Harmony, of course, is one of the core components of musical study by all western musicians. It concerns how notes relate to each other, based both on the physical properties of sound and various cultural ways that these interrelationships are put to use expressively. Harmony can define musical genre, and even within individual styles, the nuances of how individuals will handle notes and chords continue to inspire infinite colors, if not opinions.

Berklee Press recently published “The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony,” an extraordinarily deep and yet practical exploration of jazz harmony and how to use it. Its authors are Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki, the chair and assistant chair of Berklee’s harmony department. Joe and Tom have helped to educate thousands of students, watching them transform their skills and expressive breadth through the study of harmony, so they have a unique perspective on how the study of harmony relates to the evolution of a musician. They both have developed many courses used at Berklee, including Joe’s Berklee Online course, Jazz Composition.

In this interview, Joe and Tom offer some thoughts about key harmonic principles, as well as turn us on to some inspiring music.

How do musicians’ conceptions of harmony typically evolve during the course of their careers?

Joe Mulholland: For most people, it seems there is no straight line. For example, Miles Davis first digested the harmonic intricacies of bebop, he then engaged in a radical simplification of his harmonic envelope during the modal, Kind of Blue period. Next, he embraced the harmonic innovations of Shorter and Hancock in his mid ’60s quintet and then abandoned that in favor of simple vamps and quasi-free tonality in the ’70s. At the end of his career, he chose a lot of simple pop tunes as vehicles for improvisation.

My own development has proceeded on several fronts. I started out playing a mix of blues and rock tunes from the ’60s and ’70s, but always had a parallel interest in jazz and, to a lesser degree, classical music. Being a pianist and amateur guitarist, I loved chord progressions and the power and nuance they brought to music, so I explored each of these areas when I had the time or opportunity to do so. More recently, the best of Brazilian popular music has been a very productive field for new ideas. I love harmonic richness and complexity, but never for its own sake. I am always aware that simplicity and directness of expression are prime values.

Tom Hojnacki:  I think that most of us start out by learning how to play a few chords and using them to harmonize tunes. I had classical piano lessons as a child and had a facility for reading written arrangements but didn’t really consider the vertical or harmonic aspect of the music. Around the age of ten, my cousins taught me to play some folk and rock songs on the guitar. I later got hold of published sheet music for the songs; something like the Time/Life Great Songs of the ’60s collection.  In the back of the book, I discovered a chart that translated chord symbols into piano notation, so I was then able to play these same songs and sing them at the piano independent of the original arrangement. That was the start of my interest in harmony. I think musicians who are attracted to rock and jazz music learn a few simple songs and sense that there are harmonic patterns that occur repeatedly in different songs. As our knowledge of repertoire increases we encounter tunes that are harmonically more complex.  Many of us seek a theory of music that explains the relationships we sense, and helps to explain the various patterns we encounter in the tunes so that we can improvise within them. Ultimately, what the theory helps us to understand is that more complex tunes, even though they have very intricate and exotic sounding surface harmonies, are still at the bedrock level based on the move from tonic to subdominant or dominant and back to tonic.

What is chord scale theory, and how does it make music more effective?

JM: Chord scale theory is a way of organizing, prioritizing, and choosing the notes in a tonal environment. Awareness of functional harmonic categories (tonic/subdominant/dominant, modal interchange, substitute dominant, etc.) guides the process. It is ultimately nothing more than listening carefully to all the possible choices of notes in a given moment of music and choosing the best ones.

TH: In a way, knowledge of chord scales can be like training wheels for your ears. They guide you in your choices until you can pedal off on your own!

What is a tension substitution?

JM: Replacing a chord tone in a voicing with one of the tensions of the chord.

When and why should tensions be substituted?

JM: Tensions substitution is used for a more complex, richer sound in a voicing. It can provide more colors and create opportunities for chromatic voice leading in an arrangement or accompaniment.

TH: But more importantly, we should be asking the question, “What is a tension?”

Okay, what is a tension!

TH: Chords at the most basic level consists of triads (three-note chords: root, 3, and 5) and seventh chords (four-note chords: root, 3, 5, and 7). These chords are conceived as stacks of thirds. Tensions extend the stack with more thirds (up to seven or in some cases eight notes: root, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13). These extensions of the basic chord types add more color or tension to the harmony and also help to clarify the role that each chord will play in a progression. If chords are like actors in a drama, then tensions are like the costumes that they wear to give them added credibility in their roles.

How literally should chord symbols be interpreted?

JM: That depends on the source. A well-vetted fake book or published manuscript can usually be taken at face value, at least as a starting point. Even then, there can be typos or other errors. The other problem is that chord symbols, being shorthand, are inherently ambiguous. Depending on the style of the person compiling the charts, they may be very simple (“C”) or more detailed (CMaj7[9,#11,13]) according to the intent of the book.  Finally, there is the matter of regional variation in how to say the same thing.

TH:  A notated score represents a fixed reality. A lead sheet with chord symbols represents a range of possibilities for how to perform a tune. The more you know about harmony, the more options you have!

What does “outside” mean?

JM: Where you have to live, if you are a freelance jazz musician!

TH: But, seriously folks! Playing “outside” means to play notes consistently that are not directly related to the chords of the tune. To do this skillfully and musically requires that you really understand how those chords work together. You have to know the boundaries before you can step outside of them.

How has jazz harmony evolved, during the history of jazz?

JM: It has evolved in multiple directions; there is no straight line. Currently, the music can include just about anything: no conventional harmony at all, simple modal systems, triadic “folk” harmony, bebop chromaticism, multitonic schemes, and more.

TH: While it is true that there are many eddies and currents in the stream of the music, I think it is fair to say that the history of the development of harmony in jazz over the past hundred years parallels that of European classical music over the last thousand years. The early roots of jazz—the field holler, country blues and the earliest vocal traditions of the African-American church—are roughly equivalent to Gregorian chant through the pre-tonal music in the European tradition, New Orleans jazz, and ragtime mirror Baroque polyphony. The harmony of the Swing era might be compared to the harmony of the classical style of Haydn and Mozart. Bebop is analogous to Wagnerian chromaticism. Modal jazz is similar in conception to the late 19th century Russian and French scalar music known as Impressionism and the sound of the most dissonant free jazz is akin to that of atonality and serial music, what the historians term Expressionism. The Princeton theorist Dmitri Tymoczko in his recent book The Geometry of Music makes the point that jazz is a style in which all of the major historic styles of harmony now co-exist with one another.

What standards or interpretations of standards can you recommend as something that makes particularly effective use of jazz harmonic theory? What should we listen for?

TH: Gosh, there are so many! If I had to choose one starting point, though, I would choose Bill Evans. His performances of tunes like “Emily,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” or “On Green Dolphin Street” embody most of what we discuss in our book. His chord voicings often employ up to seven or eight different notes of the chromatic scale.  His choice of tensions clearly defines the tonality in which he is working while others present striking unexpected surprises. To really appreciate what he does, first seek out the original sheet music of these standard tunes and get to know them before listening to an Evans interpretation. Then, the essence of jazz harmony will be clearly apparent.

Here’s “Emily”:

[Ed.: A good source for legal sheet music is Hal Leonard's Sheet Music Plus, or it's Real Book series.]

Could you suggest a couple excellent interpretations of the same tune to show two different masterful harmonic interpretations? What should we listen for?

TH: First learn Gershwin’s original published sheet music arrangement of “Someone to Watch Over Me” before listening, so that you have a reference point. I would suggest Keith Jarrett’s and Chick Corea’s solo piano performances of this great standard. Each musician harmonizes the tune and arranges it in such a way as to make it a vehicle for his own distinctive solo style.

For his part, Keith makes some of Gershwin’s original chromatic harmonies more diatonic opening up long passages for his warm “open spaces” lyrical approach to melody.  He also chooses diatonic II V’s and substitute dominants to replace Gershwin’s original descending diminished chords giving the tune a more contemporary feel.

Chick on the other hand is a more percussive player. He prefers a brighter piano tone and has a very biting modernist approach to harmony akin to Bartòk and Hindemith. He employs a tonic pedal point superimposed with parallel dissonant harmonies in the A section of the tune.  The result of this combined with the accompanying rhythmic ostinato is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Chick reharmonizes some critical chords in the tune with modal interchange chords voiced in fourths. This allows him to improvise with minor pentatonic melodic patterns and to play rubato cadenzas suggestive of the Debussy preludes.

Standards give us a reference point to investigate and appreciate the individual artistry of different great players!

How about taking us out with some tunes from your book’s accompanying recording?

Sure, we wrote these tunes for the book, specifically to illustrate different aspects of jazz harmony.

1. “Lucky,” (with substitute dominants), by Tom Hojnacki

2. “The Slip-Up,” by Joe Mulholland

3. “Moonlight On Spot Pond,” by Joe Mulholland

4. “The All-Nighter,” by Tom Hojnacki

Piano: Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki

Bass: Bob Nieske

Drums: Bob Tamagni

Engineered by Peter Kontrimas, PBS Studios in Westwood, MA.

Chord symbol repeats sometimes appear in the chord symbol line of a lead sheet. They mean “keep playing the last chord symbol.”

Now, many of us think that they are redundant and just add clutter to the page, and thus avoid them. But sometimes, you see them, and sometimes you have a client who wants them, and sometimes you want to illustrate what not to do, so here’s a video that illustrates how to add the chord repeat symbol. Use them at your own risk.

GRAMMY® or Grammy?

Mar 19 2013

I just got off the phone with someone at the Recording Academy. Here are their preferences for how to render the word GRAMMY®:


GRAMMY®s (note the lowercase s)


GRAMMY Awards®

GRAMMY® Award winner

So, the word GRAMMY is always all uppercase.

Source: The Recording Academy marketing department. Thanks for that!

Note: In running prose, common practice is to include the ® symbol in the word’s first usage, but after that, it can be omitted.

The best way to render rhythm names in text is generally to use words, not numbers, though it’s not always possible to be consistent and clear. But try to use “eighth note,” not “1/8 note” or “8th note.”

Setting the stage for this preference is “whole notes.” A general principle of style is to use similar word forms for similar words. Since there just isn’t a numeric equivalent of “whole note,” you’ve got to use the word.

Then, you’ll surely be discussing whole notes and other rhythms within the same sentences.

“A whole note lasts as long as two tied half notes.”

If you were to use “1/2” instead of “half,” you’d be mixing two types of logical constructions, which is awkward to read.

“A whole note lasts as long as two tied ½ notes.”

And someone reading aloud might be tempted to say, “Whole notes last as long as two tied one-half notes,” which would sound pretty weird. So, avoid fractions, for rhythmic values.

Words for rhythmic values works pretty well and nicely and cleanly up through sixteenth notes. Then, it starts getting a little awkward. Look at this sentence:

“Play staccato on the first thirty-second note, but then the remaining thirty-second notes and the sixty-fourth note run can be played more legato, leading up to the eighth note.”

Blah blah blah, that’s a lot of words to keep straight. This rendition using ordinals is easier to follow, though it follows the opposite of my initial advice:

“Play staccato on the first 32nd note, but then the remaining 32nd notes and the 64th note run can be played more legato, leading up to the 8th note.”

You’re comparing a bunch of rhythms close together, and it’s just easier to spot if you use numerals (ordinals) instead of all those hyphenated words/compound adjectives. I’d also put the “eighth” in the ordinal form there, just to keep things logically consistent. Again, it’s a basic principle of good writing style: Use the same style for elements that are logically the same.

So, the preference for word forms isn’t an absolute. There might be times when ordinals make more sense, though I’d say, it’s pretty rare. Fractions should be avoided for rhythms, though they are okay for time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 12/8, and so on.

The term “available tensions” is sometimes tossed around relatively loosely, in jazz parlance. The concept, though, is greatly clarified and made more useful by contextualizing it in terms of functional harmony.

Joe Mulholland, chair of Berklee’s harmony department, was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss the formal definition of available tensions.

Jonathan Feist: What is an available tension?

Joe Mulholland: An available tension is a diatonic note added to a chord, reinforcing that chord’s function while sounding “good” with it.

JF: So you make a distinction between “tensions” and “available tensions.” Not all diatonic 9, 11, and 13 notes are “available?”

Joe: Right. Like, you don’t normally have an 11 on a V chord. Though it is diatonic, it sounds poorly with that chord and interferes with the chord’s function.

For example, if you put the tonic of the key against the V chord, you will get something that is functionally at war with itself. The function of a dominant chord is to provide harmonic tension that is resolved by the sounding of the tonic chord. The dominant chord has the leading tone of the key as well as the 4th degree (11 of the V chord), both of which are unstable notes in the parent scale by virtue of their half-step relationship to the note below or above. If you mix the tonic of the key with that chord, you’ve got the most stable note of the key mixed into this highly unstable chord, and it sounds like you just don’t know where you’re going with it.

Fig. 1. G7 Chord with C (V7 with 11)

JF: The V stops functioning like a dominant chord.

JM: Yes, that tonic note C interferes with the dominant function of the chord, G7. Adding the C gives the feeling that you’ve peaked too early—that you’ve confused the target with the means of getting there.

There’s also a mechanical/acoustical reason why it’s not considered available. If you play the tonic of the key against the dominant chord, such as C against a G7, that minor 9th (C against B) sounds very dissonant.

This is really most evident in the V chord, as I mentioned. But it’s also an issue with the III chord. You might think that on an E minor chord in C major, the note C would work fine, because the E and C are both tonic chords. But that minor 9th relationship comes into play here as well, between the B and the C. Best-case scenario, instead of sounding like an E minor chord with a tension, it sounds instead like an inverted C major 7 chord. It won’t sound like a III chord any more. And if you’re not careful with how you voice it, that dissonant minor 9th will pop out.


Fig. 2. E–7 Chord with C (III–7 with 13)

JF: So, does the word “available” just mean that you can use it?

Joe: It means you can use it freely, with no constraints. On our G7 chord, the 9 and the 13 will let you thicken the sound of your chord easily and effectively. They will sound great with the other notes, while reinforcing that chord’s harmonic function.

Fig. 3. G7 (V7) with 9 and 13

Now, one can imagine a C played against a G7 chord, but just not on a rhythmically strong beat, not in a sustained manner, not in a repeated way. It could be used as part of a melodic line, or a passing line. But it shouldn’t be used as a harmonic addition to the chord.

Fig. 4. Modal use of 11 (C) on V (G7)

The term “available tension” primarily refers to harmonic, vertical processes. If you’re doing something melodic, or horizontal, like passing tones between one chord and the next, as long you don’t accent, sustain, or repeat that note, it will be just subsumed into the flow of the line; but if you add it to the chord as an extension, it will sound very wrong. So, they are not harmonically available.

JF: What would you call a tension that isn’t available?

Joe: It might be an “altered tension.” Or, it might make more sense to analyze it as a melodic note: a passing tone, or a neighbor, or an approach tone, depending on where it exists in the line and what its rhythmic nature is.

JF: So, to be “available” implies a simple diatonic context. If you’re the key of C major, on a C7 chord, b9 wouldn’t be an “available tension.”

Joe: Correct, because Db is not in the key. You might call it an “optional” or “creative” tension, but not “available.” As soon as you do something chromatic like that, other implications occur.

The underlying assumption in the diatonic world is that you’re working within a closed system. That’s the baseline—the default position. Now, of course, a lot of music is not that simple, but that’s the baseline that we come from and return to, when discussing harmony in technical terms.

When you introduce chromaticism, you introduce the possibility that other, non-diatonic outcomes might occur. So, if you put b9 on the V7 of IV chord, the implication to the listener is that a IV minor chord is coming instead. It’s because that tension, the b9 on the dominant chord, mimics the sound of V7(b9) in the minor key.

JF: Exactly what does the word “available” refer to? What makes a note “available?”

Joe: The key signature; these notes that are in the key. Your chromatic alteration to my V chord is not coming from the key. You’ve brought another sonic realm into play. The available notes are those available in the key signature’s parent scale. While you might be able to use a chromatic alteration effectively, it’s not called “available,” even if it sounds good. Again, the note has to be contained in the key signature’s parent scale.

JF: Isn’t it subjective to say that a note sounds “good?”

Joe: Not really, not to Western ears. I mean, you can play the melody in figure 4, but that’s really a modal phrase. In that kind of harmonic context, the G chord isn’t really functioning as a dominant. That style is not about functional harmony, it’s about the sound of the G Mixolydian mode. So, in that melody, the note works because it reinforces the sound of the mode.

But if we take as our framework that we’re in a traditional harmonic context, where V7 creates a strong expectation to resolve to I, then a C in a G7 chord would be working contrary to the chord’s dominant sound. If you violate the rules of available tensions, you will be interfering with the rules of functional harmony. We’re talking about functional, diatonic harmony.

Once you make a creative choice to go outside that system, then you have a lot more wiggle room. At that point, reasonable people can disagree about what sounds good and what doesn’t. But within a functional harmonic context, while violating the rules like that might not make you run screaming, most people would agree that it sounds kind of odd. There’s just something kind of whacky about it. The note is just not congruent with what we’re used to hearing.

JF: So, to try to narrow your definition, an available tension can’t be a semi-tone away from a chord tone?

Joe: That’s a good starting point. Be careful to say minor 9th, rather than semi-tone. If you play just a semi-tone above, it’s not as terrible sounding. It’s not as dissonant to the ear. If it’s a minor 9 away, the dissonance is much more evident, because it doesn’t sound like a cluster. Once it sounds like a cluster, pretty much anything sounds okay. GBCD is a cluster and has its own character. But take that C an octave up, and it really jumps out as being much more dissonant, and more like a wrong note.


Fig. 5. Cluster vs. Open Voicing

The exception to the rule you’re suggesting is that some minor 9ths actually sound okay: on dominant chords, for example. It’s safe to say that on a diatonic major chord (I, IV or V), the minor 9 above the third of the chord doesn’t sound good; C against B in a G7 chord sounds terrible in context. But on a dominant chord, if you go chromatic—go outside the key and add a b9 or b13 to a dominant chord—that will sound okay. Just remember that those notes are not called “available” because they are not in the key. The key doesn’t give you those chords. The tensions are chromatic alterations, not available tensions.


Fig. 6. G7 with b9 and b13

JF: Are people surprised by this definition of available tensions?

Joe: Many people haven’t thought about available tensions in this systematically defined way, but when they do, it seems to help clarify things; they have a better framework for defining the musical situation and making informed choices about what to change or accept.

JF: Without this approach, how do people typically learn what would or would not be an available tension?

Joe: Many people learn this intuitively. And in trying to make their chords sound richer, they might commonly reach for altered tensions right away, and then call those “available tensions” because they sound good. But again, I would call them “altered tensions” instead, to acknowledge that they are taken from outside the diatonic system. And someone narrowly trained might think, that’s not fair! They’re not playing by “the rules,” and yet it sounds so cool, and so fresh. They might go, “Oh man, I didn’t know I was allowed to paint outside the lines! Or jump across the fence for a minute!”

The difficulty with this sort of thing is that it is overly simplistic, and ultimately limiting. If the only thing you know how to do is add a 9th to everything, you’ll get pleasant enough results, but you will never discover the creative challenges you face when having to work around “difficult” notes. Sort of like the pearl in the oyster, right? It’s the irritant that results in the beauty! Within a seven-chord major key system, everyone agrees that if you put an 11 on a V chord, or a b9 on a III chord, it just sounds like it doesn’t work, as well as being acoustically unpleasing. The question is, how will you find a way to circumvent those issues and still make music that has a natural flow.

Thinking about available tensions in this way—that they are diatonic notes that reinforce the functional harmony and sound good—makes them easier to use, and helps us to make more effective and deliberate note choices.

Guitarists might read three different types of notation. Each has its strengths.

1. Traditional notation. Many teachers consider it essential for guitarists to read traditional notation. In part, the reason is for better communication with other musicians. Strings are generally indicated as circled numerals, with 6 being the low E string and 1 being the high E string. Numerals that are not circled are plucking fingers, with 1 being the index finger, 2 the middle finger, 3 the ring finger, and 4 the pinkie. You sometimes see T for the thumb. There are also many types of articulations possible, but I’ll leave these for another post. Usually, you only see fingerings in pedagogical materials, unless a specific string or finger color is desired. Set strings above the staff to the left of the notes. Set fingerings near the note heads, either to the left or centered against the note. Make sure fingerings are in a different font than measure numbers, to avoid confusion.

2. Tablature. Tablature is an ancient notation system that dates to the Renaissance, and variations exist for lute, bass guitar, banjo, and other similar instruments. On guitar tab, there are six lines, each corresponding to a guitar string, with the high line being the high E string, and the low line being the low E string—the same orientation as if the guitarist was looking at his or her guitar while playing it, tilting it to see the front. Numerals indicate frets, with 0 indicating an open string. It’s a help to non-guitarists to know that each fret of a guitar is a half step, getting higher as the vibrating part of the string gets smaller. So, a 3 on the fifth string (A string) would be the note C, which is three half steps up from A. Tab doesn’t usually have rhythms, which is a shock to musicians new to tab, and it sent my old high-school band director into conniptions. But if you know the music by ear, it is a handy way to figure out how to play music. Tab is considered redundant with fingering numbers on traditional notation.

If the strings are tuned to notes besides the standard EADGBE, those notes will be indicated along the left. For example, here is our excerpt with the strings tuned to DADGAD.

There are variations of tablature, including some that have rhythm stems coming out of the numbers, some that dispense with the lines and just have numbers, and others. The version shown is generally preferred for pedagogical materials.

Many teachers have a bias against tab, and for this reason, publishers such as Berklee Press will accompany tab with traditional notation. But particularly beginning guitarists love it, and it serves as a useful entry tool into playing the instrument.

3. Fretboard diagrams. Fretboard diagrams indicate chord shapes and voicings; on guitar, unlike piano, the same chord can be played in various incarnations, using various strings. These diagrams are like tablature rotated 90 degrees, or looking at your guitar’s face with the head pointed upward. Horizontal lines indicate frets, solid dots indicate which fret is pressed to make the note, and open dots above the string indicate open strings. The leftmost line indicates the low E string, the rightmost line indicates the high E string. A numeral followed by “fr.” (e.g., 3fr.) to the right indicates what fret the shape begins on. An x above a string means that the string is muted so that it doesn’t sound. Numbers under the strings indicate what fingers should hold each fret, and are relatively rare. Like a chord symbol or key signature, a fretboard diagram stays in affect until the next one appears. Like tablature, it doesn’t imply rhythm.

Here’s a version with a different voicing. The above diagram was at the first fret, so no fret numeral was indicated, and the top line was thick. Below, we’re using a different C chord voicing (different than the other notation!), starting on the 3rd fret. The slur means that one finger is holding down multiple strings (called a “bar” or “barre” chord fingering). The numerals at the bottom aren’t included here, which is really more common.

One more tip for non-guitarists. Guitar-specific notation and pedagogy is generally oriented towards right-handed guitarists, but some left-handed guitarists will hold their guitar so that their right hand works the fingerboard as their left hand plucks. For that reason, some will speak of a “strumming” or “plucking” hand vs. a “fingerboard” or “fretboard” hand, rather than “right” or “left.”

By the way, a “fretboard” is a “fingerboard” with marked frets. Orchestral strings (e.g., violin) and fretless basses have fingerboards, not fretboards, as they don’t have marked frets. Guitarists particularly might use the words fretboard or fingerboard interchangeably. More specifically, a position is a general hand location located near a fret, but the fingers might stretch beyond it to grab a note outside of it.

If you’re not a guitarist, just use traditional notation. While computer software can instantly generate tab and fretboard diagrams, the default notation choices often don’t make sense to real guitarists. Only attempt the more specialized notation if you really know what you’re doing or are closely supervised!

Lead sheet notation is commonly used in contemporary music. Whereas traditional notation shows every note played by specific instruments, lead sheets generally show only a single-line melody, chord symbols, and sometimes lyrics, like this, and the whole band shares the same lead sheet:

Lead sheet

The chord symbol indicates the chord root, quality, and any additional notes. I’ll talk about them in more detail in another blog post.

Any musician can use a lead sheet to develop their part—sax, keyboard, drums, or whatever. And this is a great difference between (most) classical music and (for lack of a better word) contemporary music: with a lead sheet, every artist is encouraged to create their own interpretation and arrangement, and every performer will create their own part to add to the arrangement, whereas in the classical world, this job was mostly undertaken by the composer, who also acted as an arranger. While fully notated arrangements are still sometimes circulated in contemporary groove-based music, the ability to interpret a lead sheet is a component of musical literacy in many genres.

The roles of different instruments varies in a groove, and so different instrumentalists use lead sheets differently. The actual melody will only be performed verbatim by a melodic instrument or singer. But a bass player, for example, has a different job, in a groove. Bass parts need to outline the harmony, so the bassist will look at the chord symbol rather than the melody and generally play the chord root on beat 1 of every measure, and otherwise create a bass line that supports to the chord.

On the other hand, a keyboard player might create a part using the chords shown, as the accompaniment. If the band doesn’t have a bass player, the keyboard will likely play the bass part. But if the band has a bass player (or tuba player, or other low-end instrument responsible for the bass role), the keyboard might focus more on chords, so as not to muddy up the bottom.

A drummer would mostly ignore the chord symbols, though possibly notice the song form that they outline and be aware of where fills might be needed to signal a new section. A melodic instrument who is not playing the melody might create short melodic background fills based on the chord symbol and key signature, and looking for “openings” in the melody, where to fill in the groove.

So, the way the above lead sheet might be interpreted by the band just suggested might look like this, for the first four bars.

Full band

But a different group, say a trio with banjo, tuba, and singer, might instead interpret the very same lead sheet like this:

Bee Trio

Chord symbols show the harmonic regions, and they stay in affect until the chord “changes” to a new chord (hence the term “changes,” for chord progressions, if you want to be a hep cat).

Beyond chord symbols, instrumentalists look at the key signature to see what notes and which ones are to be avoided. The relationships between chords, keys, and melodies is a study known as “chord scale theory,” and we continue to publish books mulling over the infinite possibilities of this vast topic. But to simplify, in the above example, the key signature is G, so for the chord D7, someone trying to choose notes to play there would consider both. The bass (or tuba) would be sure to play the note D prominently, and a melodic instrument would likely try to include the C (7th of D7), to give the chord its unique characteristic quality.

So, lead sheet notation is a different paradigm than classical notation, where every note is spelled out. With a lead sheet, different artists can create entirely different sounding renditions of the same “song.” Particularly in jazz, these unique interpretations are essential to the art.

DC vs. DS

Nov 20 2008

Two similar “roadmap” symbols that are often confused are DC and DS.

DC, which stands for “da capo,” means “go to the very beginning and play it again.” Think, C stands for cap, which you wear on your head. “Take it from the top.”

DS, which sands for “dal segno,” means “go to the funny looking ‘segno’ symbol (sign), and play from there.” It is always paired with the aforementioned funny looking segno symbol. Think, S stands for silly sign.


DSs are most common when there is an introduction that you don’t want to repeat.

Either can be paired with a further direction after you repeat, such as “al Fine” (play until the Fine sign, and then stop) or “al Coda” (play until the coda, or follow the “to coda” direction).

In this example of a DC al Fine, we do this:

1. Play measures 1 to 8.
2. Play measures 1 to 4, and then stop.

In this example of a DS al Coda, we do this:

1. Play measures 1 to 12.
2. Play measures 5 to 8.
3. Play measures 13 and 14, and then stop.

Here are some subtle delineations between similar audio engineering terms, all meaning “without something.”

Flat: no EQ

Dry: no reverb; sometimes refers to absence of other effects, but it’s usually about reverb

No Effects: no true effects such as delay, chorus, or reverb, but it might include EQ, which is considered sound processing (except in extreme applications, such as using EQ to imitate a shrill, lo-fi phone call voice)

Raw: no effects or sound processing of any kind

(Thanks to Michael Hamilton and Rob Jaczko for their input on this.)

What Is a Groove?

Sep 04 2008

People use the word “groove” to mean different things. The perspective that many at Berklee take is as follows, though this is by no means universal.

A groove is a multi-dimensional musical device that generally serves as a bed for a lead melody (or other types of solo, such as rap), though grooves can also occur on their own. Grooves include recurring rhythmic and harmonic patterns, such as a drum beat, chord patterns, and melodic fragments or “background lines,” which are like melodic motifs (sometimes called “licks” or “hooks”).

Rhythm-section based music makes grooves relatively obvious. A rhythm section is generally a drum set, a bass, and a “comping” instrument (usually guitar, piano, organ—basically, anything that can play chords). It plays the groove. The soloist (singer, sax player, rapper, etc.) plays/sings a melody that “hooks up” (intersects rhythmically) with the groove, but does usually not play the same kind of recurring rhythmic pattern exclusively.

A groove is like a mobile, with different recurring parts played by each instrument, each fulfilling a unique role, repeating and rotating around. Most commonly, drums play a drum beat. There might be additional percussion instruments too. The bass plays chord roots and other important harmony notes, generally hooking up rhythmically with the bass drum of the drum set. Comping instruments (guitar, keyboard, accordion, etc.) play chords. Melodic instruments in a groove can offer short melodies.

The roles are the important thing, not the specific instruments. A bari sax can play the bass line. A string quartet can comp chords. You can strum a beat on muted guitar strings.

Single instruments can play grooves solo. Pianos and guitars are especially good at it. But it gets harder from there. Most grooves are played by multiple instruments in a rhythm section. The musical roles are the important thing, not the instrumentation.

Each part in isolation can be very simple and not sound like much. But when the parts are combined, the whole composite sound object is revealed. The parts fit together, complementing and reinforcing each other.

Not all music has a groove—certainly not an obvious groove. It’s really a sense of recurring rhythm, serving as an underlying accompaniment. People could argue that, say, Beethoven had his grooves. But in terms of modern usage of the term, that’s something of a stretch, and said with a wry smile.

Much contemporary classical music deliberately avoids having a groove, perhaps holding as important to the styles an avoidance of repetition in favor of constantly fresh or ambient sounds. So, drum beats are out if you are anti-groove.

But most popular music is groove-based. Some forms (dance music, hip-hop, funk) put the groove as the most prominent and obvious feature. You could just have the groove and never get around to an actual song. Rock, country, etc. use the groove as the bedrock accompaniment for a song, and the lyrics/melody are more what distinguishes the music. The groove still identifies the style, though.

Some people use the words “groove” and “feel” interchangeably, but I find it more useful to distinguish them. A “feel” is a purely rhythmic device, referencing the beat subdivision and emphasis. A “groove” has a feel, but also chords, instrumentation, hooks, and so forth. You could say, “A funk groove has a sixteenth-note feel and a strong backbeat.” (A backbeat is beats 2 and 4, in 4/4 time.) Or, “A swing groove has a triplet feel.”

Another way “groove” is used is as a verb. “That really grooves.” This means that it has momentum, and sounds distinguishable as its own object. It implies “musically good.” If it “doesn’t groove,” it means that the time doesn’t flow naturally and easily. Maybe it is too cluttered, maybe there is an awkward hesitation, or maybe it is just boring.

But if it is “grooving,” it cuts a line aligned with the natural gravity of the universe, and its resulting motion and momentum. Like a tire track.

In musical terms, it means it rhythmically well executed, cleanly orchestrated, and proficiently performed.