Jazz Books Keys memorising

Masterless Effortry

I had a painful experience about 25 years ago and I found a really powerful solution that I know will help others and is worth sharing.

I was the pianist in a big band populated mostly by amateur players run by a retired professional trumpet player. We were on a gig in a local town hall and played the first half of our set of arrangements that we had rehearsed. All was going according to plan. And then it happened.

The leader chatting with the audience over the microphone suddenly said: “Any requests?”

Someone shouted back, “Pennies from Heaven”.

Our leader turned to me and said off mic, “Can you play it?”

I shook my head in a mild panic. He looked at me for a few seconds more, then said, through a Cab-Calloway-like smile, “Try.” Before adding, “In Bb.”

With that he turned back to the audience and started to play. He played once through the melody in order to fulfil his contract with the audience member and fashioned a small cadenza on the last chord which I joined him for, knowing it would be Bb. Almost every other chord I played before that was wrong. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do because I did not know what I was doing. In short, it was a train crash. For me at least.

In hindsight I displayed “masterless effortry” (an amusing take by a friend of mine on the title of Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, a book I would not come across for another 15 years or so).

The sense of shame I felt for not being up to the job was extreme. I quickly dealt with that uncomfortable feeling inside my head by blaming the leader (again, inside my head) for taking such an irresponsible risk by creating these unhelpful thoughts:

  • How could he be so rash/stupid/unkind?
  • If I’d had a chord sheet, I could have read it with ease.
  • It was not my fault! No one else in the band could have done it.
  • Why is the job of pianist so much harder than that of any of the other musicians in the band?
  • It would be ridiculous to expect me to know the chords to random jazz standards in whatever key he decides.

If I had read Nick Bottini’s, Just Play book about overcoming our unhelpful thoughts, I may well have handled the thoughts in my head better. Nick recently gave me a free copy of his book for making him laugh on his Wellbeing and Excellence Facebook group with a Limerick:

There was a young man called Bottini

Whose methods were rather unseemly

He’d post up a graphic

With words psychopathic

And host Zoom calls in just a bikini.

But I digress; back to my story: I received sympathetic looks from the rest of the band. We finished the set, packed up and went home. Nothing more was said about it.

Playing in jam sessions I occasionally found similar experiences would occur. I remember being so ashamed of my performance after being called to play on a standard tune I had not learned that I had to leave the building and walk the city centre for half an hour just to calm down. And when accompanying singers, it was often worse because you were lulled into a false sense of security by being given a chord chart in their key that usually turned out to be completely useless.

The Penny Drops

Eventually, I realised that the problem was never going away if I kept expecting the world to change. You can only change yourself and how you respond to the events that come your way:

  • Deal with your internal thoughts: Problems for musicians commonly occur becasue of the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what other people think of our playing and what they expect of us. Learning to clear this out of the way can remove a massive barrier to our enjoyment of playing music. See the reading list below for a couple of books on the subject.
  • Learn the territory: You need to identify and practice in many keys the chunks of chord progression that occur in the kinds of music you play. If you focus on the perfect voicings of Bill Evans playing with no-one else but his own trio, you will not be well prepared for what the world throws at you. There is so much listening and responding needed in a jazz performance, it is not possible to do if you don’t know the material and impossible if you are reading.

Something had changed. I knew that I wanted to know how to hear and memorise the changes to a song without having them in front of me to read. And I was on a journey to find out how I needed to change in order to achieve it.

I’d never had an experienced jazz teacher who could teach me about the oral tradition, common song forms and how chord progressions work. What I did know, I had mostly taught myself from books. Though I had done quite a lot of transcription, it was of random songs that I liked in order to learn a cool voicing from Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans and I rarely transcribed more than a few bars. And, therefore, I did not get to understand how songs are put together and, thereby, how to hear where a song will probably go next.

Another friend of mine mentioned a book by Conrad Cork about an approach to learning jazz harmony like LEGO bricks that join together to make songs. It was sold by Jazzwise, a UK publisher, at the time. This was in the days of books printed on paper. I read it from cover to cover.

I was hooked because I knew this was the key to the answer to my problem. Not only did it explain the method of analysing and memorising chord progressions in a key-independent manner, but it had at least half of the book dedicated to explaining how jazz should be taught and explained why most teachers from the classical music tradition simply don’t understand how to teach jazz. His approach is based on listening to recordings of the masters and the oral tradition. But also he explains very well the difference in mindset between classical and jazz musicians. One idea that really helped me was the notion that each jazz performance is just a report on progress on playing that song. It is not meant to be some kind of perfectly finished product.

It all made so much sense to me. So much, in fact, that I started to analyse jazz standards using the approach in order that I could analyse and memorise them.

I can be a bit obsessive about things. I soon found that I had analysed over 200 songs using a spreadsheet to build visual roadmaps for each song. It occurred to me that others could benefit from my work and, with Conrad’s blessing, I wrote my own book extending the method and including all the song roadmaps.

Conrad’s book is no longer available. My book was also published in paper form by Jazzwise for a few years, but I decided from the beginning to also publish it myself as a PDF e-book which continues to be a popular form.

Things have moved on since 2009 when I first published my book:

  • PDF e-book is more convenient than paper form because it is electronically searchable. Owners can print out pages should they wish to. Less paper is wasted, sunk costs are reduced and everybody wins.
  • I made a series of free podcasts about the method and examples song analyses.
  • I run a discussion group online where users of the method can share their experiences.
  • Practice charts for the chord “bricks and joins” are available for free on the iRealPro Forum. The iRealPro app can be used with the free charts to learn all the sequences in any key with auto-generated backing tracks.

Pennies from Heaven

So, back to my devastating experience with Pennies from Heaven. What have I learned since then? Well, it is actually one of the simplest jazz standards and its chord progression is very easily memorised in a key-independent way.

Here is the roadmap from my book for the song:

The overview is as follows:

  • The chords are written in the key of C, but once the bricks and joins are understood, can be played in any key.
  • A section: a common jazz turnaround. (Many variants are possible and you can find them by listening to various recordings of this song to see what people play.) Play the turnaround twice and that is the first eight bars covered and the key is firmly established.
  • B section: Cadence to IV followed by the Slow Launcher (II7 V7) that we learn to expect at the end of B sections.
  • A’ section: Starts like the first A section but ends with a cadence to IV like we saw at the beginning of the B section.
  • C section: a “meta brick” over eight bars that is probably the most common sub-sequence in jazz. A variant of this is the last eight bars of the 12-bar blues, so it’s sound will be familar to you for sure.

One of the advantages of this approach is that you are not phased by chord substitutions. It encourages you to think in large chunks of chord progression within which some chords might be substituted, but you still know where you are in the song and where you are going.

As an illustration of how powerful this approach is, take the last eight bars of the chord sequence. This brick is labelled as the “Pennies Ending” after this song it is found in. But it is well worth becoming familiar with because it (or a close variant) is also found in the chords for the following songs:

  • Last eight bars of the blues.
  • The More I See You
  • There’ll Never Be Another You
  • A Weaver of Dreams
  • You Go to My Head
  • I Thought about You
  • It Had to Be You
  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • Moonglow
  • I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me
  • East of the sun
  • Emily
  • I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • It Could Happen to You
  • It’s You or No-one
  • In a Mellow Tone

Taking this approach allowed me to memorise hundred of jazz standards and retain a trio gig for 12 years before the global pandemic temporarily stopped live music.

If you would like to read more about my book, download sample pages or purchase it, please check out my website. If you would like to read more about handling your own thoughts and emotions which are stopping you playing music, check out the reading list below.

Further reading

Elliott, J, Insights in Jazz, 2009.

Werner, K, Effortless Mastery, Jamie Aebersold Publishing, 1996.

Bottini, N, Just Play, ReThink Press, 2018.

Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory Keys reharmonisation

Minor harmony and Modal Interchange like Tord Gustavsen

I thought it would be interesting to talk about minor harmony and Modal Interchange and see how Tord Gustavsen used it in his composition Where Breathing Starts. It was originally recorded by the trio in 2003. This was Gustavsen’s debut album with the ECM label. There is a duo version with Ulrich Drechsler on clarinet from 2006.

This article considers how minor harmony is approached in jazz with reference to some of the standard texts on the subject. It is really interesting to see how the way jazz musicians think about minor harmony has changed since the 1950s.

The ECM label is based in Germany and is famous for jazz recordings with European and classical music influences featuring such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Kenny Wheeler.

It is interesting to notice that the voicings found in this transcription are almost exclusively classical tertiary voicings (built in thirds) with inversions, rather than the typical voicings found in jazz piano from the US discussed in the article about Kenny Barron.

Other classical features of the arrangement include the use of bass lines featuring chord inversions and Mozart-style ‘Alberti bass’ lefthand arranging (see end of second A section).

This song is a tango. Tangos are usually in two sections which each repeat. The form here is AABB (16-16-16-16). The A sections are in C minor. The B sections are in C major.

What is Modal Interchange?

There are a number of terms for this concept which mean the same thing:

  • Modal interchange
  • Modal mixture
  • Modal borrowing

You may well be familiar with the idea of using several source scales to generate the chords used from jazz tunes in minor key harmony. Nettles and Graf as well as Mulholland and Hojnacki point out that minor tunes routinely use chords from:

  • Natural minor (Aeolian)
  • Harmonic minor
  • Melodic minor
  • Dorian minor (the second mode of the major scale)

They call it ‘Dorian minor’ because it is a mode of the major scale which happens to have a minor third. Other minor modes would be Phrygian, Aeolian (the natural minor we already have) and Locrian. ‘Major modes’ are Ionian (the major scale), Lydian and Mixolydian. These last two can all be used as source scales for chords.

Unlike major tunes, minor tunes are rarely diatonic to just one scale. For this reason, some think of the combinations of these 7-note source scales into a single 9-note source scale for minor tunes. The first five notes are the same anyway, for the sixth and seventh degrees we have both major and minor (6 and 7). This amounts to the full Melodic Minor scales in its classical ascending and descending forms combined).

In 1959, Mehegan said almost all jazz tunes are in major keys and that only five or six begin and end the minor. He goes on to say that minor-key jazz had ‘evolved’ to use melodic minor (ascending) to preserve the conventional bass lines familiar from major keys (eg I VI II V), while using the harmonic minor for the inner notes of the chords. Resulting in just seven available chords for C minor:

  • C-maj7
  • Eb+maj7
  • F-7
  • G7(b9, b13)
  • Bo7

A short, but useful list. And pretty much all we need for the minor parts of Gustavsen’s tune. But not quite complete enough for all contemporary minor jazz. For example, no C-7, F7#11, Abmaj7 or Bb7.

Dave Berkman points out that the vast majority of minor harmony chords are derived from the first three source scales above. And it is true that the only additional chord that Dorian provides is bVIImaj7 (Bbmaj7) because none of the other three scales has both Bb and A present at the same time. His list of most common minor chords is somewhat longer than Mehegan’s:

  • C-6, C-maj7, C-7
  • Ebmaj7
  • F-7
  • G7b9b13
  • Abmaj7, Ab7
  • Bbmaj7, Bb7
  • Bo7

Notice that there is no B7alt on the list. This is supposed to be derived from the seventh degree C melodic (ascending) minor, and yet cannot be found by stacking thirds. Mark Levine attributes this to the limitations of traditional music theory and goes on to choose the fourth note as the third of the chord.

Jack Reilly takes a simpler approach by simply using the melodic minor ascending and descending, he derives a 9-note source scale from which all parallel minor chords can be constructed. Mulholland and Hojnacki also go on to do this calling it a composite scale combining their four into one. They also point out that there is also the Phrygian minor mode to consider if you want to justify chords containing the note b2 or Db such as Dbmaj7 when in C.

Interestingly, Mark Levine’s books only consider harmony derived from major modes and Melodic Minor (ascending). Unlike the other authors, he gives no special consideration to the harmony of minor tunes in general and how they tend to behave differently from major tunes. He effectively excludes the harmonic minor without which it is not possible to explain a traditional minor II V progression. His books are excellent in many areas, but this seems like a significant omission to me. He also makes no mention of the concept of modal interchange, not even in his chapters on reharmonisation.

I’ll aim to keep it simple by talking only about chord source scales rooted in C. The relative minor of Eb major is C minor. The natural minor is the Aeolian mode of Eb major starting on C. Because the scale contains the same notes as Eb major, and chords derive from scales, they share the same chords. But if C minor is to function harmonically as a key, we need its V chord to be a dominant seventh to provide the expected tension and release of a V I cadence. The chord on G is actually G-7. The solution is to change the mode by raising Bb to B to give us a G7 chord. This mode is called the harmonic minor and we routinely borrow this version of chord V when creating minor harmony.

That raised B natural also gives rise to a full B dim 7 chord on degree VII. So, when in the key of C major and we use B dim 7 to represent G7b9, we can consider that we are borrowing chords from C harmonic minor. This is called modal interchange (borrowing or mixture).

So, it is common to see modal interchange in both major and minor keys. And this is what we will see when we analyse this song. But some take the view that it is only called modal interchange when it is the major key borrowing because minor does it all the time.

It is important to understand that these chords from other source scales are not just parachuted in without care. Voice leading is crucial to making good music. When we listen the Tor Gustavsen play this track he makes much of the movement, say from G on a C chord to the Ab on a minor subdominant chord.

A section

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

The A section is predominantly in C minor. As explained, minor harmony already draws on a wider choice of chords than does major because of the 9-note combined source scale commonly used. The transcription in this article shows the piano part above the double bass part.

The chords of interest in this section are:

  • Bars 3 and 6: G7susb9. It is voiced as F-6 or Dø over G, a slash chord.
  • Bar 11: Eb+maj7. The #5 is the B. This chord can be considered to have a source scale of either of C harmonic or melodic minors. In the recording, it is voiced as a G triad over Eb in the bass—a slash-chord voicing.
  • Bar 12: the B resolves to the usual Bb, making the chord Ebmaj7, but we do not hear a modulation to the relative major because this occurs in a weak place of harmonic rhythm. You can view this chord having the natural minor (Aeolian) as its source scale.
  • Second time bar: F and unaltered G7 are both borrowed from C major (aka the Ionian mode) hinting at the change of key to C major to come in the B section.
  • However, the G+7 and C- chords bring us back to C minor to complete the A section.

B section

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

Without preparation, the B section starts out in C major, the parallel major to the A section’s C minor. It really feels like the sun just came out.

Notice that the C major chords at the beginning of the B section are voiced as C triads with added 9th. There are no 6ths and no major 7ths. It’s a more modern sound than many jazz players use. Almost like something out of pop music.

Modal interchange chords of interest include:

  • Bars 2 and 4: A minor subdominant chord is borrowed from C minor and played over a C pedal. It can be viewed as F-/C or Dø/C.
  • Bar 9: F#ø. This chord has an E natural but does not naturally occur in C major. It is borrowed from the C Lydian mode.
  • Bar 10: Fo7. This symmetrical chord functions as a Bo7/F representing G7b9 and is borrowed from C harmonic minor as already mentioned.
  • Bar 11: The Bo7/F voiceleads perfectly to C/E confirming that we are still in C major.
  • Bar 12: But then the tonic chord itself has its bass lowered to become C-/Eb signalling that we are back in C minor without any warning. The sun went behind a cloud.
  • The final four bars of the first time ending are a slow minor II V confirming the return to C minor just in time to set up the surprise opening of the B section in C major on the repeat when the sun comes out again.

In those last two bars of the first time through the B section, Gustavsen allows himself a small improvised break (not shown in the transcription) which he had not done up to this point.

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

So far the B section has been about contrasting C major and its parallel minor. The genius of this composition is revealed in the second time through the B section where the relative minor (A) is also explored. The transcription below start with bar 5 because bars 1-4 are the same as the first time above:

  • Bars 6-7: a V I cadence to A minor is introduced.
  • Bar 9: F#ø same as the first time, unless we want to consider Am as a newly-established key (see below).
  • Bar 10: this time the symmetrical Fo7 acts like a pivot chord and this time represents E7b9 to get us back to A minor rather than the G7b9 going to C major the first time.
  • Bar 13: A minor has been established so I analyse the F#ø as being borrowed from A melodic minor. We see Fmaj7 which is borrowed from A natural minor (Aeolian).
  • Bars 14-15: V I cadence to A minor as a very different second-time ending to the B section.
  • Bar 16: The original A section theme pick-up begins again in C minor to allow the form to repeat. The jump from A minor back to C minor is unprepared and quite a shock if you don’t realise to where you have been led.

Perhaps listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

If you have enjoyed this article, check out my others and let me know. If you have found the insights useful, donations are always welcome. Or consider purchasing my book which analyses 230 jazz standards and distils the common harmonic features. All the links are in my link tree: ➡️⬅️.

Further reading

Mehegan, J, Jazz Improvisation, vol 1, Watson-Guptil, 1959.

Mulholland, J and Hojnacki, T, The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony, Berklee Press, 2013.

Levine, M, The Jazz Theory Book, Sher Music, 1995.

Nettles, B and Graf, R, The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony, Advance Music, 1997.

Reilly, J, The Harmony of Bill Evans, vol 2, Hal Leonard, 2010.

Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory Keys reharmonisation

Why analyse harmony?

My introduction to functional harmony was about forty years ago when my piano teacher, Chris Norton, told me to buy Jerry Coker’s Improvising Jazz and got me transcribing the Fats Waller I was listening to rather than the Oscar Peterson which was a bit beyond me at that point.

Understanding functional harmony helps you recognise chords which helps you with transcribing, re-harmonising, composing and playing by ear. What’s not to like?

An understanding of functional harmony is gained by analysing music based on tonal harmony. This blog is a whistle-stop tour to give you an overview and hopefully peak your interest enough to go and find out more. A list of suggested further reading is supplied at the end.

For more check out my link tree/

Functional harmony

The basis for functional harmony is categorising the sound of chords within a chord progression into groups. This applies to all music based on tonal harmony which is most music from 17th century Western European music to most contemporary jazz. Western traditional harmony which, in turn, is largely based on the sounds of the chords in a major key (diatonic) and other sounds (non-diatonic) used considered as being relative to this major key.

This is important to understand. John Mehagan’s series of books from 1959 state that almost no jazz standards are actually minor songs. For example, he analyses Monk’s Round Midnight with Roman numerals from Gb and Eb major rather than Eb minor.

I’ve written about this dualism before in relation to the Pink Panther Theme.

Harmony within a key, ‘diatonic harmony,’ has three basic sound groups that the listener can learn to hear as a chord progression is played:

  • Tonic (stable, home)
  • Subdominant (less stable, away from home)
  • Dominant (very unstable, tension)

Roman numerals

Within the major key, chords are built using the major scale as roots and stacking chords in thirds. Chords are labelled according to the degree of the scale that is their root using Roman numerals: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.

Knowing the correct chord qualities for each Roman numeral within the key is essential for choosing traditional chord progressions within that key. Whatever the major key, I and IV are major 7 chords, II, III and VI are minor 7 chords.

V is the only dominant 7 chord in the key. This is important as is explained under Secondary Dominants below.

VII is a minor 7 flat 5. This chord is mostly avoided, though it happens to be exactly where needed to start a II V I cadence to the relative minor (see later).

Traditionally, these are the only chords you can use if you stay within the key. The jazz harmony view of this is somewhat different, adding common re-harmonisations and substitutions.

Grouping these chords as above we get:

  • Tonic: I, III and VI
  • Dominant: V and sometimes VII
  • Subdominant: II, IV and sometimes VI.

Other analytical techniques such as Modal Interchange (see below) allow us to add non-diatonic chords to these groups. You may notice that not everyone agrees what category chords fall into. For example, Jerry Coker says that #IVdim7 is dominant. But the majority agree on how the common chords function and that gets us a long way.

Movement between the ‘sound groups’ above is the basis of harmonic progression. Chords are conventionally chosen to build up tension and then release it. This is why the II V I progression is so common in jazz; it takes us from less stable, to very unstable and finally to stable. This sequence creates tension and release or resolution as we return home to the tonic chord.

Other progressions are available, such as IV V I, which supply similar tensions and release. This is often seen in classical music. However, bass lines moving down in 5ths or up in 4ths are the strongest and jazz favours the II V I.

One problem with Roman numerals is that there are so many competing conventions used:

  • John Mehegan (see the Round Midnight analysis above) used the Juilliard system which is all uppercase and does not mention the quality of the chord unless it is different from that expected on that scale degree in a major key. Like this: II V I. We know II is minor 7, V is dominant 7 and I is major 7, unless specified. This trains you to think for yourself deeply within the key. This is the system I first learned and tend to use. He writes a cadence to IV like this: Vm Ix IV. The ‘x’ indicates a dominant where not expected. We are encouraged to think as if the key is not really changing for these common transient modulations.
  • Jerry Coker books use all uppercase but slightly different notation for the chord qualities. Like this: IIm7 V7 IM7. Cadence to IV: Vm7 I7 IV. A bit like Mehegan.
  • Berklee School (Nettles and Graf) use all upper case, but with the chord quality always attached. Like this: II-7 V7 Imaj7. Completely clear, but very busy and lots of redundancy. Cadence to IV: V7/IV IV. The new II chord may be there and bracketed (see below) but not labelled with Roman numerals. We are encouraged to think relative to a new key temporarily.
  • Others still (eg David Berkman) use uppercase for major triads and lowercase for minors. Like this: ii-7 V7 IΔ7. Do we need reminding which chords are major and minor every time? His cadence to IV is more like Berklee: ii-7/IV V7/IV IV. Though he also labels the II chord.

You pays your money, you takes your choice. As with chord symbols, you need to be proficient at reading and understanding all the common variants and you should try to be consistent in what you choose to use.

The Bracket-Arrows system

Why not just use Roman numerals so that we can easily spot the all-important V I progressions? The answer lies in the way that jazz harmony has evolved to use many transitory modulations and tends to pass through several other keys, sometimes even within a few bars. The challenge for jazz players, arrangers and composers is to spot the cadences both in their original form (II V I) and with common substitutions as the music passes through key areas other than the original key.

A system using brackets and arrows emerged from the Berklee School of Music based on the above requirements of analysing jazz harmony. It can be useful for tonal jazz standards such as those from the Great American Songbook.

To be clear, not everyone uses this system. For example, we don’t see it in the jazz harmony books of Mark Levine, or David Berkman. But it is mentioned by Rawlins and Bahha (Jazzology) as well as Andy Jaffe (Jazz Harmony).

Secondary dominants

Jazz musicians add dominants of the chords within the key to chords that they expect to see used. They are so common that they come to feel like they are part of the key. It is important to understand that while they require some accidentals to be used, but they are not just any random five dominant 7 chords from any of the other 11 keys. We use “V/x” to mean the dominant 7 (chord V) of chord x. They are:

  • V/II (A7 in the key of C)
  • V/III (B7)
  • V/IV (C7)
  • V/V (D7)
  • V/VI (E7)

You may have heard that in order to make the minor key work, we sharpen the seventh degree of the scale to provide a leading note that pulls back to the tonic. In the diagram above Am is the relative minor (VI) of C major. A G# is added which creates the E7 needed to act as V/VI. But this is not just a special case. All the secondary dominants require accidentals outside of the key because they are not the dominant of the original key.

These secondary dominants ‘tonicize’ the following chord. It is for this reason that we do not include V/VII because chord VII has a b5 and therefore does not make a stable temporary tonic.

These chords are very common and they provide the opportunity to add lots more arrows to the analysis of jazz standard. If the secondary dominant is broken down into a ‘II V pair’ then a bracket is added.

Tritone substitution

We know that II V I is the most common progression in jazz harmony. There is also a common substitution called tritone sub. In C, the G7 becomes Db7. We notate this as ‘subV’ or simply ‘sV’.

Whereas V I resolves down a fifth, is the strongest progression and takes an arrow, sV I resolves down a half step (semitone), is also strong, and takes a dashed arrow.

If the substitute dominant 7 chord has its associated II chord then a regular bracket is used indicating progression down a perfect 5th. If the II before substitution is retained then a dashed bracket is used indicating progression moving down a half-step.

By including these dashed brackets and arrows, the system allows us to call out the common substitutions which might otherwise remain hidden. Once we understand what is going on, the easier it is to internalise it and play it in other keys.

Modal interchange

As explained, most jazz standards are based on major diatonic harmony. However, the process of Modal Interchange is often used to ‘borrow’ chords from the diatonic harmony of parallel keys or modes. Here, the word parallel means having the same tonic. For example, a song in D major might borrow chords from D minor. Or from one of the modes such as D Dorian. This what happens in Jobim’s Wave. The song is in D major, but the introductory vamp is D-7 G7. While these chords might initially look like II V in C, a better analysis is that they are I IV borrowed from the parallel mode, D Dorian.

Example analyses

Remember that analysis can be subjective; people will not always agree on how chords are functioning. Different folks use different tools. I suggest using a mixture and whatever works for you at the time.

For example analyses applying some of the techniques mentioned in this blog, see these other articles:

If you have enjoyed this article, check out my others and let me know. If you have found the insights about where common harmonic moves occur in jazz standards, take a look at ➡️my book which analyses 230 jazz standards and distils the common harmonic features⬅️.

Further reading

Coker, J, Improvising Jazz, Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Mehegan, J, Jazz Improvisation, vols 1-4, Watson-Guptil, 1959.

Elliott, J, Insights In Jazz,, 2009.

Nettles, B and Graf, R, The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony, Advance Music, 1997.

Jaffe, A, Jazz Harmony, Advance Music, 2015.

Levine, M, The Jazz Theory Book, Sher Music, 1995.

Berkman, D, the Jazz Harmony Book, Sher Music, 2013.

Rawlins, R and Bahha, N E, Jazzology, Hal Leonard, 2005.

Harmony Jazz Theory Keys quiz Standards

Song form quiz

During this international pandemic with almost no gigs, I thought we could do with a quiz.

The figure below shows ‘Grigson Grids’ for 15 well-know standards. Each row represents eight bars and thicker lines are used to show whether each song is in two halves (ABAC) or has a bridge (eg AABA or AABC) etc.

So, here is the quiz: What have these songs all got in common?

This study, and memorisation, of jazz song forms and their chord in a key-independent way is the subject of my book, Insights In Jazz. If you want to know more, check it out!

Jazz Theory Keys Standards

Picking a key

Every key has a key signature when we write music which is intended to make them easier to write. Some use sharps, others use flats. None use both. One key has neither and this is C major.

When instrumentalists learn their instruments, they tend to start with the keys that are easier to read and these are the one with the least sharps or flats in their key signature. Many players never learn to become familiar with all keys. Most are pragmatic and learn the ones they need in order to play in a band. Different instrument types prefer different keys. Guitarists prefer sharp keys and so a lot of folk, rock and pop music is in sharp keys. Jazz ‘horn’ (trumpet, clarinet, sax, etc) players prefer flat keys.

There are 12 possible keys we can choose, based on the 12 different semitones on the piano. But there are 15 ways we notate them because, at the extremes, three keys can be written as either a sharp or a flat key. Cb=B; Gb=F#; Db=C#. As shown below:

Keys and how to pick

Every major key has a relative minor key (and vice versa) and they share a key signature.

As mentioned, jazz bands often include horns that are tuned in flat keys and therefore the bands tend to play in flat keys, rather than sharp keys as a compromise to make life easier for everyone in the band. Unless they are seasoned professionals, they have around six preferred keys with which they are familiar. Half of the 12 available keys are not generally used because they are less familiar. As the instrumentalists improve, more keys become available, but they will always be less familair with the other keys.

Having said this, there are still six major and six minor keys which are commonly used in jazz, so there is quite some scope for variety.

Enter the singer who wishes to change the keys to suit his or her range. In order to maximise the chances of success, singers are advised to focus on the familiar keys. If they think their key is not one of the familiar keys, then choose one as close as possible (i.e. a semitone or half-step up or down). It is very unlikely the range of the song is such that the singer can only sing it in one key. For example, A becomes Bb or Ab; E becomes Eb or F (remember E# is F since there is no black note in between). C# or Db become C (or D).

If the singer does not know their key, find the lowest note in the song, and work out what note the singer is comfortable this being and let that define the key as above. This will be towards the bottom of their range, but not necessarily the lowest note they can sing.

When picking keys, a useful rule of thumb (for which I have to give credit to David Berkman) is that men often sing standards in the key they were originally written in, whereas women will often sing them around a fourth lower.