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Jazz Improvising & TheoryThere are several different and sometimes opposing approaches to the teaching of jazz & blues theory and improvising. This is a good thing because an approach that works for one person may not work so well for another. So what I’m attempting to do here is to present more than one way to look at it so this course attempts to draw on more than one of these approaches. Most of these pages were originally devised for the jazz theory course at Southampton University so it is intended only to give you a brief background and some theoretical knowledge of the skills required for jazz improvisation, arranging and composition.

In the Beginners Impro Section:

  • Beginners’ Impro (Vol 2)

    Taming The Saxophone Vol 2: Beginners Impro, the eagerly awaited sequel to Volume 3 and Volume 1. “TTS2” is a theory book along with simple but interesting blues, ska and swing playalong tunes. As well as the book you also get (free): Download PDF: Backing tracks ... Read more…
  • Beginners Scales

    The 12 Step Scale Chart Use this chart to visualise how a scale is made up of whole tones or half tones (aka tones & semitones). You can click on the Buttons to move forward/backward through the different scales. For example to ... Read more…
  • Chords For Beginners

    Here is a very simple lesson in the beginnings of harmony. As you probably know, there are 7 notes in a major scale. In C these are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. We number these 1 to 7, ... Read more…
  • Rock & Blues

    Rock & Roll (& Blues) for Beginners I Although you might think that theory and rock or blues playing don’t have much in common, it’s surprising how useful a bit of basic music training can be when learning any style of ... Read more…
  • Taming the Saxophone Vol 2

    Taming The Saxophone Vol 2: Beginners Impro, the eagerly awaited sequel to Volume 3 and Volume 1. “TTS2” is a theory book along with simple but interesting blues, ska and swing playalong tunes. As well as the book you also get (free): Download PDF: Backing tracks ... Read more…
  • Special Chords

    We will call these “special chords” as they don’t quite fit into the method of chord construction we have learned so far, but really they aren’t that special so don’t be scared of them. Up until now we have been ... Read more…
  • TTS2 Customer Login

    To view the pages TTS vol2 Customers Log in here If you are not yet a TTS Vol2 customer, you can purchase your book, downloads and access to login to extra pages here Once logged in you will have access to all ... Read more…

In the Jazz Theory Section:

  • Jazz Chord Progressions

    Basic Chords Before we look at more complex jazz chords, we should have a look at on of the most basic chord types, which is a triad, so-called as it has only 3 notes: the root, 3rd and 5th notes of ... Read more…
  • Cycle of 5ths in Jazz

    In the previous tutorial I mentioned that diatonic root movement by a third is weak as the second chord has three out of four notes the same as the previous one. The strongest root movement is downwards by a perfect ... Read more…
  • Jazz Chords – Upper Extensions

    As we saw in Chord Sequences, four note chords are created by continuing the process of adding notes in intervals of a third to triads. If we extend this process we create 9ths, 11ths and 13ths Dominant 7ths have a greater scope ... Read more…
  • Jazz Theory: Modes in Improvisation

    The Use of Modes in jazz When musicians talk about modes in jazz, they often mean the seven modes based on the major scale, however I prefer to think of each mode as a scale in its own right. Having said ... Read more…
  • Minor Harmony in Jazz Theory

    With minor harmony we can build diatonic chords on each degree of any of the modes, just as we can with the major scale:   But it’s a bit more complicated because there are more scales that we can use. You will remember from Modes that ... Read more…
  • Altered Chords in Jazz

    Using Modal Interchange to Alter Chords Chromatically altered chords are chords that are not diatonic, i.e. they contain notes that are not in the key signature or key centre. We have already discussed one type of chromatic chord – secondary dominants – ... Read more…
  • Tritone (Flat 5) Substitute Chords

    How Tritone Substitutes Work A dominant 7th chord is characterised by the tension set up in the discordant tritone interval between the 3rd and the 7th, which has a tendency to resolve to the root and 3rd of the tonic (ex ... Read more…
  • Analysis with Roman Numerals

    Analysis of Jazz Harmony Harmonic analysis of tunes is extremely important to the understanding of jazz theory and hence to the ability to improvise. Roman numerals are used to denote the relationship between the chord and the key, hereafter referred to ... Read more…
  • Jazz Passing Chords

    Passing Chords and Turnarounds We have already seen how a IV chord can be altered to IVminor to accommodate a descending passing note (ex 7d) Passing notes are non chord notes that lead from one chord note to another. They can be diatonic (ex 10a-1) ... Read more…
  • 12 Bar Blues Chords

    Chords in the 12 bar blues sequence Blues breaks the rules of conventional jazz harmony and improvisation. The distinctive sound of blues chords is often created by the flattening of various notes (mainly the 3rd, 5th and 7th). The harmony often becomes ambiguous as ... Read more…
  • I Got Rhythm Chord Changes

    Standards that are used for jazz often have a 32 bar sequence with an AABA form. One very common chord sequence used  is that of George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, though usually with an original head and without the final 2 bar tag. ... Read more…

In the Improvisation section:

  • Intro to Improvising Jazz

    There are many different schools of thought on how to teach or learn jazz improvisation. Some people recommend learning all the relevant scales and how they fit chord sequences, some recommend learning lots of established phrases, licks and patterns, some ... Read more…
  • Jazz Chord Symbols

    Chord Symbols Over the years there have been various different methods used to write chord symbols. Jazz evolved from using simple harmony back in the old days to quite complex harmony that was made popular by the bebop innovators, which used ... Read more…
  • Jazz Scales for Improvising

    When you are starting learn jazz impro, there is a great temptation to learn the appropriate scales that fit the chord changes, as with the chord/scale method. This approach has some merits, it can be a “kickstart” to improvisation: as ... Read more…
  • Jazz Scalechart

    I always hesitate before recommending the study of scales for improvising jazz. Although it can be very useful to know the some of the scales which “fit” a certain type of chord, you should always bear in mind that scales are there ... Read more…
  • Dorian Mode in Jazz Improvisation

    One Chord Jazz and Funk Grooves These are usually tunes or sections of tunes based on a one or two chord repeated pattern. A one-chord pattern in a minor key can imply an Aeolian, Dorian or Phrygian mode. As soon as ... Read more…
  • Jazz Patterns & Licks

    It may be fair to say that most players rely on scales and patterns (aka licks, phrase or in more academic circles, formulae). Jazz is an ever evolving language, the established patterns and licks are borrowed, adapted and mutated into new ... Read more…
  • Why You Shouldn’t transcribe

    OK, that sounds a bit radical. Transcribing is of course useful, but it can be so much more useful. One of the most common pieces of advice we see regarding learning to improvise is about the importance of transcribing. This means ... Read more…
  • Let The Good Timing Roll

    Timing in music means different things to different people. To me it sometimes means knowing when to play, and when not to play. Coming in at exactly the right time after a break, or when to make a solo relax or ... Read more…
  • Jazz Patterns for Tonic Chords

    Tonic Patterns and Cadences These are often more restricting for jazz improvisers than V7 or IIm7-V7 chords, as chromatic alterations do not sound good in many cases. The most useful chromatic alterations are blue notes, which should be used with care as the ... Read more…
  • Memorising Music

    Memorisation, whether it’s totally committing something to memory, or used to help with (sight) reading tricky music, can be seen as two almost separate techniques: Randomness and patterns. Memorising random bits of information is the hardest, for example if you can’t speak ... Read more…
  • Blues Riffs & Licks

    Riffs or Licks – What’s the Difference? Licks are short musical phrases used in jazz, blues and rock improvising. Some players have a memorised collection or repertoire of favourite licks that they will throw into a solo every now and then. Riffs, on the other ... Read more…
  • Jazz Resources

    Recommended Jazz Reading This is not a comprehensive list, just a few of the jazz books I recommend. These were all used on the undergraduate jazz & pop music performance programme when I was teaching at the University of Southampton. Useful ... Read more…
  • Jazz Repertoire

    Jazz Tunes & Standards Jazz and pop musicians learn tunes from records, other musicians  or from printed music. Jazz musicians sometimes specialise in a particular area but there are some tunes that everyone should know, if only to avoid embarrassment at a ... Read more…
  • Free Tunes & Backing Tracks

    This page has moved here Read more…

Jazz Arranging (Big Band etc.)

  • Ranges & Transposition

    Jazz Arranging – Chart of Instrument Ranges You’ve probably all seen, and heard, a big band in full flight come to the end of their showcase number. The lead trumpet goes for a high note and maybe a tenor player decides ... Read more…
  • Jazz Reharmonising

    Reharmonising – Changing the Chords Often you may want to do some reharmonisation before arranging for jazz orchestra or combos. Most sheet music for popular music standards of the 30s, 40s and 50s will include chord symbols, but in some cases ... Read more…
  • Jazz Block Voicing

    Voicing means harmonising a melody (or lead) with one or more instruments or voices, either with a similar instrument from the same section or with a combination. Block voicing is where the inside or harmony parts always move in the same direction ... Read more…
  • Jazz Arranging: Backings

    What Goes on in the Background Chordal accompaniment or pad In this case a solo instrument or unison line is accompanied by  instruments of the same or different section playing sustained chords. The lead line of the chordal accompaniment should move smoothly paying ... Read more…
  • Piano, Guitar & Bass

    Piano/Guitar Piano and guitar parts are often very basic in big band writing and are just to supply a rhythmic backing (comping). As you would expect much of the interpretation is left up to the performer. In this case the parts ... Read more…
  • Drum Notation

    Drumkit Notation: Parts for Drummers With jazz arrangements, drummers are nearly always given a very basic “guide” part. Ideally you want to give the drummer the most information without becoming cluttered or awkward to read. This is not because drummers are not good ... Read more…
  • Orchestration: Score Layout

    What’s The Score? First things first – the title should be at the top centre of page one and the name of the composer and arranger on the right. It is a good idea to indicate whether the score is transposed ... Read more…
  • Writing for Strings

    The string section consists of violins (1st & 2nd), violas, ‘cellos (or ‘celli) and double basses. There are conventions as to the ratios of instruments; e.g. a large orchestral ensemble may consist of 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Brass

    The Wonderful World of Composing for Brass Brass instruments are capable of great power, but also subtlety and variety, especially with the use of mutes, which are placed in the bell. The sound is produced by vibrating the lips together against the ... Read more…
  • Composition: Hints & Tips

      Know when to use rules of composition, and when not to. Think about the genre and whether you need to be “correct” or can bend the rules a bit of even completely throw them out of the window Think of the ... Read more…
  • Recording

    All our recording pages have moved to our other site at Media Music: Recording Microphones Home Soundproofing Home Studio Acoustics High Frequency Absorbers Compression Reverb Logic Tips Logic Pro: Getting Started Score Tips Logic MIDI Audio Tips Logic EXS24 Editing Cues Sidechain Compression Logic FAQs Logic Resources Logic EXS24 Samples Logic Saxophone Samples Garageband Instruments & Samples Logic Environment Downloads Logic Keyswitch Articulations Logic ... Read more…
  • Developing Melody with Motifs

    Very often a large part of composition involves expanding a very short simple phrase (or motif) into an entire work. This may be just a few notes, but careful development can make a little go a long way. Development may be ... Read more…
  • Tension & Release in Composition

    Unity and Variety, Tension & Release Two very important factors in music, as well as most other art forms, are the creation of tension and release. Let’s look at how tension and release can be created by combining unity and variety. ☛ Unity does not ... Read more…
  • Modes in Composition

    Modes in Modern Pop & Commercial Composition Before reading this make sure you are familiar with the basic concept which is covered in the modes in jazz article. I prefer not to think of modes as relative to a major scale (e.g. D ... Read more…
  • All About Copyright

    Copyright in Music Compositions Copyright decisions often it come down to a judge, and is therefore very unscientific so judgements can be very tenuous and inconsistent. Guidelines: Copyright is a Three Legged Stool. If all 3 legs are in position, the case for ... Read more…
  • Become a TV/Film Composer

    How do You Actually get Work as Composer? I wish I could answer this question, or at least get paid every time someone asks it. Initially I was interested in composing music for TV commercials. After a long time taking my ... Read more…
  • Orchestrating for Woodwinds

    What You Need to Know about Woodwinds Woodwinds are so called because the tone is generated by the player’s breath and originally all instruments were made of wood. The main woodwind instruments in modern western music are: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon ... Read more…
Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan

The tutorials are specifically geared towards “mainstream” jazz which was formulated during the middle period of the twentieth century, as opposed to earlier or later styles. This era of jazz is based on the harmony of popular music at the time, with some innovations developed by the bebop greats such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk. Later forms such as modal jazz, and various styles of fusion are not covered, though much of the same theory still applies.

Initial learning usually requires some well defined rules. This course attempts as far as is possible to lay down some rules which should be approached as an aid to learning the basics rather than as a dogma to be applied to a subject that ideally is at its best when breaking rules or pushing boundaries. I have used one of the modern approaches of using scales to approach improvisation over chord changes, although I have emphasised several times that this approach, though useful at first, should never dominate the true art of improvisation which relies more on melodic inspiration and original use of the “jazz language”. As no improviser can ever be 100% original, this often means learning phrases and licks from the vast repertoire of jazz greats and gaining an intuitive feel for “borrowing” and developing them

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