I am starting to work on a big new project I want to record next year. At the moment, I plan on taking it in a slightly different direction that I have gone in the past. I want it to be a celebration of American contributions to church music. It will have the big orchestration on some and some that are laid back and fun with some bluegrass licks. I haven’t asked him yet, but certainly hope to get Andy Leftwich involved in that again.
Anyway, one of the songs at the moment is “Shall We Gather at the River.” I was working it out today and thought I would pass along a bit of my process. I have talked about this before but the more examples I give, the better.
The first thing I typically do is chart the harmony in its basic form. The hymn is 16 bars and here are the most simplistic chords for each bar.
1 1 5 5
1 1 5 1
4 1 5 1
4 1 5 1
Clearly these chords are not very exciting and I would hope they can be improved. Today, I just want to go through that first line of four bars and talk about some alternates.
You might ask why we initially chart the song in the first place if we are going to end up changing the chords. One reason is that I want to establish what the foundational chords are that probably should not be changed. There are some that you cannot change without changing the nature of the song. Typically, they occur at the end of phrases. Deciding what these chords are is more of an art than a science so don’t worry if you disagree with me. But I would say that the 5 chord at the end of the first phrase is one of those chords that I should not change.
Once I have established that the last chord should be a 5 chord, I can totally throw away the other chords and start trying out entirely different progressions. I am essentially going to work backwards from that 5 chord and choose chords that work well together and also work with the melody notes they are played against.
To make it simple, let’s ignore melody notes today and just talk about harmony. The progressions I am about to list may not all work with the melody line but most of them will. What these progressions all have in common is that they follow generally accepted rules of functional harmony.
Where there are multiple chords in the same bar, I use a dash between them. Note that I am notating them in a very simple form though it is implied that I will add 7ths and other extended notes to them. Also, assume that the chords are diatonic unless otherwise notated. In other words, 2, 3, and 6 will always be minor, while the others will be major or dominant.
Here we go. Each line is a separate option for the first four bars.
1 3 2 5
3 6 2 5
1 – 4 3 – 6 2 5
1 – 2 3 – 6 2 5
So far, these examples have used two simple rules–the circle of fifths and stepwise motion. Let’s kick it up a notch with a few special chords and tritones.
#4halfdim – 4min6 3 – 6 2 5sus – 5
#4halfdim – 4min6 3 – b3dim 2 5
#4halfdim – 4min6 3 – b3diim 2 – b6dom 5
#4halfdim – 4min6 3 – b7dom – 6 2 – b6dom 5
1 – #1dim – 2 – #2dim 3 – 6 2 5
1 – #1dim – 2 – #2dim 3 – b7dom – 6 – b3dom 2 5sus – 5
We will leave it at that for now. You may be starting to get the idea that the options are limitless. You would be correct. We could go on for a long time working through all the possibilities of progressions you can play across 4 bars that will end on the 5 chord.
Try these progressions out and see if you find some that will work for you on the first line of “Shall We Gather at the River.” FYI, every one of them will work though in a few cases, you have to get a bit creative in your timing.
My favorite? Probably the second to the last one. Depending on the day, I might choose another one or perhaps throw a few tritones into this one. Or maybe not. Tritones add a lot of dissonance and you have to be a little careful with that on this song I think. The tritone that makes the most sense to me would change the line to this:
1 – #1dim – 2 – #2dim 3 – b7dom – 6 2 5
I hope to record a video of this soon and also plan to get a free arrangement of this posted too.