Jazz Chords aren’t as Difficult as You Think


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Jazz Chords aren’t as Difficult as You Think

“How’d they do that?” Have you ever heard a jazz, gospel, or R&B pianist playing chords that sound beautiful but totally foreign to you? There’s nothing more pleasing to the ear than a great jazz pianist that goes beyond the basic colors.

Speaking of colors, have you noticed that what we often mis-label as “classical” music, has a collection of colors that sound different from jazz? Each period of music history had a unique sound that defined it. Certain chords were used while others were avoided.
In the early days of organized music—the Renaissance period—music sounded haunting. It you were to place a color on it, maybe you would call it dark red because it was dark and even a little creepy. But the creators of Renaissance music didn’t see it that way at all. In fact, they avoided many of the chords we use today because they viewed them as Satanic or evil.

Then came the Baroque and Classical periods. The Baroque period expanded the color palette of chords so much that when the Classical period arrived, they attempted to simplify musical forms and colors. Baroque music employed a much wider color palette but still not what we know today.

It wasn’t until many years later—the Romantic period that a large range of colors was employed. A certain composer that bridged the gap between the Classical and Romantic period with his extensive use of new colors was literally booed off the stage when his “ugly” music was first performed. That composer was Beethoven.

As years passed, the color palette grew to the point where nothing is off limits now, but here’s what is important. What we hear as “pretty” or “ugly” is largely a function of our culture. One of Beethoven’s symphonies sounds almost ordinary in its use of chords to listeners in 2013 but in 1825, Beethoven’s famous Symphony #9 was so innovative in its use of color that it stunned listeners. (Sadly, not in a good way)
What does this have to with jazz chords? They might sound complicated, involved, complex, and far out of the range of beginning or intermediate pianists but the truth is that how it sounds often has little to do with its complexity. They’re just colors you aren’t used to hearing.

Those beautiful and edgy jazz chords come from adding one or two more notes to a basic triad. Take the C Major triad. (C-E-G) Simply adding a “B” or “Bb” to the top will get you pretty close to that jazz sound. By adding the “B” you made your chord a C Major 7 chord (CM7) and if you added the “Bb” you made it a C dominant 7 chord. (C7)

A common jazz progression is, IM7-iim7-V7. In the key of C that would be C-E-G-B; D-F-A-C; G-B-D-F. By practicing proper voice leading (not change a note that the next chord shares) you can get that signature jazz sound by learning and branching out from this basic chord progression. Later, you can add more notes to the chords.

It’s not as hard as you think. All you need is two things: an extended note (the 7th or 9th) on your chords and proper voice leading. (Move your hands as little as possible) After that, a little creativity and experimentation will have people asking you, “How’d you do that?!”

Watch this 4-minute video and you’ll see how jazz chords are formed:

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For more info on jazz chords, see this article in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_chord

You can also watch this video on my YouTube Channel:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65l1Cz107d8

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