Jazz Theory & Composition


The lessons in this category explore theoretical concepts and their application to composition and improvisation.

This lesson will introduce you to this universal and ever-present jazz progression by starting with it's derivation from the major scale all the way through to building, identifying and playing major key ii-V-Is in tunes.

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The major and minor ii-V-I progressions are the most common chord progressions in jazz. This lesson will show you how to derive minor ii-V-i progressions from their parent scales, how to identify them and how to recognize them in tunes.

Ear Training

Ear training gets short shrift among music students. Who wants to be occupied with such a mundane task when you can spend your time learning Herbie Hancock licks? Consider this: the benefits of well trained ears are huge. With a well developed sense of inner hearing, every facet of the music will be more immediate and accessible to you. Whether you are transcribing, comping, improvising- whatever- well trained ears will allow you to assimilate and manipulate melodic lines and chords with ease.

Learn to identify the seven diatonic intervals by associating them with the first two notes of standard jazz tunes. Test yourself with a randomized quiz to gain speed and accuracy in hearing these most basic intervals.
This lesson follows up the Diatonic Interval Ear Training lesson with the five chromatic intervals: the minor 2nd, minor 3rd, augmented 4th/diminished 5th, minor 6th and minor 7th. Learn how to associate these intervals with the first few notes of standard jazz tunes and then take a quiz to test your ability to hear them. An additional quiz tests you on all twelve intervals, the eight diatonic intervals from the Diatonic Interval Ear Training lesson and the five chromatic intervals from this lesson.
The natural tendencies of pitches to resolve plays a major role in the strength and integrity of melodic lines. These tendencies, most evident in approach patterns- the two to four note patterns that link melodic phrases together at chord changes- supply energy to melodies and drives their forward motion. In this lesson, learn to hear diatonic and chromatic tendency tones by studying how Hank Mobley uses them in his solo over his tune "This I Dig of You" from his 1956 Blue Note release "Soul Station" and learn how to harness these notes to create strong and natural improvised lines.

Chordscale Theory

Chords are scales and scales are chords. The reciprocal relationship of these two fundamental components of music is at the heart of jazz harmony. This series of lessons (there are seven in this category) explores the connection between harmony and melody, the ways in which one informs the other and their impact on improvisation.

Chordscale theory describes the interdependent relationship of harmony and melody. It states that chords serve specific roles within a key which determine the scales that are associated with those chords which, in turn, represent a palette of available notes that can be used for improvisation. This theory is fundamental to learning how to improvise.

In this lesson, watch as the chordscales for major ii-V-I progressions are derived their component 13th chords and then see how they are used by Miles Davis in his improvised solo over the tune "It's Only A Paper Moon" from his 1951 Prestige release, "Dig."

The derivation of chordscales for minor ii-V-i progressions is less straightforward than with major ii-V-Is. Each minor key has three scales whereas each major key has just one. In this lesson, watch as the chordscales for minor ii-V-i progressions are derived from their component 13th chords and then see how the resulting chordscales are used by Miles Davis in his improvised solo over the tune "It Could Happen to You" from his 1956 release, "Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet."

While the mixolydian mode is the default dominant chordscale, there exists a whole world of dominant chordscale choices, each one possessing a unique palette of tensions. The Monkish whole tone, the tense altered scale and the evocative blues scale are just three of the eight dominant chordscales explored in this lesson. Learn how to derive the scales, how to build them and see how Clifford Brown, Kirk Lightsey and Thelonious Monk have used them in their solos.

Strong, harmonically clear melodic lines are composed of four primary building blocks: chord tones, arpeggios, scale passages and approach patterns. Using an excerpt from a bebop solo transcription, this lesson will describe how each component is used to build a classic bebop improvised line.

Jazz piano students are always asking about the blues. What chords are used in the blues? What is the blues scale? How do I improvise over the changes? The basics of the blues progression are laid out in this lesson: blues form, major and minor blues chord progressions and the blues scale are covered. Learn how to use the blues scale to improvise over the blues progression by incorporating three effective improvisational techniques into your soloing to help you create coherent and engaging lines.

When the blues is played in a jazz context the chord progression is more sophisticated in the number and types of chords used. In addition to the basic I, IV, V chords, jazz blues incorporates major and minor ii-V progressions, substitute dominants, related ii chords and more. In keeping with the improvisatory nature of the music, jazz players vary the progression from chorus to chorus to keep the short 12 bar form fresh and spontaneous. Watch this lesson to learn how to construct a basic jazz blues progression using these and other elements.

The line cliche is a well worn reharmonization device that creates the illusion of harmonic progression over a single chord. Start using this technique in your playing by watching this lesson to learn what a line cliche is, how to use it and how to improvise over it.

How many times have you played the same chord changes, chorus after chorus of "Autumn Leaves" or "Blue Bossa" or "All the Things You Are" or any tune? Wouldn't it be nice to throw in a few new chords here and there so that each chorus would be a little different? Jazz musicians do this all the time and the number one reharmonization device that they employ for this purpose is the technique of tritone substitution or subVs ("sub fives") for short. The use of substitute dominant chords to reharmonize tunes is a tried and true technique to freshen and revitalize chord progressions on the spot. Watch this lesson to learn what substitute dominants are, how they compare to primary dominants and how and when to use this essential device in tunes.

In combination with dominant chords, related ii chords can dramatically increase the reharmonization potential of any progression. Watch this lesson and see how a garden variety ii-V-I-V/ii progression is reharmonized into five unique and highly chromatic progressions- and this is just scratching the surface of the possibilities that this technique affords. Learn what a related ii chord is, how and where to use it (and not use it), take a quiz on identifying them and download practice sessions to start using these versatile chords in your music.