The standard Jazz Chords

The most distinctive jazz chords are Imaj7 and IVmaj7. In romantic music alterations of I and IV were quite unusual, but in the twentieth century it actually became the very essence of jazz- and blues-harmonics. Do you remember that in Blues the minor seventh chords I7 and IV7 are used? Well, in Jazz they use the major seventh chords Imaj7 and IVmaj7. So, jazz is UP and blues is DOWN. (In both minor Jazz and Blues, by the way, Im7 and IVm7 are used.)

The standard Jazz Rhythm Scheme is based upon the song I got Rhythm by George Gershwin. Notice that the Imaj7 and IVmaj7 chords are not used in this song; like in blues the extension of I and IV with a seventh was a later development.


As we saw before Gershwin replaced IV with IIm7, and after that in Jazz harmonisation it became almost an unwritten rule to substitute V7 with IIm7 – V7. In Jazz music secondary dominants and secondary (IIm7 V7) are much in use. Especially the so called Coltrane changes are quite interesting. Read more for chords here.


The 12 bar Blues

The 12 bar blues originated in the Deep South of the United States at the end of the 19th century, from spirituals, work songs, and chants, the unaccompanied vocal music and oral traditions of slaves imported from West Africa. The name “blues” refers to the “blue devils”, meaning a depressed mood, melancholy and sadness. Also in the titles of many blues-songs we see this reflected: Go Back to Your No Good Man Blues, Blues and Booze, Prohibition Blues, Mean Old Bed Bug Blues etc…
The standard 12 Bar Blues form is the most common structure of blues music. It’s a cliche, but a very effective one (as much as the melodic emphasis on the blue notes is).

The 12 bars are divided into three four-bar frases, in which only the primary chords I7, IV7 and V7 are being used.

Example in C major


Notice the use of dominant seventh chords I7, IV7 and V7. This became very popular during the dixieland and swing eras (1917-1947), and is now considered one of the basic features of the blues-sound (in comparison with the use of Imaj7, and IVmaj7 in jazz). As we already mentioned before the extension of a triad with a minor seventh is quite an old invention. In the blues it seems that the chords on all degrees are extended with a minor seventh. Another important feature is the plagal chord progression V7 – IV7 – I7 in the last four bars, which as we saw is a common progression in folk music, but was not very popular in classical and romantic music (such as melodies for wedding celebrations, Valentines day, wedding anniversaries, birthdays etc…).
The 12-bar blues scheme can be considered the historical blue-print of blues music. (Jazz music also has such a blue-print. It is the song I got rythm by George Gershwin.)


The Circle of Fifths and Circle Progressions

Circle progressions can be created with the help of the circle of fifths; that’s why they are called circle progressions. They are more complex examples of the use of secondary dominants. If you move counterclockwise within the circle of fifths and use all the notes you pass as root notes of a dominant seventh chord, you have created a circle progression. And this succession of dominant seventh chords, actually form a chain of secondary dominants.


In the picture above we move from B to C, and in doing so we create the circle progression: B7 – E7 – A7 – D7 – G7 – C. Look at this progression and see that every chord change in it is a strong one, and also check that every dominant seventh chord contains the two leading notes to the next chord.


Notice also that this circle progression contains two descending chromatic lines: D# – D – C# – C – B and A – G# – G – F# – F – E. In Jazz music it became a custom not to resolve the leading notes anymore, but play these chromatic lines instead.
Quite modern, don’t you think?

Well, actually it’s not!
In fact this was already done by Renaissance composers. The Fantasia Chromatica by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562 – 1621) is a very early example of the use of circle progressions.


Fantasia Chromatica, J.P. Sweelinck

This fugue is actually based on one of the descending chromatic lines within a circle progression of 4 chords. The fact that it is a fugue makes it all the more exciting, because only when all voices have started (bar 9) the precise chord progression becomes clear. There are also a lot of non chord notes which add to the tension. Exercise: try to find and identify all the non chord notes in this example.



Secondary dominants

Secondary dominants? What’s that?, we hear you ask.
Chord V or V7 is the dominant, can other chords play the same role too?
Yes they can!
As we saw before, in the Minor Harmonic Scale the minor triad Vm was altered to a major triad; the leading note of the major scale was introduced to be able to make the strong chord change V – Im. Already in the Renaissance composers began to add more leading notes to their chord progressions in order to make such strong chord changes to every other degree of the scale. This is how the secondary dominants (S.D.), also called artificial dominants, came into being. This lesson will be about the use of these S.D.’s which are a huge enrichment of the diatonic harmony, and have been an absolute favourite of all composers since the old days.

A secondary dominant is a major triad, or dominant seventh chord, which makes a strong chord change to a chord other than I (or Im in the minor scale), and makes that chord a momentary centre of attraction. Only when it contains a major 3rd a chord can be a secondary dominant, and with a minor seventh added it is even better. To distinguish them from the real dominant the symbols for secundary dominants are placed in between brackets, and a little arrow is attached to them which points to the chord of which it is the S.D.


In the next picture all seven chords of C major are given, each preceded by its own dominant. In the first bar we see the familiar change V7 – I, with in the upper staff the two leading notes of V7 and their solutions (B to C and F to E). In bar 2 to 7 we see the other chords of C major with their secondary dominants.




Cadences are closing formulas, in which the harmony, melody and rhythm, fall into their place at a natural breathing point. The word ?cadence? is taken from the Italian word ?cadere? which means ?to fall?. Up until now we looked at individual notes and their role in the melody and harmony (were they chord notes or non chord notes?). We analysed music at it?s atomic level, so to speak. In this lesson we will focus on the overall song structure. Normally a song has some logical resting points. Musical sounds, like language, are built into clauses, sentences and paragraphs; and a melody also is punctuated by commas, colons, full stops and rests. It can be divided into two or more phrases. A phrase can have any length between 1 and 8 bars (or even longer), but the four-bar phrase is by far the commonest, and therefore has even been called the normal phrase. Normally we find the same subdivision in the harmony. The chord progression is divided into two or more logical blocks which support the melodic phrases, and every harmonic block ends with a cadence.

There are three types of cadences:

  • The full stop.
  • The open ending.
  • The deception.

Lets look at all three of them in more detail.


The full stop

The full stop, also called closing cadence, has a strong sense of finality. It gives a distinctive ending to a piece of music or a section of the music. The listener is in no doubt about the fact that it is concluded.


The open ending

The open ending or half cadence is much weaker than the full stop. It?s is not the end, but rather a comma, after which the listener expects a continuation of the music.


The deception

A deceptive cadence is an authentic progression which does not end on I, but on another chord (most common is VI) which give the impression of surprise.


Harmony of the Minor Scales

You probably already know that there are more than one of them; it actually has three different forms:

– Aeolian, which is the natural minor scale
– Harmonic and
– Melodic

Let’s see what wonderful things you can do with all three of them. We will follow musical history, and therefore we start with Minor Aeolian.


The Aeolian scale

A minor Aeolian is the so called parallel of C major, which means that in this scale exactly the same notes are used as in C major (only the white keys on the piano), and therefore exactly the same chords. But they have other functions within the overall harmony, as you can see in the following picture. In minor, like in major, the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords are the primary chords. In the picture they are accentuated by drawing a nice rectangle around them. And the dim-chord (B-) is accentuated in red.


Now we can see that major and minor are a sort of mirror-images of each other. In C major the major triads (C, F and G) are the primary chords, and the three minor triads (Dm, Em and Am) are secondary chords. In A minor it is exactly the other way around: the minor triads are the primary chords and the major triads are the secondary chords. This means that in A minor the minor triads bear the main functionality, while the major triads are the mediants. (There is also another nice symmetry. The B- triad in C major is the second chord from the right (VII-), while in A minor it is the second chord from the left (II-). This has no musical significance but we still wanted you to see it.)
So. Again we are going to play around with the same seven chords. But because of the fact that in the minor scale they have other functions the result will be quit different.

The Harmonic scale

Next let´s look at the alterated minor scales. In the minor Aeolian scale there is no leading note, and therefore the change Vm – Im is not as strong as V – I. To make the ending more defined (just like in the major key), the logical thing to do was to change the Vm into V (and Vm7 into V7 of course).


The Melodic scale

The harmonic scale has in it an augmented second (flat sixth to sharp seventh, F to G# in A minor harmonic) which is quite difficult to sing and was traditionally considered unmelodic and forbidden. To overcome this problem also the sixth was sharpened. Raising the sixth also gives us the possibility to change the diminished II- into a minor triad.


Minor in Major

As we saw earlier, major and minor are mirror-images of each other. In the harmonic and melodic scale minor was altered to sound more like major by raising of the sixth and the seventh degree. In the same way major can be altered to sound more like minor (Aeolian), by flattening of the sixth and seventh note.


Lowering the seventh gives the possibility to change the diminished VII- into a major triad. So, again we see a nice symmetry between major and minor. In minor melodic all chords except Im and IIm are major triads, and in the major-minor scale all chords except I and VII are minor triads.


Compose your own music with the Easy Song Builder

Compose your own music just by playing around with the Easy Song Builder. This is totaly free music composition software; an extra feature to help you compose songs while you follow the compose music lessons, or just for fun. You can create a song just by listening and choosing. The only thing you have to do is make some choices and push some buttons. That’s all! The program does the rest, it is a sort of artificial intelligence that knows everything about the art of composition.


After downloading ESB, start the program, and follow the instructions in the manual. Choose Lesson 1, this only contains the elements we have discussed so far.
– It generates chord progressions with I, IV and V (and V7)
– Uses non chord notes: passing & auxiliary notes, anticipations, appogiatura’s, suspensions, retardations.
– It actually also uses cadences already, but never mind that, we will discuss them later on.


So, what are you waiting for? Make a beautiful song, and discover and develop your own creativity in the process. Become a music composer yourself. With the soon to be released version 2.0 of the Easy Song Builder you will be able to create your own movie soundtrack, classical or new age music, rock or rap music, latin music or jazz music, brazilian music like Antonio Carlos Jobim used to make, reggae music or any other style from the long list of music genres that are around these days.