Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

What Do J.S. Bach and Charlie Parker Have In Common?

Rick Beato has a neat YouTube channel he calls Everything Music. I haven’t had the chance yet to watch more than this one, but it’s a really nice discussion about octave displacement.

In this episode of Everything Music we will explore what Bach and Charlie Parker had in common which was octave displacement. It is a way for you to make your melodies more interesting and more intervallic. It will also give your lines much more interesting shapes.

Learning Jazz Language

I came across a very interesting article by Bill Plake on his website called “The Problem With Studying the “Jazz Language.”

The other morning I was giving a first lesson to a jazz guitarist ( a university student) and was struck by something I notice quite often: Young jazz students spending a seemingly disproportionate amount of practice time learning and memorizing jazz lines and improvised solos.

When I asked this musician what he practices, he said that most of his practice time is spent learning new tunes, heads (like Donna Lee, Milestones, etc) and transcribing and playing improvised jazz solos by the “masters”.

Plake’s observations were that this student, and many others, spend so much time trying to absorb the jazz language that they end up playing in an unoriginal style, the student’s improvisations sound stilted and disconnected from an emotional standpoint.

If you examine the work of the great innovators in jazz they all had one thing in common: They redefined, edified and expanded the so called jazz language. Sure they might have spent quite a bit of time copying other players and learning tunes and heads and so forth.

But they also did one other very important thing. They spent the vast majority of their time improvising (truly improvising) to find what they had to say as artists. In fact, many had to actually ignore the jazz language of their time. They needed to free themselves from it in order to find a more personal expression.

From a pedagogical perspective, I have some quibbles from it. First, not everyone’s goals are going to be a major innovator. For many jazz musicians it’s more important to them to be able to play convincingly in a style or directly imitate players they admire. This might be particularly important to musicians who want to specialize in a particular style period of jazz. For example, I play a lot of early jazz styles these days and with one group in particular we often perform music as an almost exact recreation of certain recordings, even to the point of playing the same solos note for note. I’ll come back to this point and my thoughts on avoiding sounding stilted when you do this, but Plake’s advice is worth more detailed consideration.

It’s important to keep in mind that, if you’re an improviser, your also a composer. You compose spontaneously, but you compose nevertheless. So follow the path of great composers. Study the tradition. Absorb and understand what has been created before you. But get down to the business of finding out who you are.

In my experience both as teacher and performer,  I’d say you’re best off giving this top priority, even when you’re at the stage of development where you’re mimicking and studying others. Don’t wait for some magic moment of creative maturity. You’re ready right now. Cultivate those moments every single day, no matter what level of proficiency you’re at. Make the music yours.

My preference here is to follow Hal Crook’s advice on practicing improvisation. In a nutshell, you select one or two topics at most and focus your practice only on those topics during that session. However, at the end of that session you must forget everything that you just worked on and improvise, letting the spirit and mood of the music move you.

I emphasized the later part of that sentence myself. When you practice this, and you should do this every time you practice your improvisation, you need to take some time practicing as you want to perform. Ideally in a performance you want to be focusing on expression and musicality, not technique or licks. If you don’t spend time practicing like you perform, you’re not going to effectively be able to pull that off in a performance.

That’s not to say that this should be, in my opinion, the major focus of all your practice. I would argue that since you don’t want to multitask when you practice (or perform) you should always evaluate what you are trying to improve and not worry about playing with expression or musicality if you’re trying to strengthen a different aspect of your playing. Every individual is going to have different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities, and require different amounts of time splitting practice time between technique, facility with scales and chord changes, stylistic vocabulary, etc., but everyone needs to spend some time stretching out and “going for it” while improvising.

Poke around on Bill Plake’s web site. There are many other articles he’s put up there that are worth reading and I’m sure I’ll post more links and my thoughts here later.

On Learning the “Classics”

I recently came across an interesting blog post Ronan on his Mostly Music blog. This post, entitled 21st Century Bebop, asks some good questions that jazz educators might want to consider.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills – playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn’t been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past?

Years ago, when I was still teaching in academia, I was sitting in on a juried recital for a drummer jazz studies major. He was accompanied by a couple musicians that he played around town frequently with and they seemed to draw the music primarily from the tunes they play on their gigs. The performance was excellent, but I was concerned about the lack of variety I heard. Afterwards, I commented to the student’s studio instructor that I wanted to hear something in the swing style and was confused when he insisted that there was. It took me a moment to realize that while I was talking about a jazz style and repertoire from the 30s and 40s, his instructor was thinking of something that had swing 8th notes.

It still seems strange to me that an undergraduate student completing a bachelors degree in jazz studies would go through 4 years of higher education and not be required to demonstrate a familiarity with performing in jazz styles developed prior to the 1950s or 60s. Perhaps it’s my professional bias as a trombonist to find myself performing traditional jazz and swing styles more than a drummer might, but I see a familiarity with the history of the style to be more than simply being professionally ready to play a gig where you need to play in a non-contemporary jazz style. Ronan addresses this too.

So – technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

I would take this a step further. I may be misremembering who exactly said this (and I may even be making this up entirely, but the point is still valid), but I think it was Wynton Marsalis who said it’s equally important for jazz students to get experience learning to play “classical” music as well. First, the pedagogy and practice on development of instrumental technique has been refined already with classical studies to a point that I still don’t see with jazz methods. The skill set you will learn from performing a classical recital or performing in an orchestra or concert band is going to benefit in a way that playing in a jazz combo just can’t provide. For example, if you’re performing a solo concerto you are going to have to have the chops to make it through all the movements and play what’s on the page, whereas when we improvise we unconsciously make choices that we already have the technique to play. Classical music challenges jazz musicians to improve their skills and become familiar with phrasing, articulations, and other nuances that you just won’t get playing contemporary jazz.

And, for that matter, I make the same argument for classical musicians learning to improvise and become familiar with jazz styles. I’ve listened to and played many pops concerts and noticed how uncomfortable the classical musicians sounded trying to phrase and articulate jazz and pop styles.

Of course we’re all going to have our personal preferences and strengths. There are some musical styles that I have little to no interest in learning to perform and others that I have made a conscious effort to become as good as I can playing. However, my experience has been that becoming a well rounded musician has been beneficial to performing in my preferred styles. Furthermore, my abilities as a “musical chameleon” have made it possible for me to work successfully as a professional musician and music educator in a wide variety of situations that many of my peers cannot.

Why Is Sheet Music Necessary For Music Education?

Robbie Gennet, a “songwriter, musician, educator and journalist,” tried to make the case that learning to read music notation is irrelevant for music education. His case is that none of the following musicians learned to read music:

All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.

Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:

As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.

He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.

Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.

I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.

Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Upcoming Gigs and Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of upcoming public gigs coming up in the next three days. Tomorrow, (July 19, 2014) I’m playing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at a lindy hop dance called The Process in Richmond, VA. I’m afraid I don’t know more of the details about the dance, but if you’re a swing dancer in the area or just a fan of trad jazz you can probably get in touch with someone through that Facebook link above. Next Monday, (July 21, 2014) I’ll be sitting in again with the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band. We’re playing at Grille 33 in Greenville, SC. If you get to come out to either, please be sure to say hello to me.

If you’re too far away to come hear me play, here are some of my music related links for your weekend surfing.

Nikolaj Lund is a photographer who takes photos of classical musicians and puts them into a unique perspective. Take a look at some of them on his web site.

Hal Crook is a fantastic trombonist, composer, and the author of some of my favorite books on jazz improvisation. The Berkley College of Music, where Crook is on the faculty, has posted a downloadable library of play-a-long tracks Crook put together for improvisation practice.

An old manifesto from 1992, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz urges musical organizations that It’s Time to Bury the Dead. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite.

Is there anything new on the menu of the Vermont Mozart Festival or the Killington Music Festival? Does either the professional or amateur musical community of our state and beyond show any commitment at all to the music of their own age? Indeed, does the listening public have any clue what a wealth of music is consciously and maliciously being denied them? No, no, no and no. Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers –composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

To finish things off today, here’s Oleg Berg’s treatment of the classic Beatles recording Hey Jude, but tweaked to put it into a minor key. One of the things I love about great music is that it is often still strong when it gets twisted around like this.

Moving to Music: Science Offers Suggestions on How to Groove

Researchers Maria A. G. Witek, Eric F. Clarke, Mikkel Wallentin, Morten L. Kringelbach, and Peter Vuust have recently published an article investigating the relationship between rhythmic complexity and the human instinct to move our bodies to the music. The article is called Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music.

Moving to music is an essential human pleasure particularly related to musical groove. Structurally, music associated with groove is often characterised by rhythmic complexity in the form of syncopation, frequently observed in musical styles such as funk, hip-hop and electronic dance music. Structural complexity has been related to positive affect in music more broadly, but the function of syncopation in eliciting pleasure and body-movement in groove is unknown. Here we report results from a web-based survey which investigated the relationship between syncopation and ratings of wanting to move and experienced pleasure. Participants heard funk drum-breaks with varying degrees of syncopation and audio entropy, and rated the extent to which the drum-breaks made them want to move and how much pleasure they experienced. While entropy was found to be a poor predictor of wanting to move and pleasure, the results showed that medium degrees of syncopation elicited the most desire to move and the most pleasure, particularly for participants who enjoy dancing to music.

The results suggest that if your goal is to make music that will make people dance you need a certain amount of rhythmic complexity, but your music needs to have gaps of silence. As listeners we naturally want to fill those gaps in some way, such as clapping our hands, tapping our foot, or dancing.

Daniel J. Levitin was interviewed for an NPR report on this article. He comments on the why music with rhythmic complexity seems to be better for dancing, because there’s a lot more for us to latch on to and move with.

The more rhythmically complex the music is … the easier it is to engage different body parts,” Levitin says, “because they can be synchronizing with different aspects of the music.”

Of course, this is something that many other musicians have been experimenting with for a long time. One of my favorite authors on the topic of jazz improvisation, Hal Crook, wrote:

Surrounding ideas with rest gives them shape and definition, in much the same a frame or brier defines a picture inside. It allows time for the effects of the ideas to be heard, realized and appreciated by the audience, the band, and most of all, you – the player.

I think these ideas hold true for a lot of music, not just music with an emphasis on groove. I’ve often felt that one of my best tools as a composer was my eraser. It’s easy to get caught up in writing down all my ideas, rather than basing my compositions around just the really good ones. In the end, you can say more by playing or composing less.

So my musical challenge for everyone this week is to practice with your attention on the silences. If you’re practicing jazz improvisation, intentionally use a lot of space in your solo. Try experimenting with some composition ideas that utilize a lot of silence. For the classical musicians, pay very close attention to how often the rests make a piece more expressive and practice musicality with that in mind.

Report back if you discovered something interesting or just felt like it was a waste of your time. Leave your comment below.

Marc Sabatella on the Harmonic Language of Standards

Mick, a trumpet/cornet playing friend of mine, and I were recently talking about jazz harmony. A while back Mick found a great resource on common patterns in traditional jazz (I wrote about it here, but the original page seems to have been deleted). That blog and our conversation reminded me of something put together by pianist Marc Sabatella called The Harmonic Language of Standards.  Sabatella’s discussion on jazz harmony was required reading for my jazz improvisation students. I think it’s a great summary of the harmonic language of jazz standards.

While only a summary of his more in-depth book, you can get quite a bit out of reading what Sabatella has made available for free on his web site. He has put together a very complete list of common chord progression patterns in a section about functional harmony. In my opinion, one of the most useful parts of it are Sabatella’s breakdown of common idioms. He divides basic chord patterns into five categories – cadential progressions, pre-cadential progressions, static progressions and turnarounds, transitional progressions, and modulations.

Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each.

An understanding of these types of chord patterns really helps me memorize chord progressions because instead of thinking so much about individual chords I’m thinking of broader chord patterns. It also helps you come up with some new ways to think about chord progressions and reharmonizations.

Sabatella mentions an example he uses on how to apply these principles to composition.

I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.

This is a great exercise for composers. Take a tune you know and break down the chord progression by the common idioms. Make note of certain key centers and using those as a goal, write a new chord progression that continues to maintain the road map of common idioms. For example, if you take the A sections of rhythm changes you might start your A section on the tonic, write a static chord progression for three measures, transition to the IV chord in measure 4, then cadence back to I in measure 6. A static chord progression for 7 and 8.

Just to demonstrate, I came up with the following by intentionally being a little goofy with it and in the process I bent some of the parameters from the rhythm changes A sections. I often compose chord progression in this way, with target harmonic goals in mind and then try out different things randomly until I get something I really like. My solution:

|Bb7 Db7 |Cm7 Eb7 |Dm7 A7 |Abm7 Db7 |Eb7 E7 |Eb7 B7 |Bb7 Db7 |Eb7 Ab7|

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Not the greatest there is, but there’s some potential in there. Maybe I’ll come up with a bridge and a melody for it too and see what it develops into.

Try it out yourself. Read through Marc Sabatella’s Harmonic Language of Standards and then try reharmonizing standard chord progressions using those common idioms as a road map.