The Bill Withers classic song “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a funky R&B standard that has also found a home in jazz circles. This is probably because the song has many traditional elements of jazz present in the song. For example, the song is based on an 8-bar modal cycle that features a minor blues-type of chord progression, using primarily the minor “i, iv, and v” chords (which in the key of A minor represent A minor, D minor, and E minor). Many jazz artists have covered this song, making it a great solo piano piece to add to your repertoire. In this article we’ll learn a powerful harmonic device - drop-2 voicings - and apply it to a portion of this classic song. For the complete arrangement check out our full Standards By the Dozen lesson. 

Drop-2 voicings are used by many jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, George Shearing, George Benson, etc. If you know these names you also know that they are not all pianists. That’s because drop-2 voicings are not exclusively used by pianists but by any harmonic player or arranger - so pianists, guitarists, vibraphonists, as well as arrangers, orchestrators, and composers can all employ this voicing technique. But what is a drop-2 voicing? 

Put simply, a drop-2 voicing typically starts as a 3- or 4-note chord in closed-position and then the 2nd-highest note of the chord is dropped down an octave lower to create an open (or spread) voicing. For example, this is a typical 4-note jazz voicing in closed position (i.e. within the interval/space of an octave):

If we drop the 2nd-highest note of this voicing down an octave lower, what happens?

Well, a couple important things happen. Firstly, the voicing is no longer a closed-position chord but is now a spread (or open-position) voicing, meaning that it occupies a space larger than an octave. Secondly, dropping the 2nd note from the top creates more space at the melody. Notice that in the first example the melody (the ‘A’) was harmonized tightly with the ‘G’ just a whole-step below. But in the drop-2 voicing the melody is separated by more distance between it and the next closest harmonic tone (now the ‘E’), which means the melody will stand out and be heard with more sonic space. When playing an entire melody or phrase with this style the effect will be something like the sound of big block chords with the melody clearly heard. These chords are almost always played across both hands (so anyone thinking they have to play giant intervals in a single hand can breathe a sigh of relief). 

Now let’s take a phrase from “Ain’t No Sunshine” and apply our drop-2 voicings. Here is the original melody:

drop-2 start

Next, we harmonize the melody in 4-part closed-position voicings. The result looks something like this:

start drop-2 voicing work

And lastly we drop the 2nd note from the top down an octave lower, which results in this:

drop-2 voicings

Notice that the left hand now plays the dropped note in the bass clef. Also notice that the final chord of the phrase resolves to a straight-up A minor triad (not a drop-2 chord) in order to create the sound of resolution. Play through this example to hear the difference between the closed-position and drop-2 options, and check out the complete lesson to go even deeper!

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 better 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.

understanding meter 1

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)."

understanding meter 2

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 3

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.

time signature

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 1

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.

jazz theory 2

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:

jazz theory 3

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.

jazz theory 4

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:

  1. What is harmonic analysis?
  2. What are the essential first steps in learning the skill of harmonic analysis?
  3. 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 1

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):

harmonic analysis 2

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:

harmonic analysis 3

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):

harmonic analysis 4

Voice leading. Maybe you've heard that term before in musical circles and not fully understood what it means. Voice leading is not just an interesting topic discussed by musicians, it is an absolutely essential part of playing rock piano. And as luck would have it, you've come to the right place. Because in this article we're going to fully explain what is meant by the term "voice-leading," offer a clear explanation of how and why it is used, and show you some examples.

Voice Leading: What Is It?

Let's break this down one word at a time. The term "voice leading" likely came from choral music, which is generally written for four voice types: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. But believe it or not, the term "voice" in music refers to the part played by any and all instruments, not just the singer or vocalist. So in an orchestra, for example, the violins are considered a "voice," the clarinets are considered a "voice," the trumpets are a "voice." You get the idea. You can have many "voices" within a particular ensemble without ever having a true vocalist.

When we talk about "voice leading" we're talking about the way the individual voices (i.e., instrumental parts) interact and work together to create certain aspects of the music. These aspects include the melody, harmony, and chord progressions. The voices "lead" us from one chord to the next in a smooth, connected way that uses relationships between each passing chord.

So now we know that voice-leading refers to the way in which notes (played by various instruments) move from one chord to the next. But why is that important for rock pianists?

Voice Leading: How Is It Used?

We're talking specifically to rock pianists now. Let's say you're in a band and you're going to rehearse a tune. Someone passes out the sheet music. It's a lead sheet that only has chord symbols written on it. Maybe it looks something like this:

voice leading 1

What do you play?

Maybe you're accustomed to playing something like this:

voice leading 2

The thing to notice about the above example is that every chord is in root position. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing the chords in this way... but, there's not much voice leading being used. Why? Because the chords don't really connect from one to the next. Everything jumps in constant root position with no consideration of moving smoothly (meaning, by small distances) to the next chord. Voice leading requires recognizing relationships between the notes of these various chords. For us rock pianists, that means being able to play INVERSIONS of chords.

In the example below, we're going to play the same chords, but now we'll use inversions of each chord to smoothly move from one to the next. This requires finding common tones between chords, or finding particular spellings of chords that are close in proximity (usually no more than a whole-step) to the notes of the next chord.

voice leading 3

This is actually a very common pop-rock progression which moves down the major scale outlining diatonic chords, and it comes right from our lesson on James Taylor's tune "Your Smiling Face."

The major bebop scale is a very powerful scale that can be incredibly helpful to jazz pianists in a number of ways. It's a tool that can be an excellent device for improvisation as well as jazz arranging. The 8-note scale is built by combining two different chords. In this article we'll discuss the theory behind the major bebop scale and explain how it works. We'll also demonstrate how this versatile scale can be used in arranging a classic Ellington jazz standard.

Major Bebop Scale: The Theory...

The major bebop scale is an 8-note scale. It is built by combining a major 6th chord (root, 3rd, 5th, and 6th), and a fully diminished 7th chord. In the key of C, these two chords would be a C major 6th chord and a D diminished 7th chord.

major bebop scale 1

Notice that the notes that makeup these two chords contain all 8 notes of the major bebop scale.

But why these two chords? Why are they important?

Major Bebop Scale: ...And How It Works

Okay, we have to get into a little bit of music theory in order to understand how the major bebop scale works. In the key of C major the 'I' chord would be C major (seems pretty obvious, right? Stay with me). We know that the V7 chord resolving to the I chord is one of the strongest resolutions in all of music. In the key of C, what is the V7 chord? Answer = G7. Well, the D diminished 7th chord is functioning just like a V7 chord. Actually, the notes D, F, Ab, and B represent the 5th, 7th, flat-9th, and 3rd of a G7 chord. So this entire scale is constructed by using a 'I' chord (C major 6) and a 'V7' chord (G7 flat 9).

Major Bebop Scale: Using It In Practice

Here's a great exercise that shows how this scale can work for you in arranging jazz tunes. Let's harmonize a simple C major scale descending from 'E' down an octave to 'E' using the C major bebop scale.

major bebop scale 2

What can you tell about the example above? Every time we encountered a C, E, G, or A (the notes of the C major 6th chord) we harmonized as a C major 6th chord. Every time we encountered a D, B, Ab, or F (the notes of the D diminished 7th chord) we harmonized as a D diminished 7th chord. In practice what we're doing is creating little mini "V7 to I" resolutions all the way down the scale. And this inherent 'V to I' resolution motion is built into this scale!

Major Bebop Scale: Applying to a Jazz Tune

Let's use the opening bars of Ellington's classic "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and harmonize using the C major bebop scale. Here are the first few measures of the tune:

major bebop scale 3

Applying the C major bebop scale as an arranging technique results in the following harmonization:

major bebop scale 4

This creates a much fuller, denser sound at the piano. Try applying this scale in your own arrangements of jazz tunes, and don't forget to check out our other lessons on jazz arranging.

Transposition is an essential rock piano skill, and a skill that every musician should practice. Transposition refers to the ability to quickly diagnose a piece of music (i.e., a melody, a chord progression) and play it in a different key. Why might transposition be so essential to a musician? Consider a very frequent, real-music experience: You're on a gig playing the piano. The singer approaches and says, "Let's play Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," but let's not do it in D (the original key). My voice feels a little tired - let's do it down a whole-step in C." You've played this tune many times, but never in the key of C. What are you gonna do? Well, if you've practiced the skill of transposition, you're simply going to play it in the key of C - no problem

Transposition Practice: Transposing a Chord Progression

The opening chord progression of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" is based around two chords: D major and G minor 6 in measure 1, then D major and G major in measure 2.

Transposition 1

One of the easiest ways to transpose this chord progression is to do some quick harmonic analysis. Since we're in the key of D, we analyze the D major chord as the 'I' chord, G minor as the 'iv,' G major as the 'IV' chord.

Transposition 2

Following this same formula, we simply play the same chords in the key of C. The 'I' chord is now C major, the 'iv' chord is F minor, and the 'IV' chord is F major.

Transposition 3

Transposition in this manner does require that you know your key signatures and diatonic chords (i.e., the 'I' chord is always major, the 'ii' chord is always minor, etc). But with a little practice you'll see that it's quite easy to move chord progressions to different keys, especially simple chord progressions consisting of just a few chords.

Transposition Practice: Transposing a Melody

Transposing a melody is very similar to transposing a chord progression. Let's take a look at a basic melody and do some quick analysis.

Transposition 4

The melody above is the first 2 bars of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Very simple. But if we look at what's going on with the melody we can analyze it and copy that formula in another key.

Transposition 5

So we're starting on the 1st degree (C), moving up to the 5th (G), and then the 6th (A), before returning to the 5th. If we know our major scales, we can repeat this same melodic movement in any key. Let's try transposing this to the key of Gb major. Transposition 6

Although this is a simple example, the process works in the exact same manner with more complicated melodies. Spend some time practicing transposition and developing the skill. If you play in a band or with other musicians regularly at some point you're going to be asked to play something in a different key, and the skill of transposition will come in very handy.

The tritone is a very common device used in the jazz and Great American Songbook repertoire. It's responsible for some of those very interesting, authentic jazz harmony sounds that sets jazz apart from other genres. But although the tritone (also known as the tritone substitution) is common in jazz and cocktail music it is often seen as confusing and difficult to understand. And of course, if you don't understand something you're going to be hesitant to approach it or try to use it. In this article, we're going to clear up that confusion by explaining:

  1. What is the tritone and tritone substitution? and;
  2. How does it work (what is the theory behind it)?

What is a Tritone?

A tritone is actually an interval. That's right - a tritone is simply a specific distance between two notes, and in music we measure distance in terms of intervals. The tritone interval is another way of referring to an augmented 4th or diminished 5th. (An augmented 4th is really the same thing as a diminished 5th, just a different way to spell the same interval).


What is a Tritone Substitution?

This is where the confusion usually begins for students. A tritone substitution is the process of replacing one dominant 7th chord with another dominant 7th chord located a tritone away from the original. We're only talking about dominant 7th chords, not major or minor chords.

So let's plug in some variables. Consider a "ii-V-I" progression in the key of C major (Dmin7 - G7 - Cmaj7). We can substitute the G7 chord with a different dominant 7th chord. In order to know which dominant 7th chord we have to know the note that is a tritone away from G. In other words, what note is a diminished 5th (or augmented 4th) away from G? The answer is Db. So we can replace the G7 chord with a Db7 chord, resulting in a progression that reads Dmin7 - Db7 - Cmaj7.

How and Why Do Dominant Chords (and Tritone Substitutions) Work?

Keep in mind that dominant chords want to resolve to their 'I' chord. There is inherent musical tension inside a dominant chord that makes it feel unstable. Dominant chords have a musical pull to their 'I' chord. What gives it this pull? The guide tones (the 3rd and 7th of a chord) want to resolve by half step (called voice-leading) in contrary motion. This half-step/contrary motion is some of the strongest resolution in music. Consider the G7 to C major chord progression below:


So the 3rd and 7th of the G7 chord are the two notes which are responsible for the function of a dominant chord. Those are the notes which pull the dominant chord to their resolution on the 'I' chord. Notice anything that the G7 and Db7 chord have in common? That's right, the 3rd and 7th are the same in both chords (B and F = 3rd/7th of G7, 7th/3rd of Db7). And since the guide tones are the same, the inherent tension functions in the same way, allowing both the G7 and Db7 to pull to the C major chord in the same manner.




In this article we're going to challenge your understanding of jazz arranging techniques. We'll start off with a really common chord progression and then tweak it step-by-step, sprinkling in some of the common jazz arranging tricks of the pros. The chord progression is fairly simple - it's from the Bobby Hebb tune "Sunny," which has been covered by many jazz artists, jam bands, and soul/R&B groups. The first step, of course, is to listen to it. Check out the original (link above), but also Stevie Wonder's version, Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones, and John Scofield/Pat Martino/Joey DeFrancesco.

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 - "Sunny": The Original Chord Progression

Here's the progression. The entire tune is pretty much just a 4-bar vamp of these chords (although most versions modulate to various keys during the performance).

Jazz Arranging 1

Play through this chord progression at the piano in time with your metronome. I'd suggest being able to play at about quarter note = 120 beats per minute.

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 - "Sunny": Creating a "ii-V" Progression

Let's start at the end. The B7 chord helps this 4-bar phrase repeat back to the Em7 chord by acting as a "V to i" progression. We can add a chord to turn measure 4 into a "ii - V" progression, ultimately resulting in a "ii - V - i" by the time we get back to Em7. Notice that we're dealing with a minor "i" chord, not major. For this reason we'll want to use a "ii - V" in minor mode, meaning our "ii" chord should be a "minor 7 flat 5" chord - F#min7 flat 5.

Jazz Arranging 2

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 - "Sunny": Using Tritone Subs

Now we start getting to the fun (and advanced) stuff. We can use a tritone substitution wherever we see dominant 7th chords. Looking at our progression we see a G7 chord in measure 2 and a B7 chord in measure 4. Remember, the tritone substitution works because the guide tones (3rd and 7th) of both the original and tritone sub chord are the same. So we can insert a Db7 chord for the the G7, and an F7 chord for the B7.

Jazz Arranging 3

Of course, we don't have to use a tritone sub in both places. We can choose to:

  1. Not use a tritone sub at all, or;
  2. Use a tritone sub in only one of the two measures, or;
  3. Use a tritone sub in both measures, or;
  4. Use both the original chord and the tritone sub in both measures in whichever order you prefer (which requires making each chord a single beat, as below).

Jazz Arranging 4

The lesson in this step is: consider how many harmonic possibilities you've just created!

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 - "Sunny": Inserting a Slick Chromatic Passing Chord

Now let's add a chromatic passing chord in measure 1 to help us get from Em7 to Dm7 in measure 2. This is a common device used by jazz players. All that we're really doing is inserting a minor 7th chord that ultimately creates three parallel minor 7th chords in a row. Of course, we need to adjust the rhythm a bit, too.

Jazz Arranging 5

Besides just comping, consider how many different options you have for soloing now that you've recognized the variety of chords you can choose from.

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:

Upper Extensions 1

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:

Upper Extensions 2

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:

Upper Extensions 3

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.

Upper Extensions 4

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.

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.

natural harmonic melodic minor 1

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.

Natural minor

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.

natural harmonic melodic minor 2

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).

natural harmonic melodic minor 3

Harmonic Minor

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.

natural harmonic melodic minor 4

Melodic Minor

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.

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When descending, the scale reverts to the natural minor form.

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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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Pedal tones are usually thought of as a jazz topic that is reserved for advanced study. That's sort of ironic because they can be incredibly simple and easy to use. And what's best is that when used properly (which we'll discuss in a moment) they can be hugely effective, giving the music a little bump or shot of excitement that is sometimes needed. Pedal tones are often not understood and so students generally shy away from using them. But soloists, comping instruments (that's us pianists), and singers LOVE them! So let's check out some ideas for using pedal tones in your playing.

Pedal Tones: What Are They?

Put simply, a pedal tone is a sustained note, typically in the bass, that is held or re-sounded while other harmonies are moving above. For pianists, this is a harmonic device - meaning we use it when thinking of chords in a comping setting. To put this into piano-specific terms, an example of a pedal tone would be if you played and held a 'G' with your left hand in the bass register of the piano while playing a variety of chords in your right hand.

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In an orchestral setting, the pedal tone might be played by a number of instruments, for example the low brass or low strings. Other instruments might outline the chord progression or melody above the pedal tone.

So that's it, right? A pedal tone is just a sustained note held underneath whatever chords or harmony are going on above. And I can just use any note as a pedal tone whenever I feel like it, right? Well, not exactly.

Pedal Tones: How Are They Used?

Pedal tones build musical excitement and suspense because they create tension and at times dissonance. This tension and dissonance (and eventual release) is what gives the music a little shot of adrenaline when we hear pedal tones being used. But knowing when to use them is key. Because if used too frequently, or in a place where the music really needs to have the roots played beneath the chord, pedal tones can create a sense of cacophony.

So let's talk about some places - in a cocktail piano setting - where it's a really great idea to get comfortable using pedal tones.


Pedal tones can work great under a "ii - V - I - vi" progression, which is a very common progression used in jazz intros (and endings, and everywhere else in jazz).

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The idea here is that you can use it as a continuous loop, repeating the progression as an intro until ready to start the song.


Static chords are chords that sit for a long time without going anywhere (i.e., modal tunes like "So What"). So if you have a chord that lasts for a few measures, try using a pedal tone and playing a variety of chord shapes above it.

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Now that you know what pedal tones are, listen closely for them in recordings of jazz standards. For example in "All the Things You Are," it's very common to use a 'D' pedal tone on measures 17-20 and a 'B' pedal tone for measures 21-23.