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Thinking in Jazz: The Infinte Art of Improvisation
The author of Thinking in Jazz interviewed more than 50 working jazz musicians-including name players such as Gary Bartz, Lou Donaldson, and Tommy Flanagan He's also transcribed hundreds of musical examples, including rhythm section parts. The book discusses learning the craft, influences, practice and rehearsal, riffs and patterns, repertoire, interplay, comping and soloing, emotional impact of performance, venues, the life of working musician..

You need to be able to read music to follow the examples, but you can still learn from this book even if you don't yet read music. -- Thinking in Jazz.

This is one in a series of free music theory lessons.You can be alerted to these lessons by subscribing to Phil Seyer's music theory newsletter. If you haven't yet subscribed and you would like to, just click here.

<= Besides the text of this lesson I will also present some other music education resources in the column to the left. Please feel free to access these resources, but please return to this lesson! In these lessons I sometimes use solfege terminology in which the tones of the key are center are referred to as do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti. You can see the discussion of solfege in my musical terminology page for more details, but remember that re is pronounced "ray." The syllable "mi" is pronounced "me" and "ti" is pronounced like "tea" (a drink with jam and bread).

One way to learn to improve is to choose (or invent) a chord progression. After learning the progression, try playing various melodies along with that progression. In this lesson I will teach a common chord progression used by jazz musicians for improvisation. If you play a melody instrument, you may want to experiment with playing "broken chords." That is, play the chord tones suggested in sequence, one after another. This time we'll just establish the chords for the progression. In a future lesson I'll give some tips on improvising a melody above the chords.

A good progression to practice with is a series of diatonic 7th chords that keep moving down a fifth. Diatonic chords are chords that stay within the key. For example in the key C, there are no sharps or flats, so none of the diatonic chords in C would have a sharp or flat. If the key of F there is one-flat: B-flat, so (if appropriate) a diatonic chord in F would be allowed to have a B-flat.

Chord construction. Let's step back for a moment and review chord construction. The root of the chord is the tone that the chord is built from by stacking every other note of the scale. For example to build a IV7 chord you would start with fa. (Think do-re-mi-fa; fa is the 4th note of the scale.) Fa would be the root of the IV7 chord. Next, skip so and add la. Skip ti and add do. Skip re and add mi. So a IV7 chord is:

fa la do mi

Ear training exercise. Sing each of the following. Sing the boldfaced syllables loudly and the other syllables softly. Also, try singing only the boldfaced syllables, skipping the others.

1. do-re-mi (This helps to establish the key center.)
2. mi-re-do
3. mi-re-do-ti-la-so-fa
4. fa-so-la-ti-do-re-mi
5. fa-la-do-mi

Try this on your instrument, starting in your favorite key. Then try it in another key. In the key of C, what would fa-la-do-mi be? Make the first tone be below middle-c.

When you are singing or playing fa-la-do-mi, do you know what chord this is?

It is a IV7 chord. It's called a IV chord because the root of the chord is fa, the 4th note of the scale. The "7" comes from the fact that there are 7 notes from the root (fa) to the highest tone (mi). The distance between fa and mi is called a 7th for that reason.

Jazz musicians like to start a chord progression that goes down a fifth each time with the IV chord, so our first chord in this progression will be IV7.

Progress check. In the key of C what would the tones of the IV7 chord be?

- - - - - - - -
(When you see a dotted line, please answer before scrolling down to check your response.)

The tones would be f, a, c, e. This chord is called Fmaj7. The "maj7" comes from the fact that the distance between the root "f" and the "e" is called a major 7th. Musical theory terminology is not always so logical or easy to explain. For now, just know that the distance from fa to mi is called a major-7th.

Now let's find the second chord in our progression. In a moment, we'll practice going down a fifth from fa. But first let's establish our key center again, by singing and playing:


Now let's go down a fifth. Start with fa and sing and play down 5 tones:


Now sing only fa-ti:

fa-ti (this is kind of a wierd musical jump called a tritone -- more on tritones later.)

In the chord progression we are building, fa is the root of our first chord. The syllable ti will be the root of our second chord.

Since ti is the 7th tone of the scale, our second chord will be a VII chord. For simplification, here, I won't indicate whether a chord is major or minor.

So far, then our chord progression is:

IV7 - VII7

In the key of c, we would have:

Roman Numeral Designation

Chord Tones: Syllables

Chord Tones: letter names
fa-la-do-mi f a c e
ti-re-fa-la b d f a

Now, lets move on to our third chord. Counting down a fifth from ti, our new chord would be build on which syllable? (Think down five syllables ti, la, so fa...and then ...)

- - - - - -

Our third chord will be build on mi. The tones will be: mi so ti re. In the key of c the letter names for the chord tones would be: e g b d.

So far, we have:

Roman Numeral Designation

Chord Tones: Syllables

Chord Tones: letter names Chord Letter Name
fa-la-do-mi f a c e Fmaj7
ti-re-fa-la b d f a Bdim7
mi-so-ti-re e g b d Emi7


Notice that the VII7 chord is a diminished chord. This is because it contains a diminished fifth. The distance between b and f is a diminished fifth.

Technical note for advanced students: Diminished chords are usually unstable and treated as dominant chords. Often the VII7 is thought of as a V7 with omitted root. So often the VII7 chord will progress to a I chord. However, in a chord progression like this, where the root of each chord is a fifth below the previous chord, we accept the diminished chord as a VII rather than as a V7 with omitted root.

If we continue in this way, we'll have this following progression of chord, such that each chord is a fifth below the previous chord.

Roman Numeral Designation

Chord Tones: Syllables

Chord Tones: letter names Chord Letter Name
fa-la-do-mi f a c e Fmaj7
ti-re-fa-la b d f a Bdim7
mi-so-ti-re e g b d Emi7
la-do-mi-so a-c-e-g Ami7
re-fa-la-do d-f-a-c Dmi7
do-ti-re-fa g-b-d-f G7
do-mi-so-ti c-e-g-b Cmaj7


Practice playing these chords in the key of C as shown. Then see if can play them in the key of G

In the key of G we would have:

Roman Numeral Designation

Chord Tones: Syllables

Chord Tones: Tetter Names Chord Letter Name
fa-la-do-mi c e g b Cmaj7
ti-re-fa-la f# a c e F#dim7
mi-so-ti-re b d f# a Bmi7
la-do-mi-so e g b d Emi7
re-fa-la-do a c e g Ami7
do-ti-re-fa d f# a c D7
do-mi-so-ti g b d f# Gmaj7

So far we are not really improving, just learning a chord progression that we can use for improvisation. Improvisation will come as we progress in our understanding.

In these lessons I'll be using a system for designating musical pitch using uppercase and lowercase letters along with apostrophes.

Middle-c on the keyboard will be designated as c' (also called c-prime)
The d above middle-c will be d'. The e above middle-c will be e' and so on.

The c below middle-c will be c (just a lowercase letter.)
The c above middle-c will be c''.

Middle-c octave: lowercase letter plus apostrophe (called prime)
Octave below middle c: lowercase letter

Chord Voicing for Keyboard Players

In this part of the lesson, I'll discuss a way keyboard players can play the chords in a systematic way in various keys. If you are not playing a keyboard instrument, you want to skip this section.

One style in keyboard improving is to assume that the bass part is played by another player. Using this style, you use your left hand to play a chord such that it falls in the middle of the keyboard. (Later you will use your right hand to play a melody that goes with the chords.)

A simple rule of thumb is to either include middle-c in the chord or arrange the chord so that at least one chord tone is above middle-c and one chord tone is above it.

Which of these voicings of Fmaj7 follow this rule? (Remember: c' represents middle-c; c is one octave below middle-c and c" is one octave above middle-c.

1) f a' c' e'
2) a c' e' f'
3) c' e' f' a'
4) f' a' c" e"

All of these follow the rule, except for 4). In 4), the entire chord is above c' (middle-c).

When moving from one chord to another try for minimum voice movement, so that your hand doesn't have to jump around to play the chords and so that the progression of chords sounds smooth.

Suppose your first chord is a IV7 chord or FMaj7 : a c' e' f'
Moving down a 5th, what would the next diatonic chord be? Count down 5 notes from F: F-E-D-C-B

- - - - - - -
Counting down five scale steps from F, we come to B, so we would build a 7th chord on B. B is the "leading tone" or seventh degree of the C scale. If you sing up the scale: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti, and stop on ti you will notice that it wants to lead up to high do. Try it with letters: sing or play c-d-e-f-g-a-b. Notice how "b" is leading you to go to up to c'.

So in the key of C we might say that a chord built on B is is a chord built on the leading tone. The tones from the root up would be b-d-f-a. I'll designate this chord as VIIi7, short for seventh chord build on the seventh degree of the scale. Keep in mind that this chord is somewhat unstable because it has diminished 5th.

(Technical note: VII7 is also called a half-diminished seventh chord because it contains a diminished 5th and a minor 7th. A diminished seventh chord has both a diminished 5th and a diminished 7th.) The letter name designation for this chord is:


(The -5 means to lower the fifth of the chord by a half-step to produce a "diminished fifth.")

Our first chord was Fmaj7 or a 7th chord built on the subdominant. (a c' e' f'). Let's keep the a in the bass part. How would we arrange our second chord? (Give the letters using proper case and use prime(s) when necessary to show the pitches in relation to middle-c)

- - - - - - -

(a b d' f')

So far we have:

(a c' f' e') (a b d' f')

Lets progress down another fifth. Count down five notes from B: b-a-g-f-e.

What would are next chord be? Give the letter name and the functional name if you can.

- - - - - - - - - -
Our next chord would be Emi7 or a mediant 7th chord. Usually Roman numerals, we could designed this chord as iii7. This is often referred to as a minor-7th chord. The ones of the Emi7 chord from the root up are: e-g-b-d

What arrangement of the chord tones would you use considering that the last chord was: (a b d' f')?

- - - - - - - - - - - - -
You could get a smooth progression by moving the a down to g. Just keep the b and d' where they are. Move f' down to e'. That would give you:

(g b d' e')

For far, using, our progression is:

IV7 - vii7 - iii7
Fmaj7 B7-5 Emi7

...with this arrangement of the chord tones:
(a c' f' e') (a b d' f') (g b d' e')

Continuing down another fifth, what would are next chord be?

- - - - - - - - -

Ami7 or vi7 (submediant seventh)

Since g is the common tone between emi7 and ami7 we might keep the g in the bass part and sound the ami7 like this:

g a c' e'

From a classical music theory point of view, putting the g in the bass is rather unusual because g is the 7th of the Ami7 chord. But remember, we are assuming here that the bass part is being carried by another musician or another musical "part." Anyway, the 7th will make a nice resolution down a step when we move to the next chord, which will be __________(what?)

- - - - - - -

f a c' d (Dmi7 -- or II7)

After the II7, our next chord will be V7. See if you can come up with the recommended arrangement of chord tones:

- - - - - - -

f g b d'

And next we would have ____________ (what?)

- - - - - - - - -

e g b c' (I7 or CMaj7)

Here's what the progression would like like in a musical score. When playing this with a keyboard instrument, play all the notes with the left hand. That's because later we will be adding a melody with our right hand. As you look at the score, notice how we observed the rule that no chord should have all it notes above or below middle-c..


VI7 (Fmaj7) VII7
III7(Emi7) VI7(Ami7) II7(Dmi7) V7(G7) I7(CMaj7)

To get an idea of how this sounds, click here to listen to a MIDI file of the above progression.

As you listen to the example, keep in mind that this is just a simple chord progression and not yet a work of art. The last chord sounds particularly dissonant to me because of the harshness of ti and do sounding together. It will sound better later when we have a bass part and a melody on top. Another problem with this example is that the "touch" is bad. It sounds like a beginner is slamming down the notes with no expressiveness. That's because the MIDI file was created with a program that sets the "velocity" of each note eactly the same.

Exercise: Play the above progression in several keys: in as many as you can before the next lesson in this series. As as you do remember the rule about not letting the chord go entirely above or below middle-c. Observing this rule will require you to use different arrangements of the tones in the chords in various keys. .

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Improvising music -- (lesson two)

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