A Next Step to Harmony

Last week, we looked at Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising by Sietze de Vries. It focused primarily on basic chords in the same key as the melody. Today, I’d like to offer an idea on developing a tonal vocabulary more in the style of Jean Langlais.

Building Chords

Common practice harmony uses chords built by thirds. When choosing how to harmonize a melody note, it typically is the root, third or fifth of a chord. Eventually, we could consider the possibility that it is a seventh, ninth, or a non-chord tone, but we’ll keep it simple for now. Keeping only to major and minor triads, this will give us six options of how to harmonize a single melody note:


Using our chorale Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden all from last week, our first step will be to harmonize the theme with one of the six chord types all the way through. Here is the first phrase with the melody as the root of a major triad:


Play through the entire chorale using each of the six types of chords one at a time (Root of a major chord, root of a minor chord, third of a major chord, and so forth). Enjoy the cross relations like the C# and C natural in the second measure above. Eventually, you can venture into diminished and augmented triads, or even seventh chords:


Once you can consistently apply one chord type to the melody, it’s time to start looking for different progressions that will provide the most interesting colors. If the melody note stays the same, be sure and change the type of chord (from root of a major chord to third of a major chord for example).


Lobt Gott den Herrn is a very stepwise melody. Be sure and practice with other themes that include mores skips (especially thirds!) in them so that you are very comfortable with the cross relations that develop from keeping the chord type consistent. You can practice this using only one hand at a time (Yes, you should do it with your left hand alone!), both hands playing the same notes, or eventually right hand chord with left hand (or pedal!) playing the root. This last one can become particularly tricky once you start changing chord types. Remember the instruction from Naji Hakim (a student of Langlais): “Never play faster thank you can think.”

Finally, add a little rhythm, a few manual or registration changes, and you are well on your way to creating a piece like the Pasticcio from Langlais’ Organ Book or the Dialogue sur les mixtures from Suite Brève.

Hoping your harmony is colorful!

Glenn Osborne

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:
I’ve added a new section to the store with recordings of piano improvisations in classical styles. It includes recordings by Gabriela Montero, Ola Gjeilo, and my favorites by John Bayless on Happy Birthday and tunes by The Beatles.



Newsletter Issue 7 – 2014 06 09
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Where do I start?

Now that we’ve explored the Four C’s of Improvising (Competency, Convincing, Coherent and Colorful), the question becomes how do we apply them all at once? If our improvisations are to sound like a composition, then we must be able to master all of them, but where do we start? Is there an order that we need to cover them in order to master the art of improvisation?

The Tool Box

I have always looked at my improvisation skills as a tool box. A house or even a piece of furniture is constructed using not just a hammer, but a hammer, screwdriver, saw, nails, pliers, and depending upon the project, perhaps a measuring tape, a few wrenches, a blow torch or even a backhoe! So constructing a piece of music also requires use of harmony, counterpoint, and many other musical tools. It can be advantageous to practice these areas separately, but eventually we must combine them together if we are to achieve a final product. Mastering harmony alone would be like mastering the saw. There are many things we could do, but we will need more tools to complete our project.


Because there are so many tools that we need to master in order to improvise, I have become fascinated by the method books that have been written to teach improvisation. I am attempting to compile a bibliography of books here. Please let me know about others and I will add them to the list. Each of the books I have seen chooses a different place to start and covers different tools.

For example, one of the recent books I found is Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising by Sietze de Vries. As the title implies, this book is aimed at organists beginning the study of improvisation. The first pages explain root position triads, inversions, and basic harmonic progressions. The next few chapters build out from this base by expanding to other major keys, applying the inversions, widening the harmonic palette, and then moving into minor keys and church modes. If you do not have a solid foundation in harmony and theory, then this could be a good place for you to begin your study. As the author says on the last page:

And now a somewhat discouraging announcement: This is only the beginning! The knowledge you have gained about harmonizing can help you begin to improvise hymn introductions and choral preludes. This makes knowledge of different musical forms absolutely necessary.

Indeed, I find this book to be very basic and something I am not likely to use myself except as a thematic resource. It includes over two dozen simple chorale themes from the Dutch Liedboek voor de kerken. If you don’t have access to that hymnal and need some simple themes to work with, this could be an excellent resource. Here’s a sample theme, Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden all:
LobtGottdenHerrn - Vries

Rather than search through Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales for simple chorales, Harmonizing by Sietze de Vries will provide you with plenty of useful themes to practice not just harmony but many other tools from your toolbox that you might wish to develop. What sort of introduction or chorale prelude could you make with the theme above? If this is the starting place, where would you go next? How many different places can we go from here? Rather than be discouraged, I get excited by all the possibilities! We have a start, so let the adventure begin!

Hoping you will explore the possibilities,

Glenn Osborne

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:



Newsletter Issue 6 – 2014 06 02
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Sietze de Vries


Official website:

Sietze de Vries received his professional training from, among others, Wim van Beek, Jan Jongepier and Jos van der Kooy. He was awarded his undergraduate degree at the Groningen Conservatoire; at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague he completed his post-graduate studies with an endorsement for improvisation. In addition, he graduated from the Alkmaar school for church music with the Dutch church music diploma.

Between 1987 and 2002 he won fifteen prizes at various national and international competitions for both repertoire and improvisation. The pinnacle, and also the conclusion, of that period was his triumph at the International Improvisation competition in Haarlem in 2002. On two previous occasions he had been a finalist.

He has many recordings available here:
Many of these recordings have been shared on YouTube by the user Henk van den Brink.

DeVriesHarmonizingHe has written a book- Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising which covers basic theory while gradually moving toward improvising using I, IV, and V in easier keys. As the book advances, he includes harmonizing and improvisation on ii, iii, and vi as well as in minor keys and even church modes. Published by Boeijenga Music Publications. Available from the OHS Catalog here.

Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on Psalm 130 – Grote kerk, Brouwershaven
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on’The Old Hundredth’ – Martinikerk, Groningen