14. Improvise a Prelude!

Let’s face it: we should be improvising preludes. And that requires knowing chords in the tonal system, and how to link them melodically. Few of us do it – very few – yet it need not be hard, and you can be creative within your technique and harmonic awareness. On this page I give some guidance, and it might well be updated over time, so do please return if the subject is of interest.

The Simplest Method:

All that you are required to do in a prelude is to outline the key chord, and somewhere close to the end play a V – I cadence. So, for example, in the key of D Major our Harmonic Outline would be D A A7 D. But what knowledge should you have in order to do this?

Well, you should know Three Versions of Each Chord. And then you should work out the best ways to move between all of these chords when playing arpeggios.

Download and study the sketch of a score given above. The first four bars deal with different versions of the D Major chord. For this Simplest Method you only need the first two or three versions of D Major. Once that is in your brain and fingers, add the first A Major Chord followed by the first A7 chord, and then play one or two D Major chords. This is your Harmonic Outline. Memorise it, and just play the chords as block chords or arpeggios until you can fluidly move between them. Well done, you have now completed your first improvised prelude!

There is no great mystery to it. Memorise a Harmonic Outline, then explore various ways to realise it.

More Advanced Method:

Here you do the same thing, but with a more extended Harmonic Outline. The pdf score above shows such an outline: D, A, A7, V7b9 of Bm, Bm, E7, A, A7, D/A, Dm/A, A74/3, D.

This journey begins by outlining the Tonic and Dominant chords, then the root of the Dominant 7th is raised a semitone, introducing what will be a ii/V/I cadence in A Major, the Dominant chord – it’s as if we have changed key to A Major, but this is only temporary. Once established, we keep a Low A Pedal over which chords change. Once D Major over the A pedal is reached, we then finish with an A7sus4 chord – an A7 chord with a d falling to a c#, before the final root-position D Major chord.

It’s a slightly elaborate variation of the Home-Away-Home outline. D Major is our Home. We move away, go on a short journey, and then we return Home.

Here’s a quick explanation of the F#7b9 chord, which is used to approach Bm: The notes in the Dominant of Bm – f#, a#, c#, e – form an F#7 chord. To make it a little more dissonant – and therefore have more forward momentum – we can add the note g to the chord. G is the flat 9 (b9) above the Root. Often this chord appears in a Rootless formation, without the F#. Any chord can be approached with its own V7b9 chord, though it works best heading to a minor chord, as here, with a Rootless F#7b9 leading to Bm.

Why go to Bm? I wanted to reaffirm the Dominat A Major chord, and one way to do that is with a chord sequence – or cadence (same thing) – known as a 2,5,1 or ii/V/i – in this case that is Bm, E7, A Major. It really gives a feeling that we have changed key from the original D Major to A Major. But it is only temporary, and soon we wind our way Home again.

In the video I mention Modal Interchange, which simply means turning a Major chord into a minor chord, or vice versa. No big deal. Easy to do. But then continue with the next chords as if you hadn’t done it. It works best with chords I, ii, iii, and vi. For instance, instead of the Bm chord referred to above, try B major instead. You might like the change, you might not.

In Summary: To successfully play an improvised prelude you need the following:

  1. A Harmonic Outline memorised
  2. Knowledge of a few versions of each chord
  3. An ability to play arpeggios from one chord to the next

This will “get you through the gig”. Obviously you will want to make it more sophisticated, but this can be done over time, and we will look at ways to do this in future posts. A study of original preludes from the literature will help enormously, but that is for another day.

Any questions or comments, please do so below.

Rob MacKillop
29 July, 20222

2 Replies to “14. Improvise a Prelude!”

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