Analysing Jazz Chords for Rapid Internalisation


in Methods

…Or:  how to learn a number of jazz songs very, very quickly with minimal effort.

Day 97 - Music campI would expect the only reason you are here, if not for casual interest, is because you have an interest in jazz piano?  Being obviously unaware of your own connection to the world of jazz piano, experiences and ability, I can only but write this entry in as general terms as possible without alienating readers at each end of the jazz piano spectrum of ability. 

Thus, I beg of this reader to appreciate that all levels and backgrounds shall set eyes upon this article, some being more or less familiar with the jazz idiom, and that I intend to discuss the title of this article in a way which encapsulates readers from as many backgrounds and ability levels as possible.

That said, let us first acknowledge four norms of jazz numbers (songs) so that we can apply this basic knowledge to every song we confront.  This invaluable awareness will make your memorisation process and repertoire building efforts easy beyond belief.

Please note also that when I say ‘every jazz song' in this article, I actually mean more than 90% and perhaps 99% of the most famous jazz numbers.

The Four Norms of Jazz Songs

1.  Every jazz song contains a particular 3 chord sequence called a II-V-I turnaround.  This can very often be preceeded by a VI chord and this chord can equally as often be preceeded by a III chord.  This means that, from the root chord (C, for example), the chords would be some kind of II (D), V (G) and I (C) chord.  The VI and III would be some kind of A and E chord respectively.

2.  Every jazz song has a transition ‘up a 4th'.  This commonly follows a II-V-I progression.  This can be demonstrated in ‘A Foggy Day'.  The chord sequence for this song is basically:  F, D7, Gm7, C7, F, Ab7, Gm7, C, F… then:  F, Cm7, F7, BbM7, Eb7 <—  this is a II-V-I into Bb (shown in italics), and a 4th jump from Bb to Eb (shown in bold).  This kind of chord progression is very common in a lot of jazz numbers.

3.  Every jazz song begins and ends in the same key.  Despite a ‘second bit' maybe drifting into some different chords, every song will always return to the key in which is started.  Therefore, do not worry about key changes and endless chords.

4.  Every jazz song's melody is strongly based on ‘interesting notes' of what would otherwise be basic chords.  In the song ‘A Foggy Day', the second chord is D7 but the melody is an Eb note which, in the key of D, is a b9, a very nice, soft, luscious chord when used with a dominant 7th chord.  You see?  Melodies quite often highlight nice notes.  ‘Laura', for a second example, begins on the 9th of A, the B.  The first chord is Am7 which becomes Am9-sounding because of the nice melody note enhancing the what was basic chord of ‘m7'.

An Example of Using the Norms

When you next study any jazz number, you will first of all acknowledge the key signature and first chord.  Let's use ‘My Romance'.  This chord chart (and others where you can apply the content of this article for real!) is freely available here:

Key signature is B flat and first chord is also B flat; nice and easy.  Study the notes and see how often the melody ‘intercepts' an interesting note (minor, b5, d7, 9/b9/#9, 11/#11, 13/b13) when counted against the root of the chord in question.  This also helps with improvisation but that is beyond the scope of this particular article. 

For example, the 5th note is an E, against the Dm7 chord, which is a 9th.  Good sound.  On the 2nd F7 chord on the second line, the melody touches a D, the 13th of F.  Also a good sound.  What about the II-V-Is?  The 5th, 6th and 7th chords are a II-V-I, as are the same chords on the second line.  Spot the ‘up a 4th' everywhere, for example, end of 2nd line and all of 3rd!

So, in general, this number is easy to internalise.  The chord ‘numbers' (counted from the root, Bb) go I (BbM7), II (Cm7), III (Dm7), bIII (Db dim) then into a II-V-I.  The D7 written could be played as a4th up, Eb13.  Just as nice.  Then it uses quite a common technique of playing: minor, then mM7, then m7 – it sounds quite latin.  This is on G, which is the VI of B flat.  This goes into a dominant chord of G, still the VI, then another II-V-I.  Easy so far.

Now up a 4th (!) to an EbM7, up a 4th again (!) to Ab7 then to the I, B flat.  Do it again!  Then a common III, VI, II in the key of C (momentarily) and following the II (in C, Dm7), drop down a semitone and again to C which becomes a Cm7 or II of B flat (back into the normal key now), then the V (F7), then the I, B flat.  Of course there is an ending part, but you can do that yourself.

Although all that sounds complicated, you could internalise these three sections in about 2 minutes, go to the piano and play them from memory.  The chord types will come to you secondarily so do not not not try to remember chord types; I promise they will come second nature from some kind of second-memory notion.  Or, you will just hear by sound what kind of basic chord works (M, m, M7, m7) so that you can enhance that at will.

In Closing

So to draw this article to a close, just remember to analyse the 4 ‘norms' to all jazz numbers you wish you learn quickly, then make some effort to remember the song in sections (usually 2 or 3 at the most), in the knowledge that these chord progression sections will more often than not follow incredibly common chord sequences meaning that you will very quickly (after 3 or 4 songs) become so familiar with chord sequences in equally common keys (C, F, E flat, B flat usually) that learning new songs after the first few will be astonishingly easy.

I wish you success in your studies!


Dan has published an inexpensive ebook called “A Philosophical Approach To Jazz Piano” for under $5 USD you can pick up this ebook today: Click Here Be sure to tell him you found it on Music Learning Workshop.




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