The purpose of our ongoing Melodic Ear Training series of classes is to get your ears opening up. Peter Bernstein once told me that if my ears are growing, my musicianship is growing. Too often we think of "ear training" as something we do for a college class where we have to memorize the sound of intervals using nursery rhymes and famous songs we recognize. But that stuff isn't going to rub off on how we're hearing music IN THE MOMENT when we're improvising. At least not if we don't commit to it for years.
But there ARE practices we can take to begin developing our ears and our ability to hear music more clearly. To connect in a more personal way with the sound of each note. Imagine your phone rang and without looking at the screen you picked it up and said, "Hello?"
How many people do you know that could respond by saying, "Hi _______ (your name)," and you would immediately know exactly who they are. Just by the sound of your voice. THIS is the level of ear training and sonic recognition we want to develop. We want melodies and chords to be that familiar. You might be thinking... not possible. Only people with perfect pitch can do that. To an extent. That certainly helps. But can you hear a triad and know whether it's a major triad or a minor triad without singing a song to figure it out? Do you have to stop and think and try and isolate the 3rd in your mind and compare it to songs you already know? Or can you just hear that one is bright and happy and one is dark and sad?
This is how we want to become with melody and harmony. And in these jazz guitar lessons, we will explore ways to practice towards that end.
The greatest jazz improvisors and composers have always been masters of developing melodic phrases. When we listen to them it’s rare that we ever hear something that simply sounds like a scale pattern or a sequence. Not that they aren’t using those ingredients in their playing… but that when they do use them, they’re serving a larger purpose. One that’s about telling a story where they’re sharing ideas, themes, and using lyrical phrases to express something much deeper than pitches can take us… humanness.
To me, once we cross the boundary of beginner into intermediate guitar playing, we should start putting more and more of our attention on how to begin working towards this. The usually approach to learning is to spend decades shedding scales and arpeggios and performing tunes, cross our fingers, and hope that one day the music gods will grant us entrance into the magical world of high tier musicianship. Screw that. Why sit around waiting to see what might happen? And even more absurd… why sit around wasting decades never being sure if you’ll get what you’re after musically? Start working on it. Understand the end goal of what you’re after in the big picture, reverse engineer it, break it down into practical baby steps, and start taking those baby steps as frequently as you can. Yes, some elements of this process will remain out of your control, and you’ll get to enjoy the process of watching them unfold and surprise you with what happens. But this will at least give you SOME element of control over your progress, and you’ll get to start seeing elements of this human-based musicianship start popping up in your music much sooner in your journey than you would if you didn’t focus on these elements consciously during your practice time.
One of the best things you can do is to begin breaking through the music theory of it all, learn to develop your ears to HEAR the emotions and desires of individual notes (there are only 12 of them in any give tonal situation), and start getting used to playing thematic, lyrical phrases using those emotions. Not trying to cram all of your coolest tricks into every phrase, but removing yourself and your ideas about what WOULD BE cool (intellectually) from the picture and giving the note themselves room to breathe and exist and tell their story. As you get better at this skill, you’ll find “your” ideas don’t really feel like “yours” anymore, and they will happen spontaneously and naturally. You’ll also notice that you’re able to improvise melodic ideas that sound musical in a much more consistent way than ever before.
For today’s lesson, we’re focused on the sound available to us when we take a minor triad and add the tension 2. Specifically, we’re listening to a G minor triad + A. See if you can find this shape on the fretboard on your own first. Then look at my notated version to double check your work… or if you just need a hand.
As quickly as you can, we want to get away from running up and down this “4 note scale” and start taking advantage of the clear divide between the melodic triad - which will create the sensation of melodic stability - versus the tension 2 - which will create the sensation of melodic tension. As you get to HEAR this point of tension and how it wants to resolve back into the G minor triad, focus on playing less notes, using more empty space, and developing phrases and thematic ideas instead of running up and back through this set of notes like a scale or an arpeggio. As you explore this type of phrase-based improvisation with the different tension notes possible, you’ll start to develop a more intimate relationship with the sound and emotion of each note and will begin developing a personal vocabulary with a more human and storytelling type quality.
Give it a shot and see what you come up with.
I’ve often heard that all chords in jazz harmony can be classified as either Maj7 min7, or dominant7. If you’re a fan of Barry Harris’ teaching, you might also be familiar with the idea that the “real” major tonic is a 6 chord, not Maj7. That the Maj7 is derived by borrowing a note from the related diminished chord from his 6th diminished scale. This means that the major 7th of the chord will naturally want to resolve either up to the root or down to the 6 of the chord.
These two theories are sort of at odds with each other. On one hand we have Maj7 being presented as the primary major chord available, on the other hand we’re being told that the Maj7 is actually a mutation of the 6 chord. That the 7th is actually a diminished, or tension note which will want to resolve back into the “real” sound of major.
It might seem like we need to pick a side in this argument.
I chose the side where both sides are equally right.
If you’ve studied tradition music theory, not any kind of modern jazz concepts, just basic old classical theories, you probably know about the importance of the 7th degree of the scale. It’s such an important note that we give it its own name - the leading tone. It CRAVES resolving up to the root note of the key. It’s one of the most intense tension notes we have in western music. This idea aligns really nicely with the Barry Harris system of harmony where we view the major 7th of a major chord as a tension note that ultimately wants to resolve away due to the fact that it comes from the related fully diminished 7 chord.
However, there is something undeniable about the character and quality of an actual Maj7 chord. For example when we hear the pick-up notes in the standard, Misty, which descend down, skip over the Eb note and resolve, instead, to the D note over the EbMaj7 chord in measure 1. If you listen and pay attention, this note doesn’t feel the need to go anywhere. It doesn’t feel unstable. It feels solid and stable… ‘In’. In fact I’ll go one step farther and say that if you’re playing the melody and reach that D note, if you attempt to move it up a half step to the Eb note and are really listening, you’ll likely feel unsettled. It will sound almost ‘wrong’. Despite it being the root note of the EbMaj7 chord, it will actually feel unstable and will want to pull back down to D, the major 7th.
This leads me back to my view on this issue. I think both school’s of thought on this topic are right. I think there are two, fundamentally different types of major chords. I refer to them as Major7 and Pure Major.
Maj7 includes any chord where the 7th is present - Maj7, Maj9, Maj7#11, Maj13, etc. Pure major includes any chords where the 7th is not present - 6, 6/9, sus2, add2, etc.
The main difference for implying these two different types of major chords melodically is this; with Pure Major, the major 7th is a tension note and wants to resolve somewhere else - in Major7, the major 7th is actually a critically important, melodically stable note, and the root note of the chord will want to resolve down into the 7th.
Check out the video to hear how you can work on your ear to hear the difference and open up additional improvisational ideas and colors for yourself using the same basic note choices, simply based on the emotions you infuse into each and the direction you allow them to move in. Grab a copy of the PDF to help you visualize the shape of this in the key of G.
Keep those ears open… and happy practicing!
When is a 7 chord arpeggio NOT a 7 chord arpeggio? When it’s not an arpeggio.
This week we’re focusing on building a relationship with the b7. Yesterday we did this with a warmup where we inserted chromaticism and intervallic leaps within a G7 “arpeggio” to create something that didn’t sound at all like an arpeggio.
Today we are doing something similar, but rather than focusing on muscle memory and dexterity we’re focusing on developing our ear, our phrasing, and our musicianship.
Rather than thinking of a G7 arpeggio as 1-3-5-b7, four equal notes like rungs on the ladder that each need to be climbed up or down and carry our weight equally… instead let’s break this down to a G major triad and then an addition tension b7. This gives us the same set of pitches, but now there is a clearcut and obvious set of functions and roles within the notes that we can take advantage of to develop our melodic ear and create more human and organic phrasing when we improvise. We get the G note, which will feel the most stable. A complete feeling of returning home. The 3rd and 5th of the triad will give us a little more color but still feel very stable and resolved. And then the F note, the tension b7. This note will crave movement. It will produce a feeling of instability that will propel our lines forward to help us create more compelling lines that feel alive and dynamic.
Try these steps. First play through a basic G7 arpeggio, but every time you get to the F note STOP. Hold it a little longer, dig into it a bit harder, repeat it a few times, resolve it up to the root note then drop back to it again and move back and forth between that tension and resolution to over exaggerate the drama and the movement. FEEL what’s happening inside those two notes. Then continue on up through the next octave and do it again. Go all the way up that position, then turn around and do the same process descending.
Then try applying this to a basic I IV V blues. Use the basic major triad for each chord and take advantage of the tension b7 of each to help create phrases. Your goal should be to NOT outline by running the arpeggios of each 7 chord. Instead think about implying the changes. You can imply the movement to a new chord with just one or two notes. So keep things simple and focus on playing less note, but making each of them count more. Really take advantage of those tension b7 notes and the way they want to resolve.
If you can hang with that, try moving through a jazz standard with this idea. Watch the video to hear me play through each of these steps and then wrap up by applying these melodic ideas over the chord progression from Body and Soul. This is really just a more advanced version of what I’m doing with the blues, but hopefully you can see the progression of the process… the baby steps you can take to break you habit of relying on playing the right chord tones for your “arpeggios” and instead start thinking of these same pitches in more creative ways that you can actually focus on expression and attitude and storytelling vs just “playing the right notes.”
Grab the PDF if you need help finding these notes and want to see them notated out where the triad notes and the tension b7 LOOK different… so you can start to think of them as different and start to treat them differently when playing. And hit me up if you have questions.
Like the rest of the 12 pitches we have available to us in western, functional music, I have a character analysis and a name for the b6. It’s my Batman note. It just sounds so angry… like it’s been horribly wronged and is out for vengeance. The classic Batman story. Boy watches parents killed in front of him, loses his mind, and then spends the rest of his life dwelling on that event, building underground computer caves, and running around at night dressed up as a giant bat seeking justice and revenge.
As weird as this idea might seem, check out the video to hear how the b6 FEELS… emotionally. Don’t worry about singing intervals. Although, interestingly, the song I was taught to use to hear the interval of a minor 6th was ‘Go Down, Moses’… which is all about the story of the Hebrews being oppressed and enslaved, and God sending Moses to Pharaoh and the 10 plagues upon the Egyptians to coerce him to free the Hebrews from bondage. So you tell me whether that’s a coincidence or not. Louis Armstrong and Grant Green both have great recordings of this tune if you haven’t checked them out yet.
But the issue with learning to hear the b6 based on the interval alone is that it doesn’t help us hear the emotion and the storytelling capacity of this note, and it doesn’t train us to hear this b6 even when we’re not leaping to it from the root note. Like in Phantom Of The Opera, when the theme descends chromatically from the root down to the b6… it’s still an incredibly angry note, even though we’re descending a major 3rd. Or in 8 Mile, when the song starts off on the power chord (root and 5th) and then the 5th bumps up a half step so we’re hearing the R and b6 together. We can train to hear the half step movement… but that assumes we know what the starting note is. Good practices to work on, but alongside that, try learning to hear this stuff from an emotional place. What does the b6 alone feel like? If you hear a chord played and then a trumpet player just drops a big, high pitched squealing b6 (or b13) up on top with no preceding note… can you spot it?
Play around with the body movements and the facial expressions I’m displaying in today’s lesson. You’ll be amazed how quickly these emotions and movements can help you internalize the feel of all of these different notes. Not only to spot them when you’re playing or transcribing, but even when you’re improvising and feel a certain sound coming up in your line… imagine just knowing where you need to put your fingers to get that exact sound to come out.
Download a copy of the PDF if you want to see the (G)/b6 (G major triad + tension b6) charted out. Focusing on the ear and helping it develop is critical to growing our musicianship. But learning to see the shapes on our fretboard and get the muscle memory in our fingers to navigate the sounds… that’s really important to becoming better guitar players.
Have fun acting a fool!
Interval ear training is great! But what about emotional or energetic ear training? Learning to feel the emotion of a scale or chord tone?
It might sound crazy, but if you’re reading this you can probably already do it to some extent. Can you hear a major triad vs a minor triad and know which one is which by hearing which one sounds happy and which one sounds sad? Do you need to sing the intervals or compare them to other songs first? Or can you simply hear it and immediately know? Can you hear the completeness and fully-resolved emotion of the root note of a scale vs the incredibly “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PEE!” sensation of the leading tone… the 7th degree of the major scale?
How about the #4 or #11? When used in a scale or a mode like lydian or lydian dominant, the #4 is arguably the most important and defining note. It’s what sets these two modes apart from a basic major or dominant scale. When treated as a chord tone, it gives us the #11 and lets us create Maj7#11 or 7#11 chords (or min7#11 and minMaj7#11 if you want to get REALLY hip). But can you hear this note without singing The Simpsons? What if this note is used without being placed directly after the root note of the scale, creating the interval of a tritone? What if we play a chord and the soloist plays this note, and only this note, over us. Can we immediately recognize it as the #11 in the same way we would recognize the color of the wallpaper?
Is it possible?
I used to think it wasn’t. I wasn’t born with perfect pitch, so I just assumed that this wasn’t a skill that could be learned. But I’ve found we can improve this ability by working on it. Learn to think in terms of emotion and physical feeling. Listen to any note in the framework on a diatonic key or against a chord, and you’ll likely notice it has a very particular emotion to it. I find the #4 / #11 to have a very “I’m spooked” quality to it… like someone walking around in a haunted house and thinking they heard the floor creak, like someone with a chainsaw and a mask might jump out from a shadow at any moment. Once you isolate the emotion of the note, come up with a body movement and a facial expression and practice making this face and doing this body movement every time you play the note. Over time you will start to feel the emotion of this note internally. As you get better you will notice that you can anticipate the sound this note will make in your lines before you even play it. As you continue to get better you will notice that sometimes you’ll be listening to music, will hear this note, and will immediately KNOW that it’s the #4 / #11 without worry about any intervals. It will be as obvious as finding an unmarked tupperware container in your pantry with some kind of white powder, tasting it, and knowing whether it’s salt or sugar with zero doubt. I could tell you it was salt, but the moment you taste the sweetness there is no amount of arguing I could offer that would dissuade you from trusting your own personal experience. THIS is the level of ear development we want to work towards. There are only 12 of these sounds… take them one at a time.
If you need help finding this note, grab a copy of the PDF to see the G major triad with the #4 added as a melodic tension note. This will help you find the shapes and the geometry on the fretboard and get you hearing this sound and playing it with more precision.
I often hear that we should avoid certain notes over certain chords. While there’s an element to this that can be true, we need to burst this idea wide open and get our minds right. Instead of worrying about avoiding certain notes, how about we learn to LISTEN to them and understand what they want and how we can use them. There are certain notes that we need to be careful with over certain chords. But the concept and terminology of an “AVOID NOTE” seems to be detrimental to the proper mentality it requires to play improvisational music.
In lesson #7 I showed how killer the b7 can sound when used properly over a Maj7 chord… it can sound even better than the chord’s root note. Today we’re going to debunk the next biggest avoid note I hear talked about. The natural 4 over a major chord. Not only do I hear people say we should avoid it, I even hear people say we should just automatically change it to a #4/#11 over every major or dominant chord.
All Blues. Stella By Starlight. I’ll Remember April. My Shining Hour. Just to name a few standards where we see the natural 4/11 used over a major or dominant chord. This note is not an avoid note, and you’re sabotaging your own playing if you think it is.
Rather than worrying about keeping it out of our playing, or raising it up a half step, how about we just slow down and LISTEN to this note. Experience it on an emotional and visceral level. What does it sound like? What does it feel like? How does it like to move? These types of questions are exactly why I love the melodic triads concept of a quadratonic. Take a triad, like G major, and add a C note to it. This gives us a “four-note scale” that contains three stable notes and one unstable note. Is C an avoid note in this context? No. But it IS a melodic tension note. it craves movement.
Watch the video above and then try out this practice idea on your own. Pretend like only these four pitches exists and nothing else does… G, B, C, and D. Play around with them. See if you can hear how perfectly that C note create drama and movement within the triad. Now see if you can improvise some phrases with that drama. Grab a copy of the PDF if you need help finding these notes and seeing the shapes on the fretboard. Try going back to the standards I mentioned above and see how those tunes take advantage of this tension 4 sound to get some ideas straight from the music. This IS a part of our tradition and our language.
Don’t avoid the avoid notes. Embrace them. Listen to them. Hear them. Fall in love with what they offer. And then you will find yourself naturally starting to use them. CAN you force a #4/#11 over a basic major or dominant chord? Of course. But you don’t HAVE TO. And I wouldn’t recommend doing so until you’ve played the same quadratonic game using the tension #4 as I’m recommending you to with the tension 4 here.
Try it out and see what happens.
In today’s lesson we’re focusing on melodic ear training. Specifically the sound of the b2. By starting with a G major triad, we have a blank canvas… a boring, vanilla sound that we can paint color onto. When we add the Ab note (the b2) we should immediately be able to hear the emotion and the personality of this note. It’s very distinctive and unique.
The b2 is an evil note. I call it The Dracula Note because it has a very “lurking” feel to it. It’s like watching a movie where Dracula is out at night. He’s hungry. He wants to eat. He’s standing up on the roof of a building looking down over a city center watching the people, trying to decide who he wants. He’s hiding in a shadow pulling his cloak up over his face so that only his eyes are visible.
It’s not an in your face, attack kind of evil this note gives off. It’s more of a subtle, hidden, lurking type of evil. Which is precisely why this note is featured so heavily in the famous soundtrack for the movie Jaws. The emotions I’m always talking about in the notes are not things I’ve made up. Whether you realize it or not, these emotions are built into the sounds of our notes.
We just don’t often talk about or listen for them. Instead we’re generally only taught about interval ear training. Memorize a bunch of songs that contain a certain interval… hear a set of notes… compare it to the songs we have memorized… find the one that the interval we’re hearing matches with to find the interval… move up or down from the known note the proper interval… now we have the unknown note figured out.
This works. It just takes time. And in an improvisational setting, we don’t have time. The goal with this ear training is to get so good at it that it becomes borderline instantaneous. And it IS a great practice to develop! But it’s all mind based. It’s thinking and comparing and analyzing and action. What I’m talking about body and emotion. You KNOW when you’re sad. You KNOW when you’re scared. You don’t have to think about it or analyze it or compare it to anything else. The moment you feel it you understand what it is. This is the level of intimacy we want with our notes if we want to improvise and stay in the moment.
So why wait years or decades to get there? Try using my body movements and emotions and see if you can connect more deeply with these four notes. G, Ab, B, and D. Play with this practice for a few days and see how personal these notes can become. You might surprise yourself!
Grab a copy of the PDF if you need help finding these notes on the fretboard.
And as always, happy practicing!
One of the central principles of the melodic triads approach is that great melody should involve MELODIC tension and resolution… or melodic tension notes that want to resolve back into some type of organized group of resolution notes. Another central principle is that triads offer the strongest and most foundational ways of organizing melodic resolution points. Anytime we put notes together into a triad, those three notes will be perfectly grouped together into perfect consonance. So if we add a fourth note to the triad, it will function as a melodic tension note which will create drama and want to resolve back into the triad to be resolved. This is the anatomy of great melodic phrases.
In our approach, we can put a simple C major triad + tension 2 (D note) over a basic C chord if want, but we can also superimpose it over other chords to create a more colorful quality to our lines and chords by taking advantage of polytonality. In today’s lesson we are putting the C + tension 2 quadratonic over a Bb7 chord.
If you do some ear training and use the body movements and facial expressions I recommend in the video to learn to FEEL the emotion of each of these four notes, then you should be able to start improvising musical phrases over the Bb7 in the same way, because the stability of the triad will hold the sound together. You’ll find the C note still sounds the most stable, melodically. And the tension 2 D note, while the chord tone of a 3rd in the Bb7, actually feels a little unstable and will want to move up to the E note (the 3rd of the C triad, but the #11 of the Bb7 we’re playing over) or down to the C note (the root of the melodic triad, but the 9 of the Bb7 chord).
This is one of my favorite approaches to hearing and playing over dominant 7 chords. It doesn’t work well when we’re playing over a V7 dominant. But apply this to the tritone sub, the bII7, and you’re got some killer phrases hiding right under your fingertips.
In tomorrow lesson we’re going to explore making lines using this C + tension 2 quadratonic over a Bb7 which we’re going to treat as the bII7 and practice resolve it down to A major and A minor chords to work on getting the hang of playing over this type of movement.
So for now, really examine this sound with your ears and get used to the shape of it. This will make it easier when we apply it to the tritone dominant -> tonic movement, and then later to tunes.
We often talk about polytonality on Tuesdays, but not always. I actually do cover it in today’s jazz guitar lessons daily episode, but the focus here is really on the practical ear training steps of isolating the ‘tension 6’ note, learning to hear it in relation to the basic major triad, and then being able to express bluesy, soulful, lyrical, melodic phrases with it.
This sound SHOULD be familiar to you. I know our melodic triads theory and the funny names I use to talk about “new” concepts can sound complicated and like we’re reinventing the wheel sometimes. But ultimately, these are simply words and idea I use to point out very specific sounds already present in the music… to put them under the microscope, notice their quality more deeply, and learn to control those sounds in their simplest form so that we can internalize them and make them part of our spontaneous vocabulary.
The tension 6 note offers us a really hip emotion to use in our phrases. It’s like the feeling of lobbing something up into the air. It reminds me of the original Superman movie with Christopher Reeves. There’s a scene before he moves to Metropolis where he’s hanging out on a football field. He’s upset because nobody knows he has powers and all of the cool kids at his high school are making fun of him. Out of frustration he picks up a football and punts it. The camera shows the ball go flying into the air and get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller…
It never comes back down to earth. It just shoots off and disappears into the sky. That’s the emotional quality of the tension 6 to me. Play around with it and see what it feels like to you. No interval singing, no nursery rhymes - just emotion, memory, visualization. Listen and connect with it personally like you would a new friend that you wanted to get to know.
Once you can hear and feel this note and understand how it likes to resolve (down to the 5th of the triad or up to the root), then it’s time to start playing around with it to create simple phrases. Check out the tunes I mentioned in the video - Tenor Madness, Billie’s Bounce, and Blue Monk. All of these are classic standards we should all know that take great advantage of this tension 6 in their melodies. Sonny, Bird, and Monk were not simply running 6 chord arpeggios. They were giving us phrases with personality and life and humanity. THAT is what we should be striving to develop in our playing. Arpeggios are important to mastering an instrument, developing dexterity, and infusing into our lines. But the real heart and soul of this music is strong phrases. See what you can do with this note. Check out how the masters use it in these tunes. Check out how I’m using it in the video.
Then be that little kid in the sandbox and just start playing around. Start slow. No tempo, no backing tracks, no tunes… just learn to see the tension note against the triad (download the PDF for help with that if you need) and then start improvising phrases. If you can do that, try it in a few different keys. If you can do that, maybe apply it to a basic I IV V blues. No fancy jazz changes. Just a simple blues form. You’ll be amazed how much juice you can squeeze out of this piece of fruit. It’s like insta-melody. Everything sounds soulful and bluesy. No riffs, arpeggios, or memorized scale patterns needed.
Give it a shot… and happy practicing!
You’re going to think I’m crazy when I say this, but hear me out. First, you don’t know how to properly HEAR Maj7 chords… let alone how to play over them. Second, stop assuming the root note of the chord is the strongest and most stable note to improvise from. You should NOT be jumping straight to C ionian over a CMaj7 chord and assuming that the C note is your tonic note. It’s not. And third, you SHOULD be using the b7 of the chord when you’re composing and improvising over Maj7 chords.
No. This is not clickbait. I’m not just being controversial to get your attention. This is just the truth of the matter. When I first ACTUALLY stopped and LISTENED to my melodic lines over this type of chord and let my ears realize what they were hearing rather than my mind and intellect tell me what the theory says, I about fell out of my chair. I’d been playing guitar for almost 25 years at that point. I knew my theory backwards and forwards. I had an undergrad degree. I was almost finished with my masters degree. I’d recorded two albums as a leader and a dozen more as a sideman. I’d toured the country with multiple bands. I’d taught as an adjunct instructor at one of the best jazz programs in the world. I’d hung and played with Scofield, Peter Bernstein, and a ton of jazz legends. I’d performed a couple of sets at the Blue Note. I had even opened for the Wayne Krantz trio once. So you can imagine when I first HEARD the truth of what I’m telling you, I lost my mind for several weeks. Truly. I started questioning everything I’d ever been told. It was a revelatory moment of realizing how important it is to actually listen to the sounds we’re making, and to not let our knowledge of theory get in the way of the personal experience of music.
To be clear, I’m not saying that you should never play a C note in your improvised lines over a CMaj7 chord. I’m saying when you actually pay attention, you’ll notice that it is not the most resolved note. It should not be considered the root note of the scale you’re going to use. In fact, it’s one of the least stable notes we can choose from. It can work. But it IS a melodic tension note. It craves movement. It wants to resolve somewhere else.
Why? Well let’s look at it from the perspective of a piano player with two hands. If they played a CMaj7 shell voicing in their left hand and played a melodic C note in the right hand, it would create the interval of a minor 9th.
This is an incredibly harsh interval. Maybe the most dissonant interval we have in western music. This doesn’t mean we can’t use this note. Again, it simply means it’s always going to create a feeling of tension that wants to resolve.
A better option is to start with an E minor triad. If you look at ANY commonly used CMaj7 voicing, chances are good it’s simply a C note with and E minor triad on top of it. So let’s think of the E minor triad as the melodic triad… the triad to govern the melody. Try playing around with these notes and ONLY these notes for a while. It should sound completely perfect in your ear before you move on. Once you can hear that the E note feels like the “root note” of the “scale”… now we’re getting somewhere. At this point if you want to put the C note back into your lines you can, but you should be able to hear now that the C wants to pull back down to B… to resolve back into the melodic triad.
But before you start playing an E phrygian mode (C major scale using the E note as the root), try adding the A note, and only the A note back in. Now you have E-G-(A)-B. Download the PDF to look at the charts for this if you need help finding the positions. This A is now tension 4. Yes, it’s the harmonic chord tone of the 13th (or 6th), but if you’ve done the ear training, you should be naturally hearing this A note in relation to the E minor triad. Which means it’s going to sound like the 4th of a minor scale and should give you a bluesy kind of vibe - dark, soulful, and brooding… very hip color to play over a Maj7 chord with.
One of the rules in the melodic triads approach says that anytime we’re using a tension 4 against a minor triad, we can also tag the #4/b5 onto the structure. This is the classic “blues scale” sound. Such great emotional and phrasing opportunity here. Once we do this, now we have E-G-(A-A#/Bb)-B. If you play around with this over a CMaj7 chord, you’re going to find it sounds dark and bluesy and completely ‘in’ to the sound of the chord. But the strange thing is that the blues note we’re playing (and hopefully HEARING by now) is a Bb note… and that’s the chord tone of a b7 in relationship to the CMaj7 chord. But it sounds killer, right? Weird, isn’t it?
If you haven’t watched the video above yet, and if you haven’t tried this out on your guitar yet, I’m well aware that I sound like a crazy old fool. But please, pat your intellect on the back for doing what it’s supposed to do by attempting to use logic to understand the world, give it a five minute break, and go and listen to this stuff in action. The words are only here to explain the sounds we’re hearing. Once you hear and experience these sounds, it’s undeniable, and you can never un-hear them. But let your ears experience them with no logical and rational arguments to sway them one way or the other. Assume I’m wrong and don’t know what I’m saying, go and listen and hear for yourself, then decide based on what your ears tell you.
Give it a shot and see what you hear. What’s the worst that can happen? Besides you realizing everything you’ve ever been taught was a lie and the laws of reality shatter and come tumbling down around the broken dreams.
Hit me up if you start melting down and need a friend to chat with about it.
Happy Practicing (and Listening)!
Polytonality is the simultaneous use of two or more keys. In other words it means, multiple tonalities. It can seem like a really complicated topic. I remember being mystified by the idea for many years before my teacher Stefon Harris made it all seem so simple.
By sitting at the piano and studying “advanced” jazz harmony at the piano rather than on the fretboard, I noticed that the voicings we were looking at were all constructed with a basic shell voicing (1-3-7) with my left hand and a basic triad (1-3-5) in my right hand. This is near impossible to visualize on the fretboard until you know exactly what to look for. But it’s blatantly obvious when you’re looking down at your two hands on the piano and can clearly see two very simple things, one in each hand, which when played together create rich, Bill Evans-esque harmony.
Now getting that onto the guitar, that takes some creativity and determination. But that another story. One which we cover in-depth in The Melodic Triads Study Group. One thing at a time.
I think what makes polytonality seem so difficult for today’s guitar player, aside from us not having the two different hands to look at like our piano player friends, is that we attempt to learn this stuff from an academic and intellectual point of view. Much like I point on regarding most musical concepts, I have a fundamental disagreement with how it’s taught. It’s all backwards. We learn from books, memorizing theory, absorbing mathematical ideas and formulas, vocabulary words, and constructing philosophical ideas about how music is supposed to work. The assumption, often times left unsaid, is that once you understand it, then you can learn to make music with it.
Yes and no. But we leave out the most important element. Sound. Hearing and experiencing new ideas with our ear is like a culinary student tasting a new flavor. Too often THIS part of music education gets forgotten. College music departments, they need objective standards by which they can test and measure your progress. YouTube teachers, they need specific topics to cover in their lesson plan so they can take that particular chapter from a theory book and turn it into a short and concise video lesson. This is like a culinary student trying to learn to cook from reading a book about ingredients. Yes, this can be extremely helpful. Knowledge is important. But if I were to ever become a professional culinary arts teacher, I would introduce new topics by FIRST having each student smell, touch, and taste a new ingredient. Have them talk about the experience of each. Describe it. What does it remind them of? A childhood memory perhaps? Do they like it? Love it? Hate it? What is THEIR personal experience like? Then we can talk about what it is, how to best prepare it, what other ingredients it mixes well with, etc. I would much prefer to eat a meal by someone who lacked any academic knowledge about their ingredients but had spent considerable time exploring the flavors, scents, and textures of the food they cook with and forming deeply held personal beliefs and preferences for how they want to use them in their craft. And I feel the same way about musicians and sound.
Watch the video above. It will give you some practical steps to take to start understanding and using polytonality in your playing. It’s really not that complicated of a topic. In this lesson we are first exploring a basic C major triad, 1-3-5, all the way up and back a position of the fretboard. Listen to the stability and the boring nature of it.
Then we add the D note into it, or what I call “tension 2”. It’s a tension note. Explore it like a culinary arts student getting to know a new herb they’ve never tried before. Listen to how it reacts against the C major triad. Don’t just turn it into a muscle-memory building exercise and see how fast you can shred through it. Slow down and LISTEN… HEAR the sound. Once you can experience the C note as completely stable and resolved and the D note as melodic tension wanting to pull back into the C triad, now let’s try placing this sound over some different chords.
Here are the chords used in the video.
By putting the sound of a C major triad over an AbMaj7 shell voicing, we are tonicizing C, E, and G over the Ab. This is polytonal. We’re hearing Ab as the root note of the chord, but the C note remains the root note of the melodic structure. When we add these two sounds together we get AbMaj#5. Can you hear how the C note still sounds the most stable and resolved?
If we use a Bb7 shell chord instead, now the C triad notes (C, E, and G) are tonicizing the 13, the #11, and the 9 of the Bb7. We would call this a Bb13(#11,9). It’s the combination of a Bb7 harmony with a C major melodic tonal center. Can you hear how the C note still sounds the most stable and resolved?
The same thing happens with putting the C triad over a D-7 chord (D-11,9) and the FMaj7 chord (FMaj9).
In each case, the integrity and authority of the C major triad continues to govern the melodic structure despite the changing harmonies moving underneath.
Once you learn to HEAR this resolution to the C note, and the musical sound makes sense in your ear… THEN we can start talking about complicated theory ideas. But that’s a story for another day. For now, focus on learning to hear and understand emotionally and experientially the feel of the tension 2 note against the major triad, and then play around with putting these different harmonies underneath the C triad + tension 2, one at a time.
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