar 2: Gadd2

I think we covered this moment well above. The G chord transforms the melodic A into a gently dissonant 9th, and the song opens out into a world of potential — a universe in which the Pittsburgh Pirates can overcome their slow start and capture the pennant.

Bar 3: D Chord

Normally, a dissonant chord grabs our attention.

In this case, as we mentioned, it’s the opposite: we’re struck when the strings play an unadorned D major triad, a peaceful island in a sea of gentle dissonances. In fact, this is the one non-extended chord in the chorus. It’s almost like the A7 in bar 1 actually resolves to the D. It’s the center of the section.

To keep the energy going, the melody shifts into double time with a spray of G eighth notes. The F♯ in the D major chord accentuates the dissonance of the G’s instead of hiding it; but this is not so unusual for our ears, which know the tradition of consonant 4ths in R&B music.

F/G Chord

This is the ultimate disco 11th chord, the harmony that defines an era, the chord I keep obsessing about. The song deploys this peak disco weapon just as the melody hits the A at the end of the third bar, stopping, waiting, letting us drink in the funky moment. It’s insanely catchy.

To me, this chord is super-stable. It hangs in space. It doesn’t need to go anywhere! It doesn’t sound like a G chord, or much like an F chord. It’s suspended animation — but not static. It’s like it’s simultaneously in motion and a freeze frame. Usually it’s voiced something like this, with a big gap between the chord root and the 7th, 9th, and 11th:

The C would be a dissonant fourth over the G, but it’s supported by its own little stack of thirds, a consonant major triad. It’s another manifestation of a consonant R&B fourth.

The second half of the chorus repeats these four bars verbatim until bar 7, when the melody branches out from repeated G’s to alternating G’s and E’s. On the last note, the Sisters hit a sudden harmony in stacked thirds, adding a 13th:

Who Came Up With the Chords?

Apparently Rodgers and Edwards came up with the words and melody quickly, in the studio. Debbie Sledge recounts how their spontaneity frustrated the disciplined sisters, who’d been trained by an opera singer — their grandmother. Presumably those quickly written chords were suboptimal, because, according to Joni Sledge, Edwards and Debbie Sledge spent quite a while working out the harmonies.

Fortunately, Joni says, “Bernard and my sister Debbie were both musical geniuses when it comes to harmony.” When they argued, Rodgers served as the mediator.

So it’s actually quite likely that the song was created in much the way described here. Rodgers and Edwards came up with an initial draft with uninspiring chords, the Sisters complained, and Edwards and Debbie Sledge worked doggedly through harmonic schemes until they’d crafted the hit song we know today.

Now, let’s fast forward to 1982, and “let’s dance.”

“Let’s Dance”

In the early 1980s, the disco bubble popped, and Chic stopped making records. Nile Rodgers reinvented himself as a producer, finding success with major acts like Madonna, Duran Duran, and David Bowie.

Nile Rodgers tells the story of this song’s journey from idea to finished product in a vastly entertaining way — as you can see in the below video. I saw him do this live, and, yes, that’s how I got the picture above.

In 1982, Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his next record. In Rodgers’ telling, Bowie played him a simple, unremarkable melody, accompanying himself with simple, unremarkable chords in a square rhythm. Bowie said the song was called “Let’s Dance,” and he thought it could be a hit. Rodgers didn’t see how “Let’s Dance” would ever inspire anyone to dance.

But he thought about it, added some jazzy chords in the signature funky guitar rhythm he developed for Chic — and a #1 hit was born.

Other accounts of Bowie at other points in his career show him intimately involved in the details of his music. And Bowie’s early albums like Space Oddity demonstrate familiarity with intricate harmonies and fancy song structures. So Bowie might have been more involved in creating “Let’s Dance” than that.

Let’s look at the song’s A-section, the bit that begins with the unassuming yet immortal words… “Let’s dance.” We’ll focus on the first eight bars.

Starting to Spice It Up

Here’s the tune in those first eight bars, without accompaniment.

As with “We Are Family,” the tune itself is undistinguished. Let’s try again to spice it up with harmony!

The obvious choice would be to play a B♭ minor chord throughout. After all, that matches the pitches in the melody, which are drawn from the set [B♭ D♭ F A♭]. Let’s try that:

This is unexciting. But our guitarist is Nile Rodgers, right? He knows jazz. If we’re going to play a chord that matches the melody, why don’t we make it a minor 7th? Then our harmony would include the melody’s A♭ too.

This is not going to sell records. What to do?

Remember how we tried adding a IV chord to “We Are Family”? A IV would lean into the blues feel the melody hints at, and if we play it in measure 5, it would match the melody. Then we simply return to B♭m.

Bluesy Version

It’s now at least an average song, but nothing worthy of international hitmakers like Rodgers and Bowie. Can we do better?

The Demo Version

I don’t know how Rodgers and Bowie worked on this song. I don’t have all the phases “Let’s Dance” went through en route to its final form. But this fascinating demo exists from somewhere in the middle of the process. 

By this time, Rodgers has added some funky jazzy guitar chords, and the song’s gained a danceable straight rock rhythm. The chords are as follows:

Does the harmony help activate the tune? The initial B♭m11 chord is a little disappointing, because when the melody lands hard on a B♭ on the first beat, that’s a maximally consonant unison. Fortunately, that guitar chord contains a dissonant A♭ and E♭.

This dissonance adds some energy, opening the song up:

Unfortunately, the next chord, a plain B♭ minor, deflates the bubble. The melody lands on B♭ again, then takes a break — and the song feels like it’s over.

(It’s possible Rodgers is playing a G on the bottom of that B♭ minor chord, making it a Bm6. But if so it’s so subtle that it barely changes the chord.)

The E♭m in bar 5 is promising. It could sound cool to stay in minor throughout the song. Unfortunately, compared to the E♭7 we tried in our “Blues version” above, it replaces our juicy G-natural with a predictable G♭. A little minor-major mixture, a pitch outside the B♭ minor scale, would have added at least a little interest. Instead, it feels like the guitar is just exploring slight variations on the same chord.

Plus, both the bass and guitar play repeated ostinati, driving home the idea that this is a one-chord song.

Meanwhile, even though Bowie is one of the great rock stylists, he hasn’t yet found a distinctive approach to the song. His rhythm and his manner of conveying the lyrics are predictable, almost mechanical. There’s no character, no angle. Overall, this sounds like a straight funk song, with no irony or detachment, no attitude. It’s like a funk cover band playing in a bar circa 2023.

Note also one subtle point: the top pitch in each guitar chord is as follows:

Just keep that in mind. It will matter.

The actual song

Now let’s compare that to the final product.

The bass and guitar ostinati we heard in the demo are gone, making harmonic motion possible. And subtle changes in the chords realize this potential. Let’s take a look.

Bar 1-2: B♭m11

This is the same chord as the demo. It was a good idea! Although the B♭ root is the same note as the B♭ the melody lands on, the A♭ and E♭ in the chord add harmonic complexity and interest, letting us know that, even though the melody’s stopped on the first scale degree, the song’s not over.

Bar 3-4: B♭m6 – E♭9

The guitar plays B♭m6, just a bit different from the B♭m in the demo. The big change here is in the bass, which is now freed from playing an unchanging ostinato. In bar 4, it takes advantage of a break in the melody and the guitar to jump up to E♭, then walk in quarter notes down the scale to B♭:

This generates a new chord with an E♭ root. The new root reinterprets the B♭m guitar chord of measure 3 as an E♭ chord:

The horn riff in measure 4 matches the new E♭ chord. When we hear it again in measure 8, it matches the B♭m chord there too:

The E♭ chord frees the song from its pitch stasis. Yes, the melody still anchors on B♭ in a song in B♭ minor, and the first melodic phrase has just landed on B♭ over a B♭m chord as usual. But the harmony has just traveled from B♭m11 to B♭6, telling our ears we might be starting on a harmonic journey, and then it shifts to E♭.

We’re going somewhere!

In the demo, we noted that the top notes in the first two guitar chords were E♭ and B♭. Now, they’re E♭ and D♭. The guitar feels like it’s moving downward:

The E♭ chord also introduces the G-natural we liked in our “blues version” above. It’s a pitch in a chord drawn from the major mode, giving our ears some crucial pitch and modal variety.

And then it gets even better:

Bar 5-6: E♭m/G♭

Lo and behold, the bass just introduced another new chord. The guitar plays the same E♭ minor chord from the demo, but the bass drops to G♭. I don’t hear a D♭ in the guitar, though there might be one – but it feels like a chord rooted in G♭, like a G♭6. (And that’s what Rodgers calls it.)

The strong G♭ contrasts with the G-natural of the bar 4 guitar chord. And it’s so different from the demo’s B♭m. The melody is still locked down to B♭, but the bass line creates harmonic motion all by itself. The melody’s B♭ and D♭ now feel much like the third and fifth in a major chord.

Bar 7-8: B♭7

This chord brings us back home, drawing our harmonic journey to a close. But the guitar chord still contains the dissonant jazz 7th, and its top note is a D♭, not B♭. All this is enough to tell our ear the story’s not over — and we remain interested.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Philip Tagg’s Everyday Tonality.”

Did Rodgers Think This Way?

Usually, when I analyze a pop song and find underlying narrative and structure, I assume the writers created this intuitively, perhaps even unconsciously. Here, though, we have a pair of writers with wide musical experience, at least one of whom read music. Rodgers even talks about bringing manuscript paper to his sessions with Bowie.

The way Rodgers talks about the chords’ transformation is informative. He says that he first moved the song up a half-step because it was too “dark” in A minor. Then, he moved the guitar part up on the neck to make it still brighter. But then he realized he’d made the guitar part “harmonically interesting” and even that, as we pointed out above, “the voice leading became really smooth and easy to follow”.

Imagine my excitement at hearing Rodgers had spiced up the harmonies in the way I describe — on purpose! I felt vindicated, even when he called his B♭m6 chord a B♭m13.

Beyond the Pitches

Of course, between the demo and the final version, a lot more changed than pitches and chords.

1. No more disco.

Nile Rodgers’s signature funky guitar patterns were key to the sound of Chic and became a prime disco signifier. But, in the early 1980s, a disco backlash was in full effect.

As Rodgers says, “I was so afraid of the ‘disco sucks’ thing.” Thus he simplified his guitar to a few quick chords every two measures, one guitar lick for each new harmony. The engineer, the great Bob Clearmountain, added a delay which kept the guitar going for an entire measure each time, brilliantly building an unearthly sound that sounded a bit funky, a bit ’80s, and very catchy.

2. That ’80s sound.

The live bass of the demo is replaced by a synth bass. The live drums are hopelessly altered in that early 1980s gated-reverb kind of way. Rodgers has effectively disguised his disco roots and created a perfect ’80s sound.

3. Stevie Ray Vaughn, horns, percussion.

Throw into the soup a blues guitar, raunchy big band sound, and… are those temple block samples? The result is a combination of sounds that doesn’t clearly belong to any particular musical style. This song creates its own style.

4. David Bowie.

Bowie has found the song’s emotional center, drawing out of himself something rather new and not at all typical in 1980s pop. What a vocal performance — a new, world-weary Bowie, releasing the bassier elements of his voice, whispering into a huge reverb, getting oddly dramatic about phrases like “Under the moonlight, the serious moonlight.”

The song now sounds like an odd take on a dance song, a song beyond the end of time, hopelessly jaded yet somehow romantic. I honestly don’t know how to place it, stylistically, or emotionally, or anything. It’s an odd combination of detachment and desperation.

It just sounds… compelling. It does what Bowie did better than anyone, it conveyed a dramatic persona.

Other Song Sections

“Let’s Dance” opens with the distinctive sound of male harmonies climbing up a dominant seventh chord. It’s clearly a reference to the well-known breakdown in the Isley Brothers’ 1962 hit rendition of “Twist and Shout,” as famously imitated by The Beatles in 1964.

There, the dominant seventh chord resolves in a traditional V7-I pattern, leading smoothly back into the main song.

“Let’s Dance” introduces… a twist: no shout. As the harmonies climb an E♭7 chord, we await a satisfying resolution to a main song in A♭. Instead, the bottom drops out of the arrangement, and we hear the B♭m11 that opens the A-section. Rather than leading V7-I to a big vocal section, the opening proceeds IV7-i to a sparse instrumental.

The effect is striking. Our ears were just promised a big hit song from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, but then there’s just empty space. It’s the kind of detached commentary on early rock that characterizes the whole song.

We don’t have space to talk here about the song’s B-section — but I’ve always found it odd. It sounds like a quote from an old song, one that might even predate the rock era, that was just stuffed into “Let’s Dance”. Unlike the A-section, the tune here is square, not blues-y. And the chords are straight major and minor chords, with no jazz extensions.

I wonder if Bowie shoehorned this section into the song while Rodgers was out getting lunch.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How D’Angelo Uses Funky Dominant Sevenths in ‘Sugah Daddy’.”

Life Ain’t Nothin’ But Pitches and Money.

Of course, a song with an utterly mundane tune can still be a hit. The resourceful modern producer has so many other tools – novel sounds, infectious beats, bass lines, keyboard countermelodies. A great lead vocalist can do a lot with a little. But people in the music business still say a great song is key. It has to have good bones.

Dress up a turd, and you’ve got a glamorous turd. Just ask The Weeknd.

So, if you’re faced with an inert tune, try messing around with surprising harmonies. Introduce some contrast, some dissonance. Try some jazz chords. You might find yourself with – as Rodgers eloquently puts it – a smash!

Play Your Heart Out!

Continue your learning adventure on Soundfly with modern, creative courses on songwriting, mixing, production, composing, synths, beats, and more by artists like KieferKimbraCom TruiseJlinRyan Lott, RJD2, and our newly launched Elijah Fox: Impressionist Piano & Production.

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