I was playing through “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” today. Bach either wrote some of the harmony or melody or both. The harmony is simply outstanding for several reasons, and if you perform that piece, don’t feel the need to change one chord. One way the song is unique is that it is written in a different mode than practically every other song in the hymnal. That is why you see the major chords that you would expect to be minor.
This post is not about modal music and it is not about that piece. But it reminded me of a question I sometimes get about “church piano chords.” People want to know what they are and how to play them.
I don’t actually know what a church piano chord is. In the context of chords, there is no separation between sacred and secular. That being said, traditional church music often only utilizes a small subset of the available chord palate.
Because of that, if you want to improve your harmony, I don’t recommend that you limit yourself to only studying church music. Sure there are exceptions. “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” is an early exception and there is some great music being written today. But you can learn a lot about harmony from secular music. The first place I would send you is Broadway music and other songs from the Great American Songbook.
To make things easier on yourself, go to any music bookstore and buy what is called a fake book of these kinds of songs. A fake book is a book of lead sheets. Lead sheets are printed arrangements of songs where only the melody line and the chords are provided.
It takes some work to learn to play lead sheets out of fake books but it will be very good for you. One important skill you will learn is voicing (how to position the notes in a chord on the keyboard). Another thing you will start to learn is functional harmony (how chords relate to each other). After a while, you will start to understand the superiority of that harmony over what you might find in a hymnal.
Believe it or not though, professional pianists tend to look down at the harmony found in those fake books. There are many things they do to improve it. That process (called reharmonization) leads to some great sounds, and it is absolutely a skill that most church pianists can learn.
What I know about harmony is what I learned from the things I have just recommended–playing fake books, learning functional harmony, and reharmonizing lead sheets.
There are three aspects to reharmonization:
* Changing the character of existing chords (adding notes such as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths)
* Chord substitutions (substituting one chord for another)
* Complete harmonic substitution (essentially replacing existing harmony with new harmony)
My new 4-hour course on Reharmonization teaches these three concepts. If harmony is exciting to you as it is to me, you might enjoy it.