In this article, our third in the "Rhythm Exercises" series, we'll be looking at some advanced and challenging rhythmic exercises. These are really meant to test your rhythmic understanding and execution, so if they're too difficult, don't worry. Start off with our Part 1 and Part 2 rhythmic exercises, master those, and then build up to the exercises presented below. As always, be sure to use your metronome while performing and practicing all of these exercises. If you're one of those students who thinks that the metronome gets in the way, that just proves how much you really should be using it. The metronome is the indicator as to whether or not you can play in time.
Ready? Let's go on to ROUND 3!
Rhythm Exercises #9: Review of Rhythms
At this point in our rhythmic exercises, you've encountered a wide variety of rhythms. This first advanced exercise will challenge your ability to work through a longer rhythmic example that incorporates a little bit of everything. As we've been stressing all along, the only way to really master these exercises with precision is to be able to count and subdivide when playing/clapping these rhythms. Start slowly and gradually increase your tempo.
Rhythm Exercises #10: Quarter Note Triplets
Quarter note triplets follow the same logic as eighth note triplets - 3 in the space of 2. In order to play quarter note triplets you need to fit three notes evenly in the space of two quarter notes. Let's take a look at how quarter note triplets work mathematically.
Just as we can tie two eighth notes together to equal a quarter note, we can tie two eighth note triplets together to equal a quarter note triplet. The basic idea is that if you can play/count eighth note triplets through an entire measure of 4/4 time, then by simply playing/clapping every other eighth note triplet you will be playing/clapping the quarter note triplet.
When we count quarter note triplets, we again say "1 - trip - let, 2 - trip - let," etc, remembering of course that eighth note triplets are twice the rate of quarter note triplets.
Now try playing, clapping, and counting the exercise below which uses quarter note triplets.
Rhythm Exercises #11: Dotted Eighth Notes
As we've already learned, the dot on any note has a very specific function. The dot increases the original note's value by half. For example, a whole note gets four beats. A dotted whole note gets 6 beats. Why? Because the dot increases the whole note's value (4) by half (2), and 4 plus 2 equals 6. The same is true for the dotted eighth note. The eighth note gets half a beat. And half of half is a quarter of a beat. So a dotted eighth note is equal to 3/4 of a beat, or three 16th notes.
Now let's try a rhythmic exercise that uses the dotted eighth note rhythm sprinkled in with some other rhythmic figures.
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In this article we are going to demystify secondary dominant chords and the confusion that often accompanies this music theory topic. Even if you've never heard the term "secondary dominant chords" before, you've probably encountered them regardless of what kind of music you like to play. That's because secondary dominant chords are present in all types of music - jazz, classical, rock, folk, pop, etc. Understanding these chords will improve your theory knowledge, harmonic analysis understanding, composition skills, and transcription abilities.
Secondary Dominant Chords: What Are They?
Let's start with diatonic chords. Diatonic chords refer to the chords which result when we build a chord on each note of the a major scale. Below are the diatonic chords, and their Roman numeral names, in the key of C major. These Roman numerals represent a formula which will be the same in every major key (i.e., the 'I' chord will always be major, the 'ii' chord will always be minor, etc).
Ok, now let's breakdown what a secondary dominant chord is. First of all, secondary dominant chords are dominant chords, and dominant chords are 7th chords (major triad with a minor 7th on top). If we make 7th chords out of all the diatonic chords above, we only have one dominant chord - G7, the 'V7' chord.
And what do dominant chords do? They resolve to their 'I' chord. Dominant chords want to move in a 'V to I' resolution. So dominant chords function as the 'V7' of a 'I' chord, and they pull to that 'I' chord.
Now we've reviewed what a dominant chord is, but what is meant by the term secondary? 'Secondary' refers to the fact that secondary dominant chords come from outside of the key. So a secondary dominant chord is, by definition, any dominant chord that is not diatonic to the key.
Look at the chord progression below:
Do you see the dominant chord that does not fit in the key of C major? That's right, the D7 chord. It's a secondary dominant.
Secondary Dominant Chords: How Do They Work?
Now let's understand how secondary dominant chords work. In a nutshell, a secondary dominant chord is borrowed from another key. So when you see a secondary dominant chord you have to ask yourself, "This secondary dominant is the 'V7' of what chord?" Looking at the chord progression above ask yourself, "D7 is the 'V7' of what chord?" The answer is that D7 is the 'V7' of G. And lo and behold, which chord comes after the D7 chord? Well, G7, of course.
So the secondary dominant (D7) is a chord from outside the key that brings us to a chord inside the key (G7).
Lastly, we refer to this D7 chord as a "V7/V" (read "five-seven of five" chord).
Secondary Dominant Chords: How Does This Info Help Me?
Understanding secondary dominant chords raises your musical awareness and understanding. You now know what a secondary dominant chord is, how to label it (with Roman numerals), how it functions, and why it is used. Practice playing the progressions above to get a sense of what secondary dominants sound like.
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Understanding meter in music might seem like a fairly simple concept. When discussing meter we usually discuss the time signature, which indicates how many beats will occur in each measure and which subdivision will be counted as the underlying beat. These concepts seem quite simple when looking at examples such as 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures. After all, these are some of the most commonly encountered time signatures in music. But what about some of the more complex examples of meter in music? How are they counted? Making sense of some of the less frequently encountered meters (i.e., time signatures) can help make us beter sight-readers and better overall musicians.
Understanding Meter: The Common Time Signatures
Rather than get into a discussion of duple, triple, quadruple, and compound time signatures, etc. - as many music theory textbooks do - we will instead break down some of the time signatures that you are likely to encounter. We'll start here with 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures and provide a brief review.
In 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures, the top number refers to the number of beats that will be present in each measure. The bottom number refers to the subdivision that is being counted. Since the number "4" appears on the bottom of each of these examples, this indicates that the quarter note is the unit of subdivision that is being counted.
Notice the last example in the image above. The letter "C" appears where the time signature is normally written. This "C" stands for "common time" and is a shorthand or abbreviation for the 4/4 time signature (since 4/4 is such a commonly used time signature).
If you've ever played or listened to a waltz (a dance) then you've probably seen or heard the 3/4 time signature. Many marches are set to a 2/4 time signature (think of the rhythm of your feet when you march, as in "1, 2, 1, 2" or "left, right, left, right").
Understanding Meter: 8th Note Subdivisions
Next we will take a look at 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 time signatures. Again, the top number indicates how many beats can be found in each measure. When the '8' is the bottom number, this refers to the 8th-note. This means that the 8th-note is the subdivision that is being counted. Another way to read these time signatures is to say that there are "three 8th-notes per measure (3/8)" or "six 8th-notes per measure (6/8)."
Notice that in the four time signatures above the 8th-notes are written in groupings of 3. Let's look at the 6/8 example: these six 8th-notes are generally counted in one of two ways. The first way counts all six 8th notes: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6." The second way counts the two larger beats, which are divided into three parts: "One-and-ah, Two-and-ah."
Understanding Meter: Odd Meter
The term "odd meter" refers to meters that are counted by a combination of 2s and 3s. For example, 5/4 and 7/4 are common examples of odd meter time signatures. In 5/4 or 5/8 time, the measure is usually broken into a 3+2 count (or 2+3). For 7/4 or 7/8 time, the measure is usually broken into a 3+4 or 4+3 count.
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Jazz theory is not a separate subject area from music theory, although many people think that music theory and jazz theory require separate forms of study. Take it from someone who has attended many music theory and jazz theory classes at the university level - it's all the same stuff. So why, then, is jazz theory even called "jazz theory"? Why not just call it all "music theory"? Well, the truth is that jazz theory generally focuses on a particular set of music theory topics that are common among jazz musicians. And jazz players have their own lingo, so sometimes the terminology in a jazz theory class is a bit different, too. In the end, jazz theory IS music theory. Here, we'll discuss a very powerful scale used commonly in jazz theory circles - the major bebop scale.
Jazz Theory - What is the Major Bebop Scale?
The major bebop scale is an 8-note scale. It is simply a major scale (which contains 7 notes) with an addition note inserted, a half-step between the 5th and 6th scale degree. Below is a C major bebop scale. Notice the half-step (the G#) between the 5th (G) and 6th (A) scale degrees.
Jazz Theory - Why Is the Major Bebop Scale Important?
The great thing about the major bebop scale is that it uses the most common and most powerful chord progression in music - the "V to I" resolution. In fact, it has the "V to I" progression built into the scale.
Here's how it works: In the key of C major we're going to treat the 'I' chord as a 'C major 6' chord, and the 'V7' chord as a G7 flat-9 chord.
It's true that the 'G7 flat-9' chord does not have a 'G' in it. It looks more like a 'B diminished 7th' chord. But this chord functions as a 'G7 flat-9' chord. Simply play a 'G' under this chord and you can clearly see that the notes used represent the 3rd (B), 5th (D), 7th (F), and flat-9th (Ab).
Here's how to use this powerful scale: Whenever we encounter a 'C, E, G, or A' we will harmonize that note as a C major 6th chord. Whenever we encounter a 'B, D, F, or Ab' we will harmonize that note as a G7 flat-9 chord.
Applying that idea to the entire scale we get this:
Remember that "V to I" is the strongest resolution in music. Now, notice what we have created - a major scale that moves in constant "V to I" resolutions!
Jazz Theory - How to Use The Major Bebop Scale
Perhaps you enjoy writing or arranging music. The major bebop scale is an excellent harmonic device, giving you a quick and easy way to harmonize a melody with rich, dense voicings.
Take a quick peek at how this might be applied to Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (below). The song is in C major, and the melody uses notes right from the C major scale. We harmonized this short excerpt using the major bebop scale, and doubling the melody an octave lower with the left hand.
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Chord tones, guide tones, passing tones... so many TONES! What are they? How do I make sense of all of them? Is it really going to help me better understand music? Although the names can start to blend together and get confusing, chord tones, guide tones, and passing tones are a big part of music theory. And YES, having an understanding of these musical elements CAN help you improve your overall musicianship. In this article, we'll simplify all the confusion.
Chord Tones, Guide Tones, Passing Tones
Let's start with chord tones because many of us already have a basic understanding of what they are. Chord tones are quite simply the individual notes (i.e., "tones") that make up a chord. When we talk about chord tones we are talking about the fundamental notes that are used to build a chord. The fundamental notes of a triad are the root, 3rd, and 5th. The fundamental notes of a 7th chord are the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Tones such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths are referred to as upper extensions and are not considered fundamental chord tones (although they are tones that can be used within the chord).
So the chord tones of a C major triad are C, E, and G. The chord tones of a C# minor 7th chord are C#, E, G#, and B.
Now let's turn to guide tones. Guide tones refer to the 3rd and 7th of a chord, if the chord is a 7th chord. If the chord is a triad, then the 3rd is the only guide tone. But what is a guide tone? Why do we care about the 3rd and 7th?
Let's focus on 7th chords. Guide tones tell us a chord's quality, meaning whether the chord is major, minor, or dominant. Let's look at an example.
Consider a C major 7th, C minor 7th, and C dominant 7th chord:
We can't learn much about the chords by looking at the roots or 5ths. In each of the three different chords above the root and 5th are the same. However, the 3rd and 7th are unique to each chord. In a C major 7th chord the guide tones are 'E' and 'B'; in C minor 7th they are 'Eb' and 'Bb'; in C dominant 7th they are 'E' and 'Bb.' These guide tones are what make the chord major, minor, or dominant, and we could identify the chord quality simply by looking at those notes.
Passing tones are notes that are used to help us get from point 'A' to point 'B,' musically speaking. Passing tones might be used to help us move the melody in some way. Often times, passing tones are notes that come from the particular chord scale or harmony that is being used. Sometimes, passing tones can be chromatic tones - notes that come from outside the given key. In the example below from Mozart's Sonata in C major, the harmony is clearly played in the left hand. The right hand melody is playing fast-moving scales, up and down. Some of the notes of the scale are chord tones. Other notes are passing tones - notes that come from the scale but are not chord tones (highlighted by arrows).
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Harmonic analysis is an incredibly important key in unlocking the mysteries of music. By understanding and using harmonic analysis we can answer questions such as "what was the composer thinking about (musically) when he/she wrote this music?" Or, "what chords are being used to make this song sound so good?" Or, "what role are each of the instruments playing in this incredible orchestration?" Harmonic analysis is a way to make the complex simple, to get inside the mind of the composer and figure out exactly what makes the music move. In this article, we'll answer the following questions:
What are the essential first steps in learning the skill of harmonic analysis?
How does one practice and improve the skill of harmonic analysis?
Harmonic Analysis: What Is It?
Harmonic analysis is sort of like music math. We're looking very discerningly at a given piece of music and analyzing the harmony. Why the harmony? Why not the melody? Well, we look at the melody, too, but the harmony in particular is important because it shows us how to understand the chords (or chord structures) that were used by the composer. And from this analysis we come up with a very specific formula that explains the music in simpler terms. This formula is what allows us to understand how the chords move from one to the next, referred to as the chord progression or harmonic progression (that's a term you'll want to remember).
In a nutshell, the harmony is like the blueprint to a house. You really want to make sure you understand the blueprint before you start building or remodeling the house.
Harmonic Analysis: First Steps
The first steps to understanding harmonic analysis is understanding diatonic chords, both triads and 7th chords. Harmonic analysis uses Roman numerals to represent chords - upper-case for major and dominant, lower-case for minor and diminished. When we look at a piece of music we try to recognize the particular chord or harmony used and then assign a Roman numeral.
In a major key we use the following Roman numerals to represent the diatonic chords (remember that diatonic chords are constructed by building a new chord on each degree of the major scale, using only notes from that particular key):
(In the key of C major)
Harmonic Analysis: How to Practice
Let's take a look at a very famous piece of music, Mozart's Sonata in C Major K. 545 (just the first 4 measures):
We're going to do some harmonic analysis on this piece. Looking at measure 1, what chord is being used? You don't see a nice, simple chord, do you? Sometimes when there aren't easy-to-read chords being used, we have to reorganize the notes a bit and help the harmony come more sharply into focus. Consider the following:
Ahhh! Now it's starting to look like something we can analyze. The Alberti bass (the name for the arpeggiated bass line in the first example) is usually based on the individual notes of a chord, and when we stack them up we can see what's going on in the harmony. We would analyze this piece by writing the Roman numerals under the lower clef (and we've written the chord symbols above for further clarification):
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Polychords are everywhere in music - all kinds of music. And yet polychords are often not fully understood, or even worse, are viewed as "scary" and "difficult," leaving students to dismiss them as too advanced for their own understanding. Well, polychords are not too scary, difficult, or advanced. In fact, they are sometimes used to make advanced chords easier to understand and play. In this article we'll make sense of polychords by doing the following: defining what a polychord is; showing examples of commonly used polychords; explaining the theory behind polychords in order to give students a thorough understanding of how they work. That sounds like a lot, right? Let's go!
Polychords: How To Define Them
Let's break this down into "poly"-"chords." We know what "chords" are, of course. Chords are two or more notes played simultaneously. Major and minor triads are some of the first chords we learn at the piano. "Poly" simply means "more than one" - as in, "two or more." So a polychord is simply a single chord that incorporates two different chords.
Let's first review slash chords before we look at some polychord examples. Slash chords are very closely related to polychords. Remember that slash chords are written using a slash, with a chord indicated on the left of the slash and a note indicated to the right of the slash, as shown below.
In the example above we first see a Dmaj/C. This slash chord tells us to play a D major triad with a 'C' in the bass. The second example tells us to play a C min7 chord with an 'F' in the bass.
Now let's look at some polychord examples.
What are some obvious differences that we see in the writing of polychord symbols? Firstly, the "slash" is now rewritten as a dividing line. Secondly, we see a chord symbol on both the chord above and below the dividing line. This tells us that we have two chords to consider, not simply a chord and a bass note as is the case in slash chords.
So to recap: Slash chords use a "slash" and consist of a chord to the left of the slash, and a bass note to the right. Polychords use a "dividing line" and consist of a chord on top (which is played in the higher register) and a chord on bottom (which is played in the lower register).
Polychords: Understanding the Theory
So, why use polychords? Well, at first glance it seems like these are very advanced chords, right? After all, we're talking about a single chord symbol that requires us to know and play two chords simultaneously. But polychords are often a shorthand for what actually might be more cumbersome and daunting if written out fully.
Consider the following:
Notice that the chords written above are the exact same chords written previously. The only difference is the chord symbols used. In place of polychord symbols, the new chord symbols show the underlying chord with the extensions used in the chord. For example, the first chord symbol shows the C major chord in the bass clef but explains the D major chord as the 9th, #11, and 6th. The second chord shows the D major triad in the bass clef but explains the Ab major triad above as the flat-9th, sharp-11th, and 7th.
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Diminished scale theory is usually seen as a dense and confusing topic that is reserved for advanced theory and harmony classes at the university level. Many advanced masterclasses have featured some of the world's greatest musicians talking about how to apply the diminished scale to improvisation and composition. And while diminished scale theory can be a very deep field of study, many students appreciate having a basic understanding of what the diminished scale is and how it is used in music. So in this article, we'll get you started with an introduction to diminished scale theory.
Diminished Scale Theory: What is the Diminished Scale?
The diminished scale has a few different names, including the octatonic scale and the half-whole scale, but they're all the same scale. We'll discuss each briefly.
The diminished scale can be created by stacking two diminished 7th chords a half-step apart on top of one another:
Notice that the scale has eight unique notes, thus the name octatonic (which literally means eight tones). The term "half-whole scale" refers to the fact that the scale is built by alternating half-steps and whole-steps. Starting on 'C,' the scale moves up a half-step, then a whole-step, then half, then whole, etc.
There are really only 3 diminished scales - C, C#, and D. When we build the scale starting on D# we get the same scale as the C diminished scale, as it is just an inversion of the C diminished scale. The same is true for the other remaining starting notes.
Diminished Scale Theory: How Is It Used?
Ok, this is where things can start to get... advanced. The diminished scale has an incredible amount of theory built into just eight notes. We are only scratching the surface with what we're going to discuss below, but what you're about to learn is perhaps the most important part of diminished scale theory and the reason it has so many applications and harmonic potential.
Remember that every 7th chord has a set of guide tones, which refer to the 3rd and 7th of the chord. Guide tones are important because they give a chord its quality - major, minor, dominant. In dominant chords, the 3rd and 7th are a tritone away (an interval of a diminished 5th or augmented 4th). So the big secret about the diminished scale is that it contains 4 sets of tritones, which means... 8 potential dominant chords in this one scale!
Let's find those tritone sets and their corresponding dominant chords in a C diminished scale:
C and F# = D7 chord
D# and A = B7 chord
C# and G = A7 chord
E and Bb = C7 chord
You might be saying, "hey, that's only 4 dominant chords. You said there were 8. What gives?" Remember that every dominant chord has a tritone substitution! When you consider the tritone subs for each dominant chord you get the following:
C and F# = D7 and Ab7 chord
D# and A = B7 and F7 chord
C# and G = A7 and Eb7 chord
E and Bb = C7 and F#7 chord
Also remember that every dominant chord can resolve to its 'I' chord. So consider the harmonic POWER inherent in the diminished scale because it has the ability to allow you to resolve to 8 different 'I' chords. A major scale really only has one (or two at most) dominant chords inherent in the scale.
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In our article "Relative and Parallel Minor," we explained the often confusing terms that are associated with the minor scale. in this article, we will learn the differences, as well as how to construct, the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales.
Many students find it easiest to begin with a major scale and use that major scale as a reference point. We will do the same here. Let's start with an F major scale.
As you can see in the scale above, each note of the major scale is given a number (a scale degree) which represents its placement or order within the scale.
Natural, harmonic, and melodic minor are simply various forms of the minor scale. In other words, they are all versions of a minor scale, with slight but significant differences among each.
In order to create a natural minor scale, we simply start with the major scale and lower the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees by a half-step. In our example above using the F major scale, this means we will be lowering the A (the 3rd) to Ab, the D (the 6th) to Db, and the E (the 7th) to Eb.
The natural minor scale is related to a major scale because it shares the same key signature as a major scale. Looking at our newly created F natural minor scale, we can see that we have 4 flats in the scale, and so the key signature would read Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db. This is the same key signature as the key of Ab major. For this reason we can say that F natural minor is the relative minor of Ab major. (And remember that when in a major key, the relative minor scale can be constructed simply by using the same pitches but treating the 6th scale degree as the starting note).
The harmonic minor scale differs from the natural minor scale in only one way - the 7th scale degree is raised by half-step. In other words, in a natural minor scale the 7th scale degree is a minor 7th, whereas in a harmonic minor scale the 7th scale degree is a major 7th (and will be a half-step away from the root of the scale). When the 7th degree of any scale is a half-step away from the root it is called a leading tone, and so the important difference between the natural and harmonic minor scale is that one has a leading tone while the other does not.
The melodic minor is a bit... weird. In the traditional sense, melodic minor has an ascending form and a descending form, meaning that the notes in the scale changed based on whether you are playing up the scale or down the scale. In practical music performance circles (especially in the jazz world) the melodic minor scale is the same whether ascending or descending.
First the traditional approach: When playing the ascending form of the melodic minor scale, only the 3rd scale degree is lowered by half-step. The scale is the same as the major scale with the exception of the lowered 3rd.
When descending, the scale reverts to the natural minor form.
In jazz circles for example, the melodic minor scale uses the ascending form regardless of which direction one is playing the scale.
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In this article we're going to highlight some specific rhythm exercises that all musicians can use to improve their rhythmic understanding. The really great part about these rhythm exercises is that you can practice some of them away from your instrument, meaning that you can work on rhythmic training while you're at the gym, in the car, at work, waiting in line... anywhere. One excellent app to have on your smart phone is a basic metronome app. There are many free metronome apps available online and we will be using a metronome for these exercises so if you don't have one already it's a good idea to get one.
Rhythm Exercises #1: Basic Rhythmic Subdivisions
This first exercise is an easy one. We're going to start with a steady pulse on our metronome (60-70 beats per minute). Then we're going to simply clap or tap (on your desk, lap, whatever) the following rhythms:
Obviously we're using only whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. But there are a few specific things that we're focused on when we practice this simple rhythm exercise. First, counting. We want to make sure that we're counting along with the beat at all times - "1, 2, 3, 4." And when we get to the eighth notes, we want to count and subdivide by counting "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and." Second, we want to focus on rhythmic precision by trying to be as accurate with our clapping/tapping as possible. Try to make your clap/tap happen at the exact same moment as your metronome click. When clapping eighth notes, makes sure every note is evenly spaced.
Rhythm Exercises #2: Combining Rhythms
In this next exercise, we're going to combine the basic rhythms above in random order. Again, focus on counting and rhythmic precision as you clap/tap these rhythms. (You can also play these rhythms on your instrument, of course). Start with your metronome at 60-70 bpm and gradually increase your speed as you improve. You can read the exercise below backwards to give yourself another challenge or write your own.
We'll start easy and then add levels of complexity. The dotted half note gets 3 beats. Adding this rhythmic value to our list means that we have 5 rhythms thus far - whole, dotted half, half, quarter, and eighth notes. We'll also add more rests to the exercise to really force you to count. Remember - counting and precision.
Rhythm Exercises #4: Dotted Quarter Notes and Single Eighth Notes
When we put a dot next to a note it adds half of the note's value back to the original value of the note. This is why a dotted half note equals 3 beats (2 original beats plus 1 beat [half of 2 beats] = 3 beats). Using this same math, a dotted quarter note equals 1 and a half beats. How do we represent a half beat? With a single eighth note. In order to play/clap/tap single eighth notes and dotted quarter notes accurately and precisely we really need to be counting and subdiving while we play. So make this the primary focus of the exercise below, and understand now how critically important it is to be able to count/subdivide while playing. (We use the "+" sign to represent the "and" which we say when counting the second of two eighth notes).
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In Part 1 of our "Upper Extensions" article we discussed the terminology and theory that students often find confusing when studying this concept. Here in Part 2 we will discuss how and when to use upper extensions by examining a few specific examples:
Available upper extensions;
left hand chords for comping (specific to piano comping);
harmonizing a melody.
Available Upper Extensions
Available upper extensions refer to the particular extensions that can be used on a given chord. Of course you really can use any extensions that you choose. It's all about what sounds good to you, what you want the listener to hear, and what sounds you intend to create. But there are some conventional rules that are important to learn because they are so generally and widely used.
Here is a helpful list of the available upper extensions for major 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th chords:
As you can see, the dominant 7th chord has quite a few altered extensions that can be used, meaning extensions that are either sharped or flatted.
Left-Hand Chords for Comping
The piano player's left hand is often comping, which means playing chords rhythmically in a manner that accompanies the player's right hand. These left-hand comping chords often use upper extensions in the voicing ("voicing" just means the way a chord is spelled). So while you might be accustomed to seeing a C minor 7 chord spelled like this...
...upper extensions allow us to include other available tones, such as (on minor 7th chords) 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths. Here is another way to spell a C minor 7 chord using the 9th:
In the example above we've included the 'C' (the root) in the bass clef so that you can hear the chord in context. Although you would play the chord with your left hand when comping, you may want to play the chord in your right hand and the root of the chord in your left hand when practicing. This will help you get familiar with the sounds of the various upper extensions.
Another possible voicing for a C minor 7 might include the 9th and the 11th, such as this:
As you can see, upper extensions allow for a lot of options, and therefore tone-colors and creativity in our chords.
Harmonizing a Melody
Piano players are commonly harmonizing melodies of popular songs for solo piano arrangements. Using upper extensions can add tremendously to the depth of harmony that we are able to create. Consider this treatment of the first few measures of "Someday My Prince Will Come":
The arrangement above features a simple melody with the left hand playing root position chords consisting only of chord tones. The arrangement below features more of a two-handed approach in which the harmony is filled out with chord tones and various upper extensions included in the voicings:
Play through both of these examples at the piano to get a better sense of how upper extensions can add harmonic depth and color to your chords and harmonies.
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The term "upper extensions" has a very important meaning to musicians, particularly to jazz players. This is because "upper extensions" refers to a jazz theory concept that is critical to jazz improvisation and (for piano players) jazz comping. Sometimes it's not the concept of upper extensions that is confusing but rather the terminology. It might sound silly, but the big words that get used in jazz education, textbooks, and masterclasses can be scary-sounding, resulting in an obstacle to students' learning. But really, upper extensions are quite easy to understand and are part of what creates a sophisticated, professional sound in our improvisation and comping. This article will help you make sense of the terminology, theory, and how/when to use upper extensions.
What Does the Term "Upper Extension" Mean?
Upper extensions refer to notes other than the chord tones, which extend (or add tone-color - i.e., new sounds) to the chord. These notes are called upper extensions because they are referred to by numbers that are above the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th.
A Theory Approach
Let's start simply by looking at a C minor 7 chord:
We refer to the notes which make up a particular chord as the chord tones which, for most 7th chords, are represented by the root/1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th scale degrees. The scale degrees refer to the notes in the order in which they would appear in the scale. So in order to build a C minor 7 chord, we're really plucking the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th scale degrees from a C minor scale:
But what about the 2nd, 4th, and 6th scale degrees that we didn't use when building the C minor 7 chord? Can we use them? Why or why not?
Let's think about the C dorian scale not in 1 octave, but 2 octaves:
When thinking of the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th we think about the first octave of the scale. These three notes are the lower, foundational tones of the chord (think "foundation" = lower, solid structure, like a house). We can, in fact, use notes such as the 'D,' 'F,' and 'A' in a C minor 7 chord. Since those notes are not foundational chord tones, but rather extensions of the chord, we name them as they would be found in the upper (second) octave of the scale - the 9th, 11th, and 13th.
Does that mean that you can't refer to these notes as the 2nd, 4th, and 6th? No, of course not. You certainly can refer to these notes as the 2nd, 4th, and 6th, but in jazz and theory circles you are more likely to hear these notes referred to by their upper extension names - 9, 11, and 13. Sometimes popular sheet music shows chord symbols using the numbers 2, 4, and 6 to indicate extensions because this is generally considered easier for musicians to read. In reality, you should know that both 9/11/13 and 2/4/6 refer to the same extensions, but the more "theoretically pure" answer is that upper extensions are referred to by numbers greater than those used to identify the chord tones.
In Part 2 of our "Upper Extensions" discussion, we'll discuss how and when to use these tones.
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Building off of our previous article (Rhythm Exercises Part 1 - Easy) this article features the next level up in our rhythm exercises. But let's get some important points out of the way before jumping in. First, you really need to be using a metronome for these exercises. Many students think "oh, I have a good sense of time so I don't really need the metronome." Then after struggling to play with the metronome they'll say something like "using the metronome actually kind of messes me up." Well, I hate to break this to those of you who may have said something like that, but that just proves how much you need to work with the metronome. The metronome doesn't lie, so if you can't play in time with it, you can't play in time as well as you think - and that's why we're practicing the exercises presented here. Secondly, you should be counting and subdividing in your head while you play/clap/tap. Set good habits now - counting is essential to developing a strong sense of time. Finally, start slowly and gradually increase your tempo as you improve.
Ok, let's go on to Round 2!
Rhythm Exercises #5: Practicing the Upbeats
This exercise is all about working through single eighth notes and eighth rests. In order to be able to play/clap these rhythms accurately you need to be subdividing and gaining familiarity with the feeling of upbeats. Work slowly, be precise, gradually increase your tempo.
Rhythm Exercises #6: Combining Rhythms
This exercise is more of a check-up to assess your ability to correctly play through all of the rhythmic figures we've discussed thus far. Basically, you should be familiar with the following: whole, half, dotted half, quarter, dotted quarter, and eighth notes (as well as rests). In addition, starting rhythms on the upbeats (what we call the "and" of a beat) requires you to be very comfortable counting and subdividing. This exercise is a bit longer in order to ensure you see a little bit of everything.
Rhythm Exercises #7: Sixteenth Notes
We're introducing the next level of rhythmic subdivisions - 16th notes. Sixteenth notes divide a single beat into four equal pulses, so there are four 16th notes in a single beat. When we count or subdivide 16th notes we use a particular syllable - "one ee and ah" - to represent each 1/4 of the beat.
This new counting and subdivision should be practiced just as before. Start slowly and practice counting through the entire exercise at the 16th note subdivision level. Even though there are other rhythms in the exercise, try counting "one-ee-and-ah, two-ee-and-ah, three-ee-and-ah, four-ee-and-ah" throughout every measure.
Rhythm Exercises #8: Eighth Note Triplets
Eighth note triplets break a single beat into three equal pulses. The difficult part is not in playing or subdividing triplets. The difficult part is going back and forth between breaking a beat into 2 and then 3 equal parts. It is this duple and triple subdivisions that are the real challenge so like everything else - practice slowly, and be precise.
When we subdivide eighth note triplets, we count each triplet by saying "one trip - let":
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What are intervals?
"Interval" is simply the term we use in music when we want to measure the distance between two notes. There are two components to identifying intervals. The first is the quality, whether the interval is major, minor, perfect, augmented, or diminished. The second is the number, whether the interval is a distance of a second, third, fourth, etc.
We'll start by identifying all of the diatonic intervals of the major scale, which refers to the individual intervals within a major scale, starting at the root and measuring up to each degree of the scale.
As you can see, in the diatonic major scale we are dealing with two different qualities: major and perfect.
Of course, the diatonic major scale does not include the chromatic intervals. In order to see every interval within the span of an octave we need to start at a given root (in our example, we'll use 'C') and measure up the octave by increasing a half-step at a time. Doing so results in the following:
The above graphic shows the distance between middle 'C' and every note within the octave, each time adding a half-step and identifying the resulting interval. There is something very important to notice about this graphic however - some of the intervals are repeats of one another, but they are spelled differently. Look closely at the "augmented 2nd" interval and the "minor 3rd" interval. What do you notice?
You should have noticed that 'D#' and 'Eb' are technically the same note - the only difference is that they are spelled differently. In music we call this alternate spelling of the same tone an enharmonic spelling. But if the interval between C and D# is the same interval as that between C and Eb, why do we call one an augmented 2nd and the other a minor 3rd? Why two different names if they are both indicating the same interval?
The answer goes back to the beginning of this article. An interval has 2 components - the quality, and the number (or distance). The distance between C and D is some sort of 2nd. It could be a minor 2nd, major 2nd, or augmented 2nd (referring to the quality), but the distance between any 'C' (i.e., C-natural, C-sharp, or C-flat) and any 'D' (D-natural, D-sharp, D-flat) is always a 2nd. Once we determine the number/distance, we then identify the quality (major, minor, etc). The distance between C and D# is an augmented 2nd. The distance between C and E is some sort of third, and in this instance the E-flat means that the 3rd is a minor 3rd.
Look at some other intervals, such as the augmented 4th and diminished 5th, the augmented 5th and minor 6th, and the augmented 6th and minor 7th, for more examples of enharmonic spellings.
Becoming more familiar with intervals and being able to quickly identify intervals is very helpful to the skill of arranging/composing, improvisation, transposition, and harmonic analysis. You can practice interval identification by simply sitting at the piano, playing two notes (within an octave), and identifying the interval. Be sure to practice in all 12 keys.
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Now that we've examined the specifics of what makes dominant chords special in Part 1 of this article, lets continue by taking a look at a diminished chord and noting some particular observations. What do you notice about this diminished chord?
Well, we could call this a "C# diminished 7th" chord. A diminished 7th chord is created by stacking minor 3rds on top of one another. But there is something more important to note about this chord. It contains two sets of tritone intervals.
Do you see the two sets of tritone intervals, first the C# and G, and also the E and Bb? As we noted before, the presence of a tritone interval should alert us to the possibility of dominant function. This chord has two sets of tritone intervals, so it certainly qualifies as something we should inspect further to see if it is functioning as a dominant chord. We need to ask ourselves "Which dominant chords have the above tritone intervals as their guide tones?" The answer is A7, C7, Eb7, and Gb7. The A7 and Eb7 chords will have the C#/G guide tones, and the C7 and Gb7 will have the E/Bb guide tones. So does that mean that the C# diminished 7th chord can be an A7, C7, Eb7, or Gb7 chord? Well, actually... yeah.
Let's talk about context.
In isolation, with no other music around it, the C# diminished 7th chord above is just that - a C# diminished 7th chord. But let's try putting each of those roots - A, C, Eb, and Gb - in the bass while playing the C# diminished chord in the right hand.
Notice anything? Each of the chords is a dominant chord with a flat 9th. So by playing the C# diminished chord in the right hand and playing a different root in the bass with the left hand, the result is one of four different "dominant flat-9" chords. What that means is that we can treat each of these chords as a "V" chord bringing us to a different "I" chord (and the "I" chord can be either major or minor).
Play these four chord progressions at the piano and notice how each uses the same chord voicing in the right hand while only changing the root in the left hand.
So now, when you encounter diminished chords, consider whether they are actually functioning as dominant chords. And if you're an arranger or composer, you've just learned of a way to have one diminished chord help you to resolve to one of four different "I" chords.
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Diminished chords can certainly have a spooky and nefarious sound, but they also have a lot of functionality. So much functionality, in fact, that besides simply being a diminished chord it can also function as one of four different dominant chords. That’s right, those diminished chords you thought you knew so well have in all likelihood been masquerading as dominant chords in disguise. Want to know how they do it?
OK, first let's talk about guide tones. Every 7th chord (major, minor, dominant, etc.) has a pair of guide tones. The guide tones refer to the 3rd and 7th of a chord. Notice that the guide tones of the three different chords below are unique to each chord, while the root and 5th are the same in each chord.
Notice also that the guide tones for the dominant chord are a tritoneinterval (augmented 4th or diminished 5th) apart. That relationship of the 3rd and 7th being a tritone away from one another is unique to dominant 7th chords. The fact that the root and 5th are unchanged among these three chords is good evidence of how important the 3rd and 7th are to the distinction if each chord (because they are the variables) and often why we (as piano players) often substitute other tones for the root and 5th in our chord voicings (such as the 9th and 13th, respectively).
OK, now let's talk about resolution.
The tritone interval present in dominant chords between the 3rd and 7th is what gives dominant chords the feeling of being unstable, wanting to move or resolve to some other chord (generally its "I" chord). Notice how the C7 chord wants to resolve to its "I" chord, F major. This "V to I" resolution is the strongest and most common in all of music.
Notice that the "Bb" pulls down by half-step to resolve to the "A," and the "E" pulls up by half-step to resolve to the "F." Two things are going on to make this resolution quite strong: First, the movement is by half-step, which is the smallest and strongest motion when moving from one chord to another chord. Second, the movement between chords is by what is referred to as contrary motion,meaning that the notes which are resolving are doing so in opposite directions.
What's the takeaway from all of this information? The presence of tritone intervals in a chord is a big clue to the possibility that the chord has dominant function, even if it doesn't look like a dominant chord at first (because we're about to learn how diminished chords can have dominant functions). When you see a tritone interval in a chord, you should consider that the chord could be functioning as a dominant chord.
There are lots of different things to practice when learning to play the piano. But learning how to play chords on the piano is perhaps some of the single-most powerful information that a student can master. Being able to accurately and quickly find and play all of your major, minor, and dominant chords will tremendously improve your sound at the piano and unlock all of the mystery of fakebooks. This article is going to be more of a compendium (you like that word, right?) that can be used to help you build all of your major and minor triads and 7th chords, as well as your dominant 7th chords. Let's get started!
We're going to discuss 2 different ways to build major triads. In the first approach, we'll talk about plucking select notes from a major scale. In the second approach, we'll use a formula that involves the counting of half-steps. Use whichever approach seems easiest to you.
Approach #1 (In order to use this approach, you DO need to know your major scales/key signatures).
Let's build a D major triad using Approach #1.
First, take a D major scale:
Notice that each note is numbered in the order in which it would be played when playing the scale from low to high. Instead of using the number "1," we call the first note of the scale the "root."
Second, select the root, 3rd, and 5th of the scale:
Third, stack those 3 notes on top of one another and play the notes simultaneously. There you have it - a D major triad!
For this approach, let's build a "B" major chord.
First, start with the root of the chord (i.e., 'B'):
Second, count up 4 half-steps. This brings you to the 3rd of the chord:
Third, from the 3rd of the chord, count up another 3 half-steps. This brings you to the 5th of the chord. Play the root, 3rd, and 5th simultaneously and you have a B major triad!
MAJOR 7TH CHORDS
For major 7th chords, we are simply going to add an additional note to our major triad. Using our two approaches, you can simply add the 7th note of the scale to the underlying triad, or you can count up 4 half-steps from the 5th of the chord (which brings you to the 7th). Let's use our 2 examples above and turn them into major 7th chords.
D Major 7th Chord Using Approach #1
Add the 7th note of the scale to the D major triad. Play all 4 notes together and you have a D major 7th chord!
B Major 7th Chord Using Approach #2
In order to play a minor triad, we simply take the major triad and lower the 3rd by a half-step. Let's look back at both of our major triad examples. In order to turn our D major triad into a D minor triad we simply need to lower the 3rd of the chord by a half-step.
MINOR 7TH CHORDS
Similar to what we did above when converting a major triad to a minor triad, we can start with a major 7th chord and convert that to a minor 7th chord. Let's use our B major 7th chord example from above.
If we lower the 3rd and 7th of the chord by half-step, the resulting chord will be a B minor 7th chord.
DOMINANT 7TH CHORDS
In order to build a dominant 7th chord, we simply take a major 7th chord and lower the 7th by a half-step. If we look at our 2 major 7th chord examples above we have a D amjor 7th chord and a B major 7th chord. In order to create a D dominant 7th chord, we simply lower the 7th of the chord (the 'C#') by a half-step (resulting in a 'C' natural). In order to create a B dominant 7th chord, we simply lower the 7th of the chord (the 'A#') by a half-step (resulting in an 'A' natural).
In order to improve on your ability to quickly build these major, minor, and dominant chords, practice building all three types of chords in all 12 keys and playing them in both the left hand and right hand.
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Have you ever been in a musical environment, perhaps a class, lesson, rehearsal, or jam session, and heard someone use the term "enharmonic"? What does the term "enharmonic" mean?
"Enharmonic" is a fancy word that means something quite simple - an alternate musical spelling. We use the term "enharmonic" in music when we want to point out that there are two ways to indicate the same note, interval, or scale.
Let's take a look at an example of each.
Enharmonic spellings can be used to indicate different names for the same note.
Notice that enharmonic spellings can be used on white notes (of the piano) as well as black notes. Black notes can have a "sharp" name as well as a "flat" name. White notes can also have two names: their natural name and either a sharp or flat name.
Enharmonic spellings can be used to indicate different names for the same interval.
Because the F# and Gb are enharmonic spellings of the same tone (in the example above), the interval of the augmented 4th is audibly no different from that of a diminished 5th.
Because the D# and Eb are enharmonic spellings of the same tone (in the example above), the interval of the augmented 2nd is audibly no different from that of a minor 3rd.
Enharmonic spellings can be used to indicate different names for the same scale.
F# major is exactly the same scale as Gb major, the only difference being the alternate spellings of the degrees of each scale. In other words, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree of the F# major scale are F#, G#, and A#, while the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree of the Gb major scale are Gb, Ab, and Bb. Generally speaking, F# major and Gb major are the only scales that are commonly notated using enharmonic spellings. Both have 6 sharps/flats in the key signature, so most musicians or composers will make the choice as to which scale to use based on personal preference. Other scales can be written using enharmonic spellings, but often the need for things like double-sharps or double-flats makes the enharmonic spelling too confusing and cluttered to be easily read.
Consider the C major scale and its absurd enharmonic spelling, the B# major scale, which you would never encounter in a real musical situation because of how overly complicated and confusing it is to read and notate.
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Now that we have learned to identify the various modes of the major scale, let's turn our attention to how we would use this information in a real-life musical situation. Take a look at the chord progression below:
What information can you deduce simply by looking at these two measures of music? A few things, actually. First, it's important to notice that this is a lead sheet or fakebook style of music, meaning there is no bass clef. That means that the pianist is being asked to "comp" (play chords rhythmically in time with the music) through these measures. Second, there is no time signature, however the "rhythm slashes" indicate that there are 4 beats per measure, so you can infer a 4/4 time signature. And lastly - and most importantly - this is a "ii - V - I" progression, which tells us that this music is in the key of D major (at least temporarily).
Noticing the "ii - V - I" progression is the key to going further in our discussion regarding modes and chord scales. These Roman numerals are what musicians use to indicate harmonicanalysis. What is 'harmonic analysis'? It's just a fancy way of saying "the study of the chords and how they move from one to the next." We use upper-case Roman numerals when the chords are major or dominant, lower-case when the chords are minor or diminished. In the chord progression above, we are talking about three chords, all of which are diatonic to the key of D major (for more information about diatonic chords and Roman numeral analysis, check out this great video lesson which explains these concepts in greater detail).
In a nutshell, we use the Roman numerals to identify a chord's placement in a particular scale (Are you noticing how we're starting to merge this idea of chords + scales = chord scales? I thought you might be impressed). Anyway... Each note in a scale is referred to as a degree of the scale. The first note (D) is the 1st degree, the second note (E) is the 2nd degree, etc. If we are in the key of D major and stack thirds onto each degree of the scale we would get the following:
These are referred to as diatonic chords. Next, we give each chord a Roman numeral name based on its order within the scale (using upper- or lower-case depending on whether the chord is major, minor, etc).
So now you can see that, in the key of D major, a "ii - V - I" progression like the one we have above is simply a shorthand way of saying "Emin7, A7, Dmaj7."
But why all the hullabaloo about the chords and the Roman numerals? Well, because just as the chords have a particular placement within the scale, so too do the corresponding chordscales.
Think about it this way: the "ii" chord in the key of D major is "E minor 7." Now ask yourself, "What is the mode that is built off the 2nd scale degree in the key of D major?" The answer is "E dorian." You can see the obvious relationship between "ii" (the chord) and "2" (the scale degree), so now we're going one step further and asking "What is the mode that is built upon the second scale degree?" Since E dorian is the mode that is built on the 2nd scale degree of D major, we can say that it is the chord scale that corresponds to the E minor 7 chord. It therefore follows that "A mixolydian" is the chord scale that corresponds to A7, and "D ionian" (or D major) corresponds to the Dmaj7 chord.
Harmonic analysis is the language of jazz musicians, composers, arrangers, orchestrators, and educators. Explore these concepts to gain a better understanding of these terms and the music that you're playing!
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Wouldn’t it be fun to go back to school? Recess, lunch with friends, quizzes… Yeah, quizzes. Sounds like fun, right? I was recently putting together a music theory quiz for a new lesson and thought to myself, “I should share this with all of our students out there who are music theory fans.” (I don’t lead the most exciting life).
Take the quiz, check your answers, tally your score, and discover how much of a music geek you are by getting your ranking below. No cheating (this means no internet assistance!) The questions get progressively more challenging.
#1. Which two keys are indicated by this key signature?
#2. Identify this interval?
#3. Name the scale (mode) written below.
#4. Identify the chord below. (Identify the root and quality of the chord - ie, the root of the chord and whether it is major, minor, dominant, etc).
#5. Using Roman numeral analysis, identify (label) the chord progression below.
#6. Using Roman numeral analysis, identify (label) the 4-measure passage below.
#7. Spell a C#m7 chord in 1st inversion.
#8. Rewrite the closed-position F7 chord below in open-position.
#9. Write an Eb harmonic minor scale.
#10. What is a V7/V chord in the key of A major?
Now check your answers, tally up your score, and see where you rank below. Correct answers are 1 point apiece, no partial credit allowed. (It’s all or nothin’ folks).
0 points = “Dunce Cap”
1-3 points = “Stay After School For Extra Help”
4-5 points = “Shows Potential”
6-7 points = “A Pleasure to Have in Class”
8-9 points = “Teacher’s Pet”
10 points = “Valedictorian and a Gold Star!”
#1. A major and F# minor
#2. Minor 6th
#3. C phrygian (3rd degree of an Ab major scale)
#4. Db7 (i.e., D-flat dominant 7th chord)
#5. “ii - V7 - I” progression in the key of G major (ie, Am, D7, Gmaj)
#6. In key of E major: m1 = Emaj (I); m2 = B7 (V7); m3 = Amaj (IV) and Emaj (I); m4 = B7 (V7) and Emaj (I)
#7. Can be written anywhere on staff (treble or bass) but must read in this order (from bottom up): E, G#, B, C#. Example answer:
#8. Answers will vary. Chord must be spread across a range larger than an octave (i.e., an “open-position” or “spread” voicing). Example answer:
#9. Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, D, Eb
#10. “B7” chord
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Probably the most common question I get regarding theory comes from students who want to understand modes and chord scales. This information is very important to jazz players because of the nature of improvisation, a central aspect of jazz playing. Most beginner (and even intermediate and advanced) jazz players are accustomed to asking themselves "What scale or scales can I play over these chords?" Other musicians, such as classical players, arrangers, composers, and orchestrators, want to make sense of what they are playing, how the music was constructed, or what a composer was thinking. It is also must-know information if you enjoy breaking down and analyzing music to better understand how it was constructed or if you're looking for ideas as to how to write music.
In this article we're going to discuss the modes of the major scale and focus on identifying each mode. This is a crucial first step to understanding chord scales and being able to make sense of modal language and terminology. Let's jump in.
Below is a G major scale. We are going to call each individual note of the scale a "degree of the scale" and label them 1, 2, 3, etc., (i.e., scale degree 1, scale degree 2, scale degree 3, etc.) in their order of appearance when playing up the scale. So scale degree 1 is 'G,' scale degree 4 is 'C,' scale degree 7 is 'F#,' etc.
Now, what if we play this same scale again, but rather than start on 'G,' what if we started on 'A'? We are not going to change any of the notes, only the order of the notes, meaning we are going to use all of the same notes found in the G major scale, but simply play those notes by starting on an 'A.' We are going to treat 'A' as the root of this new scale. What would this new scale (below) be called?
Notice that the scale above uses all of the same notes from G major, but treats 'A' as the root of the scale. We have just built a new scale on the 2nd degree ('A') of a major scale (G major scale). This new scale is referred to as the dorian scale, or dorian mode. We can build a scale on each degree of the major scale and the resulting mode will be as follows:
Starting on the 1st scale degree = ionian (this is the same as the major scale itself);
Starting on the 2nd scale degree = dorian (a minor mode);
Starting on the 3rd scale degree = phrygian (a minor mode);
Starting on the 4th scale degree = lydian (a major mode);
Starting on the 5th scale degree = mixolydian (a major, or dominant, mode);
Starting on the 6th scale degree = aeolian (a minor mode, and this is the same as the natural minor scale);
Starting on the 7th scale degree = locrian (a minor mode).
It is important to practice this information in order to get more familiar with it. Here are some practice suggestions:
Write out all the modes in 4-6 different keys;
Practice playing through one particular mode in all 12 keys (i.e., dorian mode in all 12 keys);
Practice playing through all 7 modes in one particular key (i.e., ionian, dorian, phrygian, etc., all in the key of F major).
In Part 2, we'll discuss how to apply this information to a set of chord changes and discuss the relationship between modes and chord scales.
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Learning all of your key signatures is important if you want to master all of your major and minor scales, or if you're someone who enjoys improvising and wants to know about chord scales. Understanding which key you are in is a crucial first-step when learning to play any new piece of music, largely because you want to know in advance which notes will be sharps or flats, as opposed to having to constantly refer back to the key signature for reminders.
Many music students learn this fairly early on in their musical studies, but just in case any of you missed this nugget, I'm going to show you a little trick for reading key signatures.
When you look at a key signature, understand that the sharps or flats read in order from left to right, even though it looks like they are being written in an up-and-down pattern. Take this key signature, for example:
The sharps written here are (in order from left to right): F#, C#, G#, D#, A#.
Here is the trick for finding out which major key you are in when reading a sharp key signature: Find the last sharp. Go up one half-step. This is your major key.
On the example above, the last sharp is A#. Going up one half-step from A# brings us to B. Therefore the key signature written is for the key of B major.
Let's try another one. What is the major key signature written below?
There are three sharps - F#, C#, and G#. The last sharp is G#. Going up one half-step from G# brings us to A. Therefore, this key signature is the key of A major.
The trick for flats is a bit different. For flat keys: Find the second-to-last flat. This is your major key.
Try the flat-key example below.
Reading from left to right, the flats are Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, and Gb. The second-to-last flat is Db. Therefore, this is the key signature for Db major.
This trick will work for all but two of the twelve major key signatures. The exceptions are the key of C major (which has no sharps or flats), and the key of F major. F major has only one flat in its key signature - Bb. And since having one flat means there is no second-to-last flat, this key must simply be memorized.
So get started learning all 12 of your major-key key signatures, and try using this trick as often as possible!
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There are a lot of descriptive terms that are associated with minor scales. For example, you've probably hear the terms "relative" minor, "parallel" minor, "natural" minor, "harmonic" minor, and "melodic" minor. What does it all mean? What are the differences between each? Do I really have to memorize all of them?
Students generally get confused because they lump all of these varieties of "minor" into the same basket. It is much easier to think of these descriptive terms in two separate categories. Relative and parallel minor refer to a tonal center; natural, harmonic, and melodic minor refer to various modes of a minor scale. In this article, we'll make sense of the terms "relative" and "parallel" minor.
Relative minor is related to a major key. the major and relative minor key share the same key signature. Let's take a look at how this works.
Below are two scales, F major and D minor.
Notice that both scales have the same key signature (one flat, Bb). Notice that the individual notes in both scales are exactly the same, the only difference being the starting note of each scale. Because these two scales share the same key signature, and therefore the same individual notes, we call them relative.
The next logical question regarding these related major and minor scales might be, "How do I know which minor scale is related to a given major scale?" The answer is that the relative minor scale is based on the 6th degree of the major scale. Sound confusing? Let's explain.
First, we'll take a major scale, any major scale. In this instance we'll use the key of Ab major, which has 4 flats - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db. Notice that we've labeled each degree of the scale.
The relative minor can be formed by finding the 6th degree of any major scale. In this example, the 6th degree of Ab major is F. So if we play the same scale (with the same key signature) starting on F, we will have played an F minor scale (natural minor).
Parallel minor does not share the same key signature as a major key. The only thing shared by a major key and the parallel minor is the root, or starting note. Let's take the key of D major. The relative minor of D major is B minor, because 'B' is the 6th degree of the D major scale and B minor shares the same key signature as D major. The parallel minor of D major is D minor. The only thing that is shared is the root, or starting pitch.
In order to convert a major scale to a minor scale (natural minor), the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees are lowered by a half-step.
Next, we will discuss the various modes of minor - natural, harmonic, and melodic.
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Playing music without understanding how major triads work is like building Ferraris without caring what's under the hood - you're missing an opportunity to understand one of the most important building blocks of ALL of Western music...major triads!
Thankfully, you've discovered this blog post so that you can now fully comprehend the intrinsic POWER of this little 3-note major triad and wield its limitless potential with ALMIGHTY FURY AND DOMINION!!! Ok, ok. I may have gotten a little carried away there. The major triad is not a way to exert your plan for world domination...(yet). But if you don't already understand how it's constructed, how often it appears in music, and how many different applications it can have, you are in for a treat. Allow me to explain.
The major triad is constructed by using 3 notes: the root, major 3rd, and perfect 5th of any key. If you don't fully understand intervals, no problem. You can build a major triad by starting on any note (called the "root") and counting up 4 half-steps (which brings you to the major 3rd) and then counting up another 3 half-steps (which brings you to the perfect 5th). Play these three notes together and you've just played a major triad. You can now apply this formula starting on every key, and doing so will result in all 12 major triads.
Forming Major Triads
But wait - there's more! Not only can you play these major triads in "root position" (i.e., when the note for which the chord is named is the lowest note in the chord), but you can also mix up the order of these notes and create two inversions.
But hold on! There's even more power behind these major triads! Don't think you have to ONLY play them in 3-note groupings. You can double any of the notes of the major triad to create various sonic textures, resulting in more robust and thicker-sounding chords.
Now let's look at just a few of the many applications in which this powerful little chord can be found.
If we break the major triad up into two parts, playing first the root and then the upper two notes (3rd and 5th simultaneously) we get a waltz accompaniment when played in 3/4 time. Johann Strauss knew this when he used this mighty little chord to compose his famous piece Blue Danube Waltz.
Mozart used the major triad with great success when he wrote his popular little ditty "Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545." He utilized what is known as an "Alberti bass" accompaniment, which simply takes the three notes of the triad and breaks them up into an alternating pattern (lowest note of the chord, highest note, middle note, highest note). Notice in the first measure that the left hand Alberti bass accompaniment uses a simple C major triad, and the melody (right hand) is simply a C major triad with the notes played one at a time.
Maybe one of the most famous classical melodies of all time (certainly the case at weddings), Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel is a piece of ear-candy based entirely on major and minor triads, varying between root position and inversions. Aside from building an entire piece of music on only 4 measures of repetitive harmony, Pacehelbel also gave us a chord progression which has been copied over and over and over... and over again by musicians in all genres of music.
Major triads (and minor triads) are the first step to understanding harmony and chords, which is essential understanding if you want to learn how to improvise, how to read a fakebook or leadsheet, how to transpose, how to use chord scales, or how to compose your own music. For more information on major triads and other music theory topics check out our Music Theory Crash Course, where I talk about these topics extensively and offer quizzes, worksheets, answer sheets, and a corresponding text.
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We recently got an excellent music theory-related question from a student which reflected a misunderstanding of terms that confuse many students and wanted to share it with everyone (because as we all know, if one student has a question, others do, too!)
[From the student]: I noticed the [theory] course does not cover any understanding on left-hand bass accompaniment with modes. I struggle daily trying to practice because I do not know what bass note goes with what mode. For example, how would I know which bass notes to play in a 1-7-3-6-2-5-1 progression? So far, all I have heard is play the 3rd or the 5th. Do you have any other courses explaining this type of bass note accompaniment or theory?
Students get understandably confused when we talk about modes, degrees of the scale, Roman numeral analysis (ie, harmonic progressions), and chord tones. Here, we will try to put all of that confusion to rest.
Modes = scales. "Modes of the major scale" refers to the 7 different modes/scales that we can create by starting a scale on each note of the major scale. Having 7 notes of a major scale means we have 7 modes that can be created from a major scale. (Ex: The notes of a C major scale = C, D, E, F, G, A, B. If we start a scale on C and play the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, we get a "C Ionian scale." If we start a scale on D and play the notes D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, we get a "D Dorian scale." If we start a scale on E and play the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, we get an "E Phrygian scale." And so on.
Degrees of the scale = the individual notes that make up a scale in the order in which they appear when playing the notes of the scale in ascending order. Take an F major scale and play the notes in ascending order = F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F. The first note you play ("F") is the "1st degree of the scale." The fourth note you play ("Bb") is the "4th degree of the scale." And so on.
Roman numeral analysis = the Roman numerals musicians use to communicate harmonic progressions. "Harmonic progressions" is just a fancy way of saying "the order in which the chords happen." So if I said something like "the harmonic progression is I, vi, ii, V in the key of E major," that would be translated as "the chords are E major, C# minor, F# minor, and B major." Notice the similarity between Roman numerals and scale degrees. Both indicate a note's order of appearance in the scale, but scale degrees refer to a particular NOTE in the scale; Roman numerals refer to a particular CHORD that is built on that scale degree. Remember also that scale degrees are spelled with a regular number (ie, "5th" degree of the scale), and Roman numerals use upper-case if major/dominant, lower-case if minor/diminished (ie, the "V" chord in the key of C is a G major chord. The "ii" chord in the key of A major is a B minor chord).
Chord tones = particular notes of a chord. And those particular notes are the root (or 1st scale degree), the 3rd, and the 5th. If the chord is a 7th chord, the 7th scale degree is also a chord tone.
Let's get back to the student’s question. "Bass notes" can refer to anything you choose to play in the bass register (ie, left hand) and doesn't specifically refer to any mode or scale. When asking "which bass notes to play in a 1-7-3-6-2-5-1 progression," I see a couple issues that I need to correct. I would first need to know in which key we are playing in order to answer this question. Secondly, the progression (even though I know exactly what the student means) is technically incorrect because he used regular numbers (which refer to scale degrees) and should have used Roman numerals (which refer to chords).
So let's plug in some information. If we are in the key of G major, which has a key signature of 1 sharp (F#), then I would answer by saying "the bass notes of a I-vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I progression in the key of G major would be G, F#, B, E, A, D, G." Are you able to see what I did there? First, I referred to a specific key (G major) because otherwise the harmonic progression has no context. Scale degrees and Roman numerals must refer to a specific key, otherwise they are merely a formula that could apply to any key. Secondly, I changed the regular numbers to Roman numerals because I know what’s really being asked is "what are the bass notes that would correspond to these CHORDS." One other little thing I did was to use upper-case or lower-case Roman numerals depending on whether the chord indicated is a major or minor/diminished chord.
Now, one last piece of information to bring this all full circle. What are the CHORDS in the above progression? Answer = The chords in a I-vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I progression in the key of G major are: G major, F# diminished, B minor, E minor, A minor, D major, G major. Now maybe what the student was trying to ask is “What are the modes that correspond with these chords?” Ahhh, well that’s a question that introduces a new term - chord scales.
- are scales which contain the notes necessary for creating a particular chord and, in the jazz world especially, improvising over that chord. If I encounter an A minor chord and want to improvise over that chord, I might first want to know which scale would work over A minor. The answer will be a chord scale which contains all of the notes that make up an A minor chord (i.e., the chord tones of A minor) and also fits into the key in which I’m playing. So, if I’m playing in the key of G major and I encounter an A minor chord, I want to find a scale that has all of the chord tones of A minor and fits in the key of G major (i.e., does not use notes outside of the G major key signature). The answer would be a scale which uses the following notes - A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A. But what is this chord scale called? An “A dorian scale.”
Here’s a little twist on that question. What if I encounter an A minor chord while playing in the key of F major? What chord scale should I use to improvise over A minor in this instance? The answer is a chord scale that uses the notes A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G, A - all of the notes of an A minor chord, and also only notes contained in the key of F major. What chord scale is this? It’s an “A phrygian scale.” I hope you’re starting to understand this relationship between chord scales and modes. It’s certainly a little confusing at first, but actually somewhat easy once you get all the music lingo straight.
As always, happy practicing!
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