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Old 15-10-2015, 12:24 AM   #1
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Jazz Keyboard Harmony in a Nutshell

So apparently, there isn’t a quick and dirty tutorial out there, and since it’s really kind of paint-by-numbers simple, and since electronica folks usually bypass the idea of virtuosity and may just want to get that jazz sound quickly, I’m posting this here.

Why I think the subject is simple (and why I think you should read on):

Jazz piano chord voicings are based on just two chord positions in the left hand and their inversions.

These chord positions are built on 4ths – the first chord position is two perfect fourths on top of each other (e.g. {C F Bb}, {F# B E} etc.); the second is a fourth on top of a tritone (i.e. a sharp fourth): {C F# B}, {F B E}, {D Ab Db} etc. Notice that these chords are practically identical, but for the bottom interval of the second chord being one half-step larger. So they are nearly the same fingering.

The inversions are a little more complicated: a third (minor or major) on top of a second (major or minor) on top of a perfect fourth (e.g. {C F G Bb}, {E A Bb D}). The first two chord positions are used more frequently than the inversions and each inversion sounds harmonically the same as the position it is inverting. But again, notice that the inversions are also based on two stacked perfect fourths and that they are practically identical but for a half-step variance in a middle tone.

When you listen to mainstream post-bop jazz piano, the left hand will almost always be playing in one of these chord positions (maybe with one extra color tone, maybe not). A chord in one of these positions fully implies a harmony, meaning a jazz pianist doesn’t need to play any notes at all in the right hand, leaving it free to solo.

Think for a moment how simple and elegant this is for the jazz pianist. She can take any chart from the Real Book and almost every chord symbol in that chart will devolve to 1 of 4 chord positions (actually 1 of 2 chord positions since the inversions are harmonically identical). All of these positions use the pinky, thumb, and middle finger(or index finger) – just like a triad, so they are easy to learn and play. The hard part is figuring out which chord in which position to play when you see a chord symbol in a chart. But once the pianist has that figured out, she can comp to almost any chart by sight.

When most of us are taught jazz, we learn chords based off the root triad and our instinct is to play a triad or 7th based on thirds whenever we see a chord symbol. When we are reading a chart and playing like this, it sounds awkward (because we are using classical chords in parallel motion contrasting with the classical aesthetic of no parallel motion) and inauthentic (because in real jazz no-one uses those chords). With fourth chords you can stop worrying about voice leading because these chords let you leap around without sounding awkward. However these chord voicings are also built for minimal voice leading, so that if you so desire, you can modulate between all chord types in all 12 keys with minimal hand motion.

So, now onto the business of how to use these chord positions.

There are a lot of chord symbols in jazz, but this variety masks an elegant simplicity. The actual chord implied by a symbol is going to be part of a larger “harmonic space”.

So there are 5 types of these “harmonic spaces” in jazz (or you could call them chord types – I think I will from now on): you have major, minor, dominant 7th, minor 7th and diminished 7th. These are sort of expanded versions of the chords of the same names in classical theory.

Each of these chord types contains two or more essential tones and 2 or more tension tones.

For example the major chord type has the essential tones 1 and 3 with 2, 6, 7 and b5 being the tension tones. For a C major chord type, this would be C and E as your essential tones with D, A, B and F# being the tension tones. Essential tones define the nature of the chord. A major chord cannot exist without a major third. If you move 3 to b3, the chord becomes minor.

We are used to the classical concept of 1, 3, 5 (or in this case CAG) as the essential notes, but in jazz harmony, you don’t consider the fifth so important as needing to be in every chord. So G in a C major chord type is considered harmonically unnecessary.

Dominant 7th, minor 7th chords all have three essential tones: Dominant 7th = 1, 3, b7 | minor 7th = 1 b3 b7.

The diminished chord has four= 1, b3, b5, 6.

As long as the essential tones are in the bottom of a chord, you can fill up the chord with tensions, and the chord will still retain the sound of its chord type.

Here are the chord types laid out.
Chord Families:
Major: 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 7, b5
Minor: 1, b3, 5, 6, 9, 7, 4
Dominant: 1, 3, 5, b7, 6, 9, b5
Dominant: 1, 3, b7, 5, 6, b9, b5
Dominant: 1, 3, b7, 5, 6, #9, b5
Dominant: 1, 3, b7, 5, b6, 9, b5
Dominant: 1, 3, b7, 5, b6, b9, b5
Dominant: 1, 3, b7, 5, b6, #9, b5
Minor 7th: 1, b3, b7, 5, 9, 4, 6
Diminished: 1, b3, b5, 6, b7, 9

The tones are ordered as follows
Bass Tone (1)| Essential Tones | Unessential 5th | Common Tensions | Uncommon Tensions

So just in case it isn’t clear what I’m asserting in the above chart is that you can play all the notes in each of these chord types together at the same time and it will sound good - or you can play a subset of notes together – just so long as you play the essential tones. Try the major chord type. See how all the chord tones played together form a major scale except with the fourth degree sharped? (It’s actually the Lydian mode, but we don’t need to get into modes). As an experiment, start on C major, and then play all the notes of its chord type like you were going up a scale. In other words play C D E F# G A B all at the same time.


Note: to hear what this and all subsequent figures look and sound like, go

This is almost a classic “house” chord, right? - at least when you play a sequence of the same cluster, but built off different bottom notes.


Now try different combinations of tones, but keep C and E as your lowest tones. You should be able to hear that the resulting chords still sound like C major in some fundamental way.


So we could take a detour at this point… those folks that are impatient to create could start exploring these infinite harmonic spaces, experimenting with chord types and building chord progressions. So we’ll address how movement within and across these spaces works for a bit before returning to the main subject.

There are not a ton of rules here. For the most part any major or minor or minor 7th can go to any of the other types of chords based on any note. Dominant chords can go to any other dominant chords – if they go to a major or minor chord or minor 7th it’s usually to a chord based on the note a fifth below the root of the dominant or the note a ½ step below the root of the dominant. This is because of the tritone in the dominant 7th chord wanting to resolve either inside or outside.
Diminished chords are kind of a leftover from 19th century harmony, and they tend to sound silly to modern ears (silent film… girl tied to train tracks… villain laughs evilly).


The main use of a diminished chord is that it could function as a kind of transitional dominant so you could modulate between keys, but they aren’t needed so much nowadays because modern ears are used to lots of chord and key changes. When you see a diminished chord symbol it is usually resolving as a dominant 7th to a major or minor chord and you can substitute the voicing of that dominant 7th chord. I originally went into more detail about this subject but then edited it out as it got kind of long. I can talk about diminished chords more later if folks want…

Anyway, if you do play around with these chord types, you should fairly quickly come to the conclusion that there are infinitely many exotic sounds you can get by playing the various tension tones in different orders. A more subtle point is that the more tensions you have in your chords the easier it is to move between chords based on different bass notes. So this is a much larger universe than traditional harmony as it’s normally taught in school.

At the same time it’s less complicated than it’s traditionally taught. Early jazz theorists had to write in the language of traditional harmony and were trying to fit these unfamiliar concepts into it. As a result, jazz theory is taught as a bunch of edge cases of classical harmony, when it’s actually a superset of classical harmony.

What I’d like to show now is how my set of 2 (or 4) chord positions maps to these 5 different chord types…but before that I’ll need to show how you substitute a chord type for a chord symbol.

Let’s start with the easy Major chord type: 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 7, b5. You use this any time you see a Maj or Maj7 chord symbol in a chart. You may also see some tensions afterward like Maj 9 or Maj7#11. Those are just indicating tensions that should be in the overall harmony, usually because the chart melody is forming these tensions. The tensions are always from the chord type. At any rate there is just one left hand chord position for this type (two stacked 4ths).

One point I think I should stress at this point is you don’t have to play exactly the tensions indicated by the chord symbol. You can leave out the tensions indicated by the chord symbol and add tensions that aren’t indicated by the symbol as long as they are tensions allowed in the major chord type. The same principle holds for minor and minor 7 chords types. You do have to pay a little more attention to the symbol for dominant and diminished chord types, but even there you have some freedom as to the tensions you choose.

The Minor Chord type (1, b3, 5, 6, 9, 7, 4) is also pretty easy. You use this anytime you see a Min without a 7. Again you may see some tensions specified in the symbol. Again you can supply these or ignore them. There are two left hand chord positions for this type (tritone on 4th and its inversion)
Min7 (1, b3, 5, b7, 9, 4, 6) is usually not specified with tension tones, just a “Min7”. There is just one chord position for this type (two stacked 4ths).

Dominant is kind of the elephant in the room, as it’s the one that has the most possible tension tones and the most symbols. There are six groupings based on permutations of the tensions that can sound together, but these groupings can be further grouped into two families – the “minor” dominant, where the 6 and 9 are altered, and the “major” dominant where they aren’t. So anytime you see a symbol with a b6 or a b9 or #9 you are dealing with a minor dominant and anytime you see just 6 or 9, you are dealing with a major dominant. The rule is you don’t use the major dominant to resolve to a minor key. The minor dominant can resolve to a major or a minor key. Both types can be handled by the tritone-on-4th hand position and the tritone-on-4th inverted position.

Diminished chords come in two flavors – diminished and half-diminished. Diminished usually has a circle symbol and half-diminished has a circle with a line through it. The tritone-on-4th and its inversion also work for diminished, but you need to be conscious of the tension you are playing in the right hand – ie unlike these other chords, the left hand chord position doesn’t fully imply the harmony. A lot of pianists get around this by simply substituting the dominant of the chord that the diminished would be resolving to.

So now we come to the meat of this tutorial – namely how to map left hand chord positions to chord types. Before we get into it much further, one thing all these chord positions have in common is that the root note, the “tonic” note is not in the chord – the idea being that this note is played by the bass instrument (e.g. the string bass). So to really hear the harmony you may want to play the root in octaves in the right hand. This is also a common practice among pianists. So for example say you have a C major chord type – then you would want to play octave Cs in the right hand.

So let’s look at the major chord type: 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 7, b5

Degree 1 is played by the bass and 5 is unessential, which leaves 3 6 9 7 and b5. The 3 is essential while the 6 and 9 are the most common tension tones. So if we have a chord that includes 3 6 and 9, we can fully imply the major chord type. Next, note that 6 is always a 4th above 3 and 9 is always a 4th above 6. So the chord position for the major chord type starts on degree 3, moves up a perfect 4th to degree 6, and then moves another 4th up to degree 9.


There’s another chord in 4ths you can use for major starting on the 6th degree, then moving up a 4th to the 9th degree and then another 4th to the fifth degree. The problem with this chord is that is doesn’t contain the 3rd. So to remedy this, you need to play the 3rd degree right next to the ninth. So it becomes a 4 note chord: 6 9 3 5. This chord also contains the unessential 5th so most pianists will go for the first chord in 4ths if possible, using this only when they run out of room. You can think of this as an “inversion” of the first chord position.


Turning to the minor chord, the same principle is in place as the major – you are letting the bass play the 1st degree, the left hand is filling in the 3rd (flat 3rd in this case) 6 and 9. So the minor chord position is nearly identical to the major except that you start a half step lower on the bottom note. This turns the 3 6 9 (4th on 4th) chord position into b3 6 9 (4th on tritone) chord position.


In the inversion of this chord position the major 7th interval between b3 and 9 is inverted into a minor second with b3 a half step above 9 - meanwhile degree 6 becomes the bottom. To fill out the chord we include the unessential degree 5 on top, so from bottom to top the degrees are 6 9 b3 5. You can see this is essentially the same as the second “inverted” major chord type position, just that the 3 becomes b3.


At this point we have introduced all four chord positions. Now let’s see how these same shapes can be used in the other chord types.
Let’s look at dominant chord types – major and minor. Both types use the same tritone-beneath-a-4th voicing that we used for the minor chord type. The major dominant voicing is b7 3 6. Notice how we have both of the essential tones – the 3rd and b7 for a dominant chord, plus a frequent tension. If you want to include the 9th, it is right there below the 3rd. Note how the same tritone interval that worked as b3-6 in the minor chord type is now b7-3 in the major type, and how the same chord works as both a C minor and an F dominant.


The minor dominant voicing is 3 b7 #9. Note that if you want to include the flat 6th as a tension, it is right there underneath b7 and you can reach it with your middle finger. Also if you want to play a flat 9th you can just move a whole step down from the top note, and play 3 b7 b9 (or you can just ignore the b9 symbol and play a #9 chord).


The inversions of these chords have the same tonality as what they are inverting, but they add an extra tension, so for major dominant, instead of b7 (2 or 9) 3 6, you have 3 6 b7 (2 or 9). So where your 9th is an optional tone in the first voicing, it is a required tone in the second (required here means “much easier to use this voicing if you keep the 9th on top).


For minor dominant inversion, instead of 3 (b6) b7 b3, you have b7 b3 3 b6. Similar thing – where the b6 is optional in the first voicing, it’s required in the inversion.


For minor 7th chords, we go back to two stacked fourths: 4 b7 b3. This is really the least satisfactory voicing in the bunch, because the tension tone is below the essential tones. The reason the other chord voicings sound so much better is that they have no tension tones or unessential tones between the root and an essential tone – the idea being that the harmonics of the chord type are strongest the lower they are sounded. There is also not a lot in the way of reachable tensions – the 6th is reachable just below the b7, but it’s an uncommon tension so most pianists don’t use it. Nevertheless, you see this voicing quite often.


If we try to invert this chord, the same way we tried for the major inversion, you’ll hear that it doesn’t work. You try to build stacked fourths starting on b7, and you end up with b7 2 b3 b6 which, because of the b6, moves out of minor 7th chord type.

A band aid chord is to use b7 2 b3 5, which isn’t really in stacked fourths, but is in roughly a similar hand position.


An added bonus is that if you step the left-hand pinky down one ½ step, you get a major dominant chord voicing 3 6 b7 9. Moreover, this is the major dominant a fourth above the minor seventh – ie it’s the V in the ii-V-I progression, ubiquitous in jazz harmony.

Let’s see an example of this – say I build a C minor seventh in the b7 2 b3 5 voicing. This gives me Bb D Eb G. Now I move my left hand pinky down to A, and I have A D Eb G ie an F major dominant in inversion.


If we try a similar trick with the stacked-fourths minor 7th voicing (ie moving the 6th down), it doesn’t work that great.


The way you do a ii-V with this voicing is to move the entire hand position down to the major dominant voicing or minor dominant voicing. So… C minor 7th ( F Bb Eb ) will move to F dominant 7th ( Eb A D ) or to F dominant #9 ( Eb Ab A Db ).


Another way that you deal with the instability of the 4th tension at the bottom of the minor 7th chord position is to move up and down in 4ths along a minor scale, which that tonality facilitates most excellently…


Now to diminished chords – the reason these are a little difficult is that you have three essential tones instead of two and each tone is a third away from its neighbor. It’s not possible to sound a diminished chord in fourths but the 4th on tritone can work, especially if you complete the diminished triad in the lower part of the chord


A more common way to handle diminished chords is to see what chord a diminished chord is followed by and substitute the dominant of that chord for the diminished chord itself. In the example in Figure20, the first diminished chord is followed by a D minor, so you can substitute an A minor dominant voicing for the diminished chord.


This won’t work, however, when the chord following the diminished chord has its root as a member of the diminished chord. For example a C diminished chord can resolve to C major or Eb major or Gb major or A major, but you can’t substitute a G dominant or a Bb dominant or a Db dominant or an E dominant.

At this point I would show some worked out examples, but I think I’ll stop here and do those in another tutorial assuming y’all would find that useful.
Grateful for comments, corrections etc…


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