A Jazz Chord to Say….

I rarely hear musicians discuss harmony, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not on their minds.

They discuss sound, and here’s how it usually goes: “What’s that chord?” “Which one” “The funny one?” “Oh that, it’s this…” bling, strum…“Oh right, thanks, that’s cool.”

So what if you’re writing and you come up with something that you don’t know what it is? A natural impulse is to rely on training, whatever that may have been (school, books, gigs etc) and analyze your idea with chord symbols. This involves mentally stacking the notes in a way that makes sense. That’s what we’re taught to do. Then we might ask “where does it go? what key are we in? what’s the associated scale?”

A drawback to thinking in terms of chord analysis is that it’s after the fact, and usually chord symbols say nothing about their actual application and tonal function. Our perception of harmony is dependent upon what we perceive as a progression or movement of voices that imply tension and resolution (or not)–tonality (or non-tonality) develops over time, and has as much to do with orchestration, texture, style and voicing than with what the actual “chord progression” may be. That’s why a simple melody can imply harmonic movement, and two voice counterpoint can sound full and tonally complete, even with no “bass.” That’s why we can hear a progression in our heads while we’re listening, even if nobody is playing chords.

If you stop to analyze a chord, especially when you’re writing or improvising, you break the flow and the process grinds to a halt. If you ask “where can it go?” like you learned in theory class, you’re screwed, cause the chord doesn’t write the music, you do. You can make it go anywhere you want, and call by any name.

I like calling chord structures this, or thinking of a short description, like “this moving up over a pedal point.” If I just wrote it or improvised I might intuitively know what it is without naming it, and without disrupting its sound by putting the voices in order of root, 3rd, 5th etc.

Now consider the difference between a Eb/B chord and a Bmaj7#5, two chord ideas with common pitches yet distinctive sounds. Play an Eb triad in your right hand: Bb-Eb-G, and stick a B bass note under it in your left hand. Now compare that sound to Bmaj7#5:  B-D#-G-A#. The presence of the B now in the upper register changes the sound. The stacked thirds have a certain ring, so different from the Eb triad over a B bass note. Moreover, the symbol Eb/B demands no B in the upper register, and with good reason: it’s a different sound than Bmaj7#5.

Then how ’bout the structure: A#-B-Eb -G?  This might be called an “inversion,” but really it’s a new sound altogether. The half step rub at the bottom changes everything.

Slide the A# down an octave or two into the bass register,  and the “chord” is Baug/A#–that looks bad on paper, and also implies an augmented triad over a bass note when really it’s a B whole tone scale over a Bb pedal. We’re falling into a black hole. Voicing the structure and exploiting its sound within your music is what’s important, not the structure’s name.

Hindemith talks about structures and why voicings create sound and imply harmony in “The Craft of Musical Composition, Volume 1.”

Harmonic analysis is after the fact, so don’t name your chords until you’re done writing, and don’t worry if you write something that you don’t know what it is. Think of harmony as happening over time and save the play by play analysis for the classroom.


About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
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2 Responses to A Jazz Chord to Say….

  1. heylomusic says:

    Hi Scott – so glad you’re talking about theory! I’ve learned, or still working on it, that the interval of the minor 9th – A# up an octave to the B natural – is pretty much a no no, but then again sometimes it sounds really cool. In my quest to become more knowledgeable with modes – and extension chords or ‘tension’ could this also be a form of a tension chord with the root dropped? FMaj7 (sus4) add 9 – no F – hahaha sounds really too complex why do I think this way? I think I have a real gap in my learning experience and crossing over from traditional theory (classical) and this wonderful jazz stuff! Laura

  2. Scott Healy says:

    This is a great example of the pitfalls of classical theory, and jazz theory as an extension of the “root of the chord” theory model. Just cause something sounds one way up in the middle of the piano doesn’t mean it has a root, or maybe doesn’t mean it should have a root. In the case of your chord Fmaj7 sus add9 with no root–what makes this an “F” chord at all? Is an F being played below it? is the 3rd and 4th played together? Why do you call it “sus”? is the 4th pushing down like a suspension? Looks more like a C13 with an F bass–the interval that sticks out is the tritone Bb to E, that’s lots of buzz and tension that’s mellowed by the additional notes, almost sounding cluster-y and placid if you voice it closely.

    The only gap I see is you not trusting your ears! But that’s a gap I fall into all the time. Does it sound good to you? then it is good.

    And of course the minor 9th sounds cool in the right situation. Like a flat 9 chord–or what about and A triad with a C bass? Hardly a no no! In my example of Baug/A# there is a minor 9th interval, but what if the texture of the upper parts were a B whole tone scale against the bass pedal, and other instruments were playing lots of G’s, C#’s, F’s, C#’s, etc…it would sound relatively consonant. Composers were doing this type of thing in the late 19th early 20th century, implying tension without chords, or without strict relationships. Now 100 years later we’re still hung up on root movement and chord analysis.

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