Jazz Theory

The course is not a complete on-line tutor for beginners as it originally relied on weekly lectures to fully explain the topics and demonstrate the examples, however anyone with a reasonable basic knowledge of theory should be able to pick up a lot of new ideas and approaches. You should read and understand the lessons, but most importantly play the exercises. Even if you are not a piano player, it is important to be able to play the chords on a keyboard, and transpose them into different keys.


One of the first things to learn is how chords are built from a basic scale. In the chart below we see how the diatonic chords of C major are constructed from the C scale. (Diatonic means they are built purely on notes that are in the key, later we look at chords with notes from outside the key, ie Chromatic)

Download Chord/Scale PDF Extracts

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(Full version available with Taming The Saxophone Vol 3)

chord scales
Chords built on scale degrees

You can see that from each note of the scale a chord can be constructed by using alternate notes. We will look into and explain more of this later – to begin with it is a good idea to study the chart and above all, play the scales and be aware of the chord notes so you can hear them, not just see them on the screen or on paper.

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 the scale. Important:  for the purposes of counting the number of different notes in a chord, we do not count notes ... 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 fifth (same as upwards by a fourth). If we continue moving in fifths we have a progression which goes through all ... Read more…
  • Jazz Chords – Upper Extensions

    Chords with five or more notes 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 for extensions and alterations than major 7ths or minor 7ths. With the latter the resulting ... Read more…
  • Modes in Improvisation

    The Use of Modes in jazz When musicians talk about modes in jazz, they sometimes think of seven modes “based on” the major scale. So a Dorian mode scale is the major scale but starting on the second degree. However instead of thinking of them like this, I prefer to think of each mode as a scale in its own right. So we think ... Read more…
  • Minor Harmony in Jazz Theory

    Major vs Minor The defining difference between a major and moonier scale is the interval between the 1st and 3rd degrees. As you know a major third is made up off two whole tones, while a minor third is a whole tone and half tone. With minor harmony we can build diatonic chords on each degree of any of the modes, just as we ... 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 – which are often used in jazz to create chromatic interest. We have also seen how upper extensions can be altered: Jazz ... 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 8a). To fully understand this you should play this on a keyboard so you can listen and get a feel for the ... 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 as RN analysis. The degree of the scale upon which each chord is built (root note of chord) is shown as ... Read more…
  • Jazz Passing Chords

    Passing Chords and Turnarounds We have already seen how a IV chord can be altered to IV minor 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) or chromatic (Ex 10a-2); they can be in a melody or in a harmony part. ex 10a: Passing notes. Note ... 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 the flattened 3rd will often be used in a melody at the same time as the major 3rd in the ... 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. Jazz musicians sometimes refer to this sequence as “Rhythm changes.” Along with the 12 bar blues sequence, this sequence was ... Read more…

Jazz Theory
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