Jazz chord symbols: a primer for the classically-trained

Printed jazz music often uses chord symbols to indicate the music’s underlying harmony. As with the Roman numeral system used in classical music theory, jazz chord symbols may be used as a tool for analysis. But they are also used for performance, like Baroque figured bass notation, with the musicians using the symbols as a framework for improvising melodies and/or accompaniments. In jazz, the symbols are  generally non-specific with respect to inversion, and players of chord-capable instruments (such as piano or guitar) in jazz are accustomed to making independent choices about inversion and voicing. Depending on the situation, printed jazz music may include written notes only, or notes plus chord symbols, or even chord symbols alone.

Simple major triads aren’t common in most “modern” (post-1940) jazz. But in the rare cases that they do appear, they are indicated with a single note name:

C major

The letter “C” above the staff is the chord symbol. The notes shown on the staff here are the corresponding pitch classes, stacked in root position in the thirds familiar to students of classical theory, though a jazz musician, composer, or arranger would rarely voice a chord in this way.

Almost always, there should some variety of seventh specified, using the numeral 7 (and when it isn’t specified, it is often implied). By convention, using the 7 alone with a note name indicates the lowered seventh:

C seventh

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Mormons and musicians

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and organ pipes
Photo, More Good Foundation

Some of you know that I am a “Mormon“—a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I find that sometimes fellow musicians are curious about my faith and how it connects to my career in music, so I’d like to share a few thoughts.

Music in LDS (Latter-day Saint) theology

Mormons embrace the biblical Old and New Testaments and find in them reason to consider music, both vocal and instrumental, integral to worship:

And David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals. (2nd Samuel 6:5, KJV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16, KJV)

Books of scripture unique to the LDS canon also promote music in worship. The Book of Mormon describes gatherings of the faithful in the ancient Americas:

And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done. (Moroni 6:9, emphasis added)

The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations from the 19th and 20th centuries, includes divine sanction for music in worship:

And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.

For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. (Doctrine and Covenants 25:12)

If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. (Doctrine and Covenants 136:28)

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Classical musicians and jazz music

Photo, Andrei Z

I try to be both a classical musician and a jazz musician. This dual pursuit is sometimes detrimental to both sides, but often beneficial, and I enjoy it. I’ve put in serious study, listening, and practice hours with both kinds of music.

Jazz has influenced classical composers enough that classical musicians can’t ignore it—if you’re an orchestral clarinetist, it’s only a matter of time before you have to face Rhapsody in Blue. So it’s not unusual to hear classical musicians, especially in academic situations, address aspects of jazz playing.

It’s disappointing to me to hear classical musicians use pejorative language when describing jazz style, but frequently terms like “sloppy,” “lazy,” “harsh,” or “piercing” are used to characterize its techniques and sounds. In the last few months, some egregious and ill-informed examples of this have appeared in the blogosphere, and I can think of several examples during that same period when I have heard that kind of talk in masterclasses and workshops.

I don’t think that the examples I’ve seen lately were intentionally belittling or snobbish. And, in fact, in some cases the intent seemed to be to express appreciation for jazz music and jazz musicians, but the choice of words betrays some underlying attitudes about the relationship between classical and jazz.

If you’re a classical musician, these are the kinds of things I want you to know about jazz playing:

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Why tune to the oboe?

Photo, nobleviola

Why do orchestras tune to the oboe?

Well, because it’s tradition, I suppose. But, realistically, in a professional group the pitch standard is likely determined in advance, and the oboist will use an electronic tuner to be sure they are giving precisely the correct pitch, so it could just as well be anyone.

But the principal oboist is almost always the keeper of the A. It seems like there are a lot of theories floating around as to why, none of which make the slightest bit of sense. I found all of these professed as gospel truth in less than five minutes of Googling:

  • Because the oboe can’t be tuned. Firstly: hogwash. (True, the oboe doesn’t have a built-in tuning slide. But an oboist can “tune” by switching reeds, and can humor individual notes sharper or flatter on the fly, just like any wind player.) Secondly: if we tune to the principal oboe because it can’t be tuned, then what is the second oboist expected to do? Or the harpist? Or the pianist?
  • Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable. More reliable than, say, the glockenspiel? Given a high-quality instrument, an excellent reed, a fine oboist, and a 72.0°F room, then yes, the oboe’s pitch ought to be pretty solid. But on a stage full of trained musicians, I can’t see any reason to expect it to be more reliable than anyone else’s.
  • Because the oboe can be heard better through the group, because of its volume or tone or something. If that’s the criteria for selecting a tuning instrument, then I suggest that we consider the trumpet, or perhaps the piccolo. The Wikipedia article on the oboe, incidentally, mentions both stability and “penetrating” tone as reasons for oboe tuning, but cites an online article that no longer exists.
  • Because the oboe warms up to pitch faster than the other winds. This could be true, but how much longer does it really take to warm a flute or clarinet or trombone up to pitch? Hopefully the other musicians aren’t tuning before their instruments are thoroughly warmed.

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Recommending gear for beginners

Photo, sekihan

A beginning instrumentalist needs good equipment. For young woodwind players that means instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, and probably a few other accessories. They aren’t cheap, and the array of options is bewildering. Where can students and their parents turn for solid recommendations?

The ideal situation is for the student to connect with a qualified, conscientious private instructor before making any purchases or signing any rental agreements. In my private teaching experience, this has happened exactly 0% of the time. It’s a nice dream.

For many young beginners, the best counsel they’ve got is the school band director. But what, exactly, do school band directors know about, say, clarinet mouthpieces? I have the greatest respect for school band directors. But I think that scenarios like this probably happen pretty often:

  • A fine, talented, studious young man or woman, who plays, let’s say, the trombone, signs up for the woodwind methods class required for their music education degree.
  • The brilliant and respected professor, who plays, let’s say, the flute, and who is doing his or her level best to teach several instruments in which he or she does not have any specific training, puts in phone calls to some colleagues and picks their brains for their best recommendations for clarinet mouthpieces. Several of them mention one particular model. The professor types up a class handout, listing that specific mouthpiece as an affordable and high-quality option, suitable to most beginners.
  • The young aspiring music educator accepts the handout, studies it, successfully answers a test question about good student clarinet mouthpieces, and files the handout away for future reference.
  • Ten years into the educator’s career, the mouthpiece company merges with another company. Decisions are made by non-clarinetists wearing expensive suits in a well-appointed conference room. The mouthpiece makers are laid off, and mouthpiece production moves to an overseas factory. The mouthpieces look much the same as before and bear the same brand name and model number, but the quality drops significantly, as does the manufacturing cost. The suit-wearing non-clarinetists get large bonuses.

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Seven habits of highly effective beginners

Photo, Michael @ NW Lens

A few weeks ago I wrote about seven habits I’ve observed in my most successful university music students. The popularity of that article has been gratifying—to my surprise, it even briefly displaced my list of woodwind doublings from Broadway shows as the most popular thing on this site.

What I wrote was about university music students—students who, generally, have at least a half-dozen years of playing experience behind them, and who are planning to  pursue a career in music. But I think it’s also worth considering the musical beginner (child or adult). Students who get a good start with their instrument have a better chance at success, no matter their goals.

Here are some habits that are characteristic of successful beginners, plus a bonus tip for woodwind doublers:

  1. Get a teacher. This is the best money you can spend or your (or your child’s) new musical pursuits. And the sooner the better—don’t assume that you need to struggle on your own for a while before a teacher will take you on as a student. A good teacher can guide you through purchasing or renting your instrument, teach you good playing and practicing habits, troubleshoot problems, and model excellent playing. And you may be able to get good instruction cheaper than you think. Contact a teacher of reputation in your area and find out what they charge, and, if it’s more than you can spend, ask if they can recommend one of their top students as a beginning teacher. I’m a university music professor, and I charge more than some beginners would be willing or able to pay, but I’m pleased to recommend my advanced students who are anxious for some teaching experience, who work cheap, and who will teach you the same things I’m teaching them.
  2. Get good advice on equipment purchases. See habit #1 for the best solution to this. Be extremely wary of advice from mail-order catalogs, internet message boards, eBay sellers, and commissioned music store salespeople who don’t play your instrument. My beginning woodwind students who start with inferior or poorly-adjusted gear often develop poor playing habits in an attempt to compensate for the instrument’s/mouthpiece’s/reeds’ shortcomings, and are far more likely to get frustrated and quit. You don’t need a fancy car to learn how to drive, but you do need working brakes, steering, and signal lights.

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This week in airline travel with musical instruments

Photo, caruba

A couple of blog posts related to airline travel with musical instruments have caught my eye so far this week:

Saxophonist Greg Vail had a bad experience checking his horn. Yes, he did check it—sent it to be stowed in the airplane’s cargo hold rather than carrying it on himself. But it wasn’t the baggage handlers who caused a problem. It was security inspectors who opened the strong custom flight case, damaged the key clamps, broke some reeds, and couldn’t get everything packed up properly again.

I know I need to carry this case because they have done this before, but the real question is why?? I feel like these goofballs would riffle thru my medicine cabinet given the chance just because they are noisy and idiots, but I digress.

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“Dilbert” creator Scott Adams on practicing

Woodwind practicing also improves your spittle production.

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams gave his interesting take on practicing today on his blog.

I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours playing pool, mostly as a kid. I’m not proud of that fact. Almost any other activity would have been more useful. As a result of my wasted youth, years later I can beat 99% of the public at eight-ball. But I can’t enjoy that sort of so-called victory. It doesn’t feel like “winning” anything.

It feels as meaningful as if my opponent and I had kept logs of the hours we each had spent playing pool over our lifetimes and simply compared. It feels redundant to play the actual games.

I see the same thing with tennis, golf, music, and just about any other skill…

Read the whole thing here.

While there certainly are other factors that can affect a musician’s success, I do tend to think that a primary predictor of a musician’s ability level is the number of hours logged in quality, focused practice. With a challenging solo recital on the schedule for tomorrow night, there is a certain kind of appeal to the notion of walking on stage, displaying a log of the hours I’ve put in, taking a bow, and making my exit. But instead I’ll hope that the time I’ve put in practicing will make “victory” a sure thing.

Petition: Ask the U.S. Congress to support better air travel for musicians

instrument cases
Photo, nobleviola

The American Federation of Musicians, the world’s largest organization promoting the interests of professional musicians, has put its support behind the U.S. Senate’s version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill (S.1451). This bill seeks to overhaul many aspects of air travel, and the official summary includes this text:

(Sec. 713)

Requires an air carrier to permit an air passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument on a passenger aircraft without charge if it can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft or under a passenger seat. Sets forth requirements for the carriage of musical instruments as checked baggage or as occupants of a purchased seat.

The AFM is calling for “all musicians” to sign a petition in support of including the relevant text from the Senate version in the final version of the bill. You can sign the petition at the AFM’s website.

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Confessions of a mail-order shopper

I’m not sure I can recall the last time I walked into a music store and bought something.

I hear every so often that I should support local businesses and mom-and-pop shops, and I have to admit that this sounds vaguely like a responsible and virtuous thing to do. But here’s why I don’t—and can’t.

  1. It costs too much. Prices are inevitably higher in local stores. I understand that so-called “full-service” establishments have overhead, but so do I. If they can justify charging higher prices, it seems fair that I can justify shopping around.
  2. They don’t stock what I need. Other than a few scattered specialty shops, local music stores stock what they can sell in volume, and that’s inexpensive instruments and accessories for the beginning band market. I live in a small town, but even in the fairly large cities where I have lived, I have, more frequently than not, been unable to get what I like. A few months ago I made a two-and-a-half hour drive to go saxophone shopping with a student at a large music store in a large city. The store was large enough to have a saxophone specialist on staff. The store regularly stocks one brand of (arguably) professional-quality saxophone (and it’s not Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa, or Keilwerth), and had exactly two major-brand instruments available, used. We also contacted a small saxophone specialty shop that was a little farther away, one that actually has “saxophone” in the store’s name. They had zero pro-line horns in stock.
  3. As far as I can tell, the “superior customer service” factor is largely a myth. I think most woodwind players have experienced the frustration of going into a music store and being “helped” by the heavy-metal guitarist behind the counter. And even in specialty shops, I’ve rarely found a salesperson who can answer serious questions with much more than regurgitated advertising copy or a personal opinion. And, while I don’t doubt that specialty retailers are passionate about what they do, it’s important to keep in mind that they are businesspeople and subject to motivations other than getting you the best possible product for the smallest possible price.

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