Twinkle Twinkle Jazzy Star 


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I thought this might be a good time to apply some of the harmonic concepts we have learned through the analysis of Fernando Sor’s etudes and our discussions of jazz harmony by harmonizing a very simple melody, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. This little tune lends itself beautifully to a traditional jazz harmonization utilizing chord changes found in most standard tunes. Sor’s contribution to this exercise is the concept of voice-leading which is the idea that individual voices should connect smoothly, usually and preferably by step-wise motion, through the course of a composition. This concept is one of the most important principles in classical composition and is of course derived from vocal writing where small intervals are much easier to negotiate from a singer’s perspective in addition to imparting a smooth flowing quality to the music.

My goal was to use a new harmony for each note of the tune while maintaining a strong harmonic progression based mainly on root movements of descending fifths as is common in most jazz standards. I also wanted to use as many chord embellishments (additions of ninths, elevenths and thirteenths), chord substitutions (tritone subs) and altered chords (dominants with b5, #5, b9, #9, secondary dominants and borrowed chords) as possible.

Let’s look at it line by line.

Line 1: Chord progression used is {I IV iii V/ii ii V I V/ii} The A7b9 is a secondary dominant or V/ii in this case.

Line 2: Chord progression is {ii V I vii/ii ii V I} The C#dim7 is a passing diminished seventh chord connecting the I and ii chords chromatically.

Line 3: Chord progression is {I V/ii ii iv I V/ii ii V} The new feature here is the minor iv chord (borrowed from c minor). All chords are over a dominant pedal point (G).

Line 4: Chord progression is basically {I V/vi V/ii ii V/V V} The Bb13, Eb9 and Ab7#5 are tritone subs for E7 (V/vi), A7 (V/ii) and D7 (V/V) respectively.

Line 5: Chord progression is basically {ii-V/iii iii V/ii ii V ii-V/ii} The F#m7b5 to F7 is a variation of the typical minor ii V progression but the V chord (B7) is replaced with its tritone substitution (F7).

Line 6: Chord progression is basically {i ii-V/vi V/ii V/V V I} This line is the most complex harmonically. The idea was to write a chromatic bass line spanning the tonic (C) to the dominant (G). The opening minor tonic chord can be heard as a borrowed chord from C minor. It does come as a surprise as we would expect to hear a ii chord (Dm) following the A7 in the previous measure. The voice-leading allows for a smooth transition to this unexpected harmony as the C# moves to C natural and the E to Eb (chromatic sixths/thirds) while the Bb is a common tone. Here again the Bb7b5 and Ab7b5 are tritone substitutions for E7 and D7 respectively.

Line 7: Chord progression is {ii-V/vi vi vii/ii ii V I} This line is an alternate ending just to demonstrate the many possibilities when it comes to harmonizing a melody.

You will also notice that many of the chords are rootless. I indicated the implied root when labeling the chord so that the underlying harmonic progression is clear.

Also notice the voice-leading as you move from chord to chord. Most connections that occur between the inner voices are by step. Root movements are for the most part descending fifths or chromatic if a tritone substitution is involved.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to harmonizing a melody. It is still all very magical to me how these relationships work. As hard as I try to understand it I still find much of it quite mysterious. I hope you enjoy this little exercise as much as I have and discover new and interesting ways to put new “clothes” on an old tune.


  • Tom Cavanagh
    Tom Cavanagh
    Great website John! Thanks for this lesson on harmonizing TTLS. I appreciate the strong foundation with jazz comping you gave me at the Fava Studio in Birmingham over twenty years ago.

    Great website John! Thanks for this lesson on harmonizing TTLS. I appreciate the strong foundation with jazz comping you gave me at the Fava Studio in Birmingham over twenty years ago.

  • derek shelton
    derek shelton
    Excellent chord study

    Excellent chord study

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