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20 Steps to Jazz Keyboard Harmony

20 Steps to Jazz Keyboard Harmony

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20 Steps to Jazz Keyboard Harmony

4/5 (8 ratings)
109 pages
1 hour
Feb 8, 2016


This book represents a way of thinking about jazz harmony. It explains how chords are built, named and used. It presents examples in the form of conventional notation and images of the piano keyboard. A glossary of terms is included. If you need some kind of structure or framework of understanding to be able to do music at all, you may find it here. At the very least, by Step 20 you should be able to look at a chord chart and recognise (and even play) the symbols and patterns that form the foundations of the melodic theme, and improvisations based on it. The author is an experienced jazz pianist and has tested the lessons in this book over 50 years of self-education.

Feb 8, 2016

About the author

Howard Sidney (Sid) Thomas is a musician and scientist living in Wales and Kent, UK. He has published more than 200 scientific research articles and reviews, on a diversity of subjects from fundamental genetics to plant development and ageing to crops and food to English literature, music and the arts, He is co-author of 'The Molecular Life of Plants' and 'Food and the Literary imagination'. He publishes his own books on music under the name Sid Thomas, and books on science as Howard Thomas.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • A general rule in playing chords on keyboards is to spread the notes out leaving lots of space at the bottom.

  • Similarly the F# lydian dominant fits the two chords. Work out the notes of this scale. Try making up improvised lines using the notes of the C and F# lydian dominant scales and playing them over C7 and F#7 shells.

  • The chord substitution rule is: every dominant 7th chord has a tritone opposite partner (i.e a flat 5th lower, or sharp 4th higher, same thing). It’s not difficult to work out the shells of all the possible tritone substitutable partners.

  • Often the basic harmonic progression at the end of a chorus will sit for two bars on the tonic chord. To avoid such monotony, it’s usual to employ the I-VI-II-V motif (half-bar each, extended or substituted forms) as a turnaround.

  • II-V-I is an example of what, in standard musical theory, is called a harmonic cadence – a sequence of two or more chords that end a section of music by creating a sense of pause or completion.

Book Preview

20 Steps to Jazz Keyboard Harmony - Howard Sidney Thomas

20 Steps to Jazz Keyboard Harmony

Howard Sidney Thomas

Copyright 2016 Howard Sidney Thomas

2nd revised edition 2020

Published by Howard Sidney Thomas at Smashwords

ISBN 9781310147364

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Cover illustration copyright Alexey Koldunov

'It's damned hard to write things that make blank sheets better'

Ludwig Wittgenstein


Prelude to the 2nd edition

Step 0 Conventions

Step 1 Basics

Step 2 Introducing sevenths

Step 3 More about sevenths

Step 4 Even more about sevenths

Step 5 Augmented and diminished chords

Step 6 Suspensions

Step 7 The lydian concept

Step 8 Lydian minor and dominant forms

Step 9 Diminished (and augmented) scales

Step 10 Chords without roots

Step 11 Chords in fourths

Step 12 Minor chords in fourths

Step 13 Dominant chords in fourths

Step 14 Bebop and the blues

Step 15 The diminished cycle

Step 16 The augmented cycle

Step 17 Clusters

Step 18 More about clusters

Step 19 Getting in register

Step 20 The Chromatic Universe

Coda: sources and resources

Encore: jargon buster

About the author

Prelude to the 2nd edition

Here's an excerpt from the first edition of 20 Steps.

This little book represents the way I think about jazz harmony. It isn’t the way you should think about jazz harmony, unless you want to. Years of trying to communicate what jazz is about to people of all ages, abilities, genders and experience, either one-to-one or in workshops, have taught me that there is no system. You may be one of those rare individuals who can just do it, by a combination of intuition and introspection. If so, this book probably isn’t for you. But if, like me, you need some kind of structure or framework of understanding to be able to do music at all, you may find it here. At the very least, by Step 20 you should be able to look at a chord chart and recognise (and even play) the symbols and patterns that form the foundations of the melodic theme, and improvisations based on it.

Before we go any further, I should state that this book will not teach you to play the piano. Indeed, I wouldn’t dare take on that role because my own technique is the culmination of years of bad habits, neglect of the technical basics and encounters with dreadful pianos. When piano teachers have nightmares, it’s me they’ve been dreaming about. I often run up against frustrations during rehearsals and performances which I know I could have avoided if I’d just learned to finger or sit or pedal correctly. The only advice I can give on these matters is to start as early as you can with good technical habits, gained through lessons if that’s what works for you. We can all take comfort in the generosity and hospitality of jazz, which makes a place for everyone as long as you have a voice. No-one would call Thelonious Monk a virtuoso – but he’s up there on Mount Olympus…

I also need to make it clear that this book isn't concerned with deep academic music theory. It only gets theoretical when it's practically useful. By 'theory' I mean anything that accounts in some kind of fundamental way for how some things happen to work in harmony and others just don't. I know for a fact that there are explanations here which cause legitimate music educators to suck their teeth and mutter 'no no no'. I repeat: this is how I fit jazz harmony into my personal musical universe, and if it's helpful for you, good, but if not, no harm done, small earthquake, not many killed.

This new edition, like the first, seeks to address the question of a common vocabulary for representing the musical content and interrelationships of the chords used in jazz. Previously I used both conventional notation and images of the piano keyboard to convey the principles of harmony. I've taken the opportunity completely to revise this approach, presenting what I hope are much clearer representations of the notes making up the corresponding chord notations. I've also made several corrections and changes of emphasis. I hope the result is more useful and less daunting for the aspiring jazz pianist.

We start with a reminder of where notes lie on the treble and bass clefs.

And here’s how these notes map onto the piano keyboard. The star shows the position of middle C (if you sit up close to the centre of the keyboard, middle C is the one nearest your navel):

Finally, before we get down to business, I should repeat what I stated in the Prelude to the first edition: this book does not set out to teach how to improvise. It has plenty to say about how the horizontal line of melody might relate to the vertical chordal structures of harmony, and this is certainly a good jumping-off point for creating improvised lines. But just as there’s a language of chords (which this book explores), there’s a

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