Writing for Piano/Guitar, Drums & Two-Part Harmony

Back to our regularly scheduled programming, Week 4 of Jazz & Popular Arranging focused on two skills: 1) writing for piano/guitar and drums, and 2) two-part harmony. The lecture material described different levels of complexity for writing for the rhythm section and focused our harmonization to the use of thirds and sixths. Our discussion revolved around the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and Al Jarreau’s “We’re in This Love Together.” Our assignment was to write an arrangement of “Have You Met Miss Jones’” for trumpet, tenor sax, piano/guitar, bass, and drums.

Lecture Material

Boras (2005) referenced four different “levels” of writing for the rhythm section:

  1. Harmonic comping (piano/guitar), walking bass line, and drums playing time

  2. Level One “with specific rhythmic figures supporting melodic and/or harmonic hits”

  3. Level Two “with bass to establish rhythmic patterns or vamps in different styles”

  4. “Writing parts for harmonic comping (piano and/or guitar) with bass in stop time areas (time is implied and not played; only rhythmic/harmonic hits are played).” (p. 98)

For the purposes of our assignment this week, we stuck with Levels 1 and 2. Our piano and guitar were combined into a single system using slash and rhythmic notation. The bass was written as a walking bass line like Week 3 with some slash/rhythmic notation, and our drum set incorporated slash/rhythmic notation and rhythmic cues.

Discussion Board

Prompt: Listen to the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" (The Standards Real Book, pp. 509-514) and Al Jarreau's "We're In This Love Together" (The Standards Real Book, pp. 505-506) numerous times looking at the lead sheets (for "What a Fool …" there are two, one specifically for the rhythm section). There are no horns in these songs, but they have very sophisticated arrangements; look at the songs as a whole from this point of view, and discuss the following: Do any of the arranging principles we have looked at so far apply to arranging for this type of material and instrumentation? If so, how? Are there elements involved in the arrangement of this song that are unrelated to what we have done? If so, what are they?

Initial Post: Many of the arranging principles we have looked at so far apply to the pop charts and rhythm section instrumentation. The first principle we looked at was rhythmic concepts in line writing. The printed versions of "What a Fool Believes" and "We're In This Love Together" in The Standards Real Book already incorporate aspects of anticipation and delay—rhythms tied over the barline in both charts. Al Jarreau stretches the rhythmic line even further in Letter A of "We're In This Love Together." Both vocalists stylize this anticipation and delay by shortening rhythms or bending pitches. This anticipation and delay of the rhythmic line also applies to the harmonic rhythm in both tunes—several chords are anticipated by an eighth note.

In Week 2, we discussed writing for horns. While the ensembles in both of these recordings consist primarily of guitar, piano, bass, drums, and a vocalist (with sax in "We're In This Love Together"), many of the principles still apply. Both charts hit Michael McDonald and Al Jarreau's voices in the middle to upper register, allowing for more intensity as the melodic line climbs, but leaving time for them to rest in the middle register. The electric piano in in both charts and the guitar and saxophone in "We're In This Love Together" provide excellent complement to the vocalists, either reinforcing or responding without covering up the lyrics.

Week 3 focused on the principles of writing for the bass. In "What A Fool Believes," the bass follows the root/fifth function from our lectures, incorporating diatonic passing tones at times to smooth out the motion (e.g., measure 3). In "We're In This Love Together," the bass has a much more linear role, playing both diatonic and chromatic tones to connect roots of chords.

Week 4 added the piano, guitar, and drums to our rhythm section writing and two-part harmony to our horn writing. Both charts function at Boras' (2005) levels two and three—written parts for bass and harmonic comping as well as specific rhythmic figures to support melodic/harmonic hits. In "What A Fool Believes," the arranger specifies for both bass and piano/guitar, the voicing to be used for the harmony at Letter A. For the remainder of the chart, the treble clef staff transitions to rhythmic notation, implying the comping instrument continue the previous voicings at the notated rhythm. This happens similarly in "We're In This Love Together," but the rhythmic cues beginning at Letter A in addition to the more active bass line imply a little more freedom for the rhythm section players. Neither chart provides instructions specific for the drums, but there is plenty of information in the notation to provide a basic groove with a few kicks and fills. The drummer would have to be familiar with Pop Ballad and Medium Rock grooves, but they would have the freedom to play as much or as little as they would like in addition to the groove.

Both charts incorporate two-part harmony well. In "What A Fool Believes," the harmony is primarily chord tones with some diatonic passing tones based on the melody. The only place where the harmonization of close thirds doesn't fit the written chord changes is the sixth and fourteenth measure of E, where the G# is not a part of the B major chord. It could be interpreted as a Bmaj6 chord or an anticipation of the C#m7 chord in the following measure. "We're In This Love Together" chooses to harmonize above the melody at Letters B and E. This is contrary to the principles we discussed in Week 4, but is still effective because the higher harmony pushes the vocalist into a falsetto range, creating a timbral difference between the melody and harmony.

Both charts, as written, would function very well as concert pitch lead sheets for the entire ensemble. The slash/rhythmic notation and rhythmic cues in addition to the melody and harmony provide ample information for all the performers to make an informed interpretation of the chart. The extra rhythm section pages provide more specific information that is helpful. The concept of developing such a lead sheet is something we have not covered in the class.

Response: I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the density of the performance. I found I was able to hear all of the inner parts of both arrangements quite clearly even without the aid of the lead sheets. You mentioned the "less is more" philosophy for the drummer, and it equally applies to all of the rhythm section instruments in both recordings. The consistent rhythmic pattern of the guitar in dyads and single pitches is reminiscent of Freddie Green's playing with the Basie band and is something all guitarists need to learn to do!

I had similar thoughts to yours about the progression of different levels of writing. The written arrangement for "What A Fool Believes" is quite specific and clear about what the piano, guitar, and bass should be playing. There is a time and place for this kind of writing when composers/arrangers want a very specific sound, and I can see The Standards Real Book wanting to show how to replicate the sound of each chart. Writing such a condensed lead sheet is not a technique we have covered in this class, but it is an interesting and valuable skill. Playing from such a lead sheet provides ample information for the vocals, guitar, piano, bass, and drums, and skilled musicians could easily transpose from a concert pitch lead sheet.



  1. Write a two-horn arrangement for trumpet and tenor sax of "Have You Met Miss Jones" (The Standards Real Book, pp. 157-58). Begin at letter A of the fake book (you are omitting the verse). Using the provided score, write the parts in concert pitch, but for convenience write the tenor sax in treble clef up an octave (when transposed it would be written an octave and a major second up)Continue to place the parts in comfortable areas of the horns (no extreme registers).

  2. Where possible (and according to your musical aesthetic), write a two-part harmony employing thirds and/or sixths (including any octave displacements that are necessary or that you choose to use). For this assignment the trumpet should play the melody and be above the tenor sax at all times. (Placing the harmony above the melody can work very well, but it is much trickier and is fraught with potential problems.) Non-chord tones should only be employed as part of the two-part harmony if they are passing tones. You must make sure that accented and held notes are all chord tones. Again, please be sure to only use thirds and sixths in your harmony part. When harmonizing chord tones, do not use chord tones above the seventh. Do not try to harmonize the bridge (letter B in the fake book). The rest of the arrangement will be in unisons or octave unisons. Advanced students may compose two-part horn lines employing other compositional methods besides thirds and sixths for this arrangement at their discretion (please check with your facilitator about this).

  3. Compose a bass line employing just roots and fifths. For letter A the bass should be in two, letter B in four, and letter C in two again. Advanced students may write a smooth bass line employing roots, thirds, fifths, and sevenths. Please notate the chord symbols above the bass line for all assignments.  Do not use any of the chords that are in parentheses.

  4. Compose a piano/guitar part using slashes (level one), and employ rhythmic notation in the staff (level two) to complement the rhythm of the horn melody. Do this latter step for at least four measures of the arrangement. This of course requires you to notate the chord symbols above the piano/guitar part for all assignments.  Do not use any of the chords that are in parentheses. 

  5. Compose a drum part using slashes (level one), and notate important rhythmic figures (ensemble cues) on the first space above the staff for the drummer to use at her discretion (see ex. 5.5C). Also use level two notation for at least four measures of the piece (this could be in conjunction with the piano/guitar). Again, as mentioned in lecture 2.3, for level two drum notation, let's keep it simple and have them playing the same rhythmic figures as the piano/guitar.



Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.