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The Massive Misunderstanding About Modulations

The problem is that you probably don’t know what a key is, and it is a LOT more than you think!

If you look at the C major scale:

Then that is just the scale, the key of C major is so much more, and once you start to understand that then you are going to find it a lot easier to understand chord progressions, songs, and how to improvise over them and it will blow your mind with what you can do with chordsin the key of C major! I’ll show you along the way.

If I have to sum up what this video is about the it is:

Scale ≠ key

Let’s start with a chord progression that is in C major, but has quite a few chords that are not in the C major scale.

Diatonic Chords

An important part of the chords associated with a key are the diatonic chords of that the scale, so the chords you get, if you stack 3rds in the scale:

3rds

Triads

7th Chords

If you do that you have these chords:

The Progression

Here’s a chord progression that we can use to understand some of the chords that are in the key but not in the scale. In the example there are 3 categories of chords that are not diatonic to C major but are all common chords in songs in the key of C:

Immediately you can see that Cmaj7, Dm7, and Fmaj7 are all diatonic chords in C so they are easy to analyze. But there are a few left, I’ll start with the A7 and Eø chords, but first, let’s just talk about what a modulation is.

Modulations – It’s not just changing scales…

The first thing you need to realize is wrong is the rule that if you have to change the scale then you are also in another key. That is not how your ear experiences this, you can go back to the chord progression and listen if you can hear the C as root, and if that changes once you hear the A7.

So the key is more sticky than just diatonic chords, and it doesn’t modulate until it really establishes a different key, take a famous song like All The Things You Are, the first part is almost pretending to be in Fm and then turns out to be in Ab major:

But then you get a clear shift once it goes to G7 and resolves to Cmaj7 instead of the Cm7 that your ear expects:

First, just listen and notice at this point, it would not sound crazy if the songs stayed there and started to play a turnaround in C, to stay in that key.

So what is the difference between the G7 in All The Things and the A7 in my example progression:

The biggest difference is what you hear, you can hear that Ab is not the root anymore when it goes to Cmaj7 and stays there. But that also has to do with the fact that the Cmaj7 is on bar3 in 4 bar phrase so it is given a place in the form that is reserved for the “important” chords. Compared to A7 that is tucked away in the 2nd half of a bar.

Another difference is that the Cmaj7 is a tonic chord, where A7 is a dominant that might lead to another tonic chord but instead resolves back into the key when it goes to the II chord Dm7.

You can start by asking yourself these 3 things if you want to figure out if something is a modulation, and the first thing is indeed to use your ears and ask yourself if it sounds like one. Do I hear another root.

Is it a tonic chord, because if it is modulating then there has to be a root, and you also want to check if it is immediately moving back to the original key. That will help you recognize modulations.

Now you know why A7, Abmaj7, Eø and F#dim are not modulations, but what are they then?

Let’s start with the most common category:

Secondary Dominants and…

This is about what is probably one of the most important things about chord progressions, and your music is really boring if that is not in there: Forward motion!

If you listen to a piece of music then the chords should help you feel a story, they should create tension and resolution to keep it interesting, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to use Secondary dominants.

The strongest resolution we have in music is dominant to tonic:

But in the scale there is only one real dominant, and for C major that is G7.

Luckily the V I, or dominant resolution is so strong that we can add dominant chords for other chords as well, and these are called secondary dominants.

In the progression, the chords go from Cmaj7 to Dm7,

but to add some energy and push towards the Dm7. You can add an A7, and in this case that is the A7 shows up as belonging to the key of Dm because it resolves to Dm7:

Compared to just moving from Cmaj7 to Dm7., then there is clearly more happening, and this is just using a dominant resolution to have some energy towards Dm7. When you analyze these then you write a V but in a bracket to show that it is not the V of the key but a secondary dominant.

But there is another variation possible as well which is a bit later in the progression:

This is a variation of the secondary dominant, but instead of using the dominant, I am using the 7th degree of of the scale to resolve, so in C major that would be Bø Cmaj7,

and in if the chord it resolves to is a minor chord you would use a full diminished chord like this:

These work like the secondary dominants and are a little less common, but still in a lot of songs. You analyze them as secondary seventh: [VII]

Let’s move on to the chords that are probably the most beautiful, and then get to the category that people always try to argue doesn’t exist.

Minor in Major – The Most Beautiful Sound

The Grass is always greener on the other side, so when you are moving around in the major key it can sound really beautiful to have some chords that sound like they are from minor. This is mostly used with subdominant chords, but we do us it with the dominant as well sometimes.

In the example progression, I am using my favorite chord in the key of C major: Abmaj7, the bVImaj7.

Here it is used to create a more interesting transition back to Cmaj7 from Dm7, so it feels a bit like a major subdominant to a minor subdominant back to the tonic Like this:

“and of course I am playing it like this”:

And you can use most of the other beautiful options like a IVm chord:

A Backdoor dominant, which is really just an Fm6 with a funny bass note:

Or the Neapolitan Subdominant which sounds great but is a bit more complicated to explain:

S)

I have another video going into how these work and where they come from that you can check out, there’s a link in the description

Let’s talk about the one that people are always trying to argue doesn’t exist.

#IV – It IS a thing!

The #IV diminished chord! So many people want to tell you that it is really another chord that should resolve somewhere else, which already tells you that it is not a fantastic description. I’ll cover the most common one of those in a bit, but first let us look at what the #IVdim chord is:

The easiest way to understand it is probably to look at it as chord coming out of voice-leading, so if it resolves to Cmaj7 then you could look at it like this:

So really just a way to add a few chromatic leading notes when moving from F to C,

but looking at it like this also makes it clear that you are not modulating to another key, it is not related to another scale in any way. You should also notice that this voice-leading works really well backwards as well especially if you have a 6th on the F chord:

This is what this common progression is Cmaj7 Ebdim Dm7 really is

So that also demystifies that progression, I hope.

The #IV dim is also a great way to create suspensions:

and you will often find it reharmonized as a IIø V to III, especially In Jazz Standards this is often to harmonize a phrase where the 7th of the key is in the melody like “I Remember You”

The Thing It Isn’t

Why is that a common mistake? That isn’t a huge surprise, The first thing you learn is with diminished chords is probably about dominant diminished chords, something like

This is where you get used to blindly turn a dim chord into a dominant, and usually that conversion is where the root of the dim chord is the 3rd of the dominant, so for C#dim then the dominant with C# as a 3rd is A7, which makes sense since A7 is the dominant of Dm7.

But try to listen to the part of the progression that has the F#dim chord:

in this example you have an F#dim which would then translate to a D7(b9), but that doesn’t automatically make it a V of V, looking at it like that would be just looking at the notes and ignoring the other chords.

 

In the progression the F#dim does not resolve to G or G7, it resolves to a Cmaj7 chord, and notice how that still sounds like a resolution.

If you are in a major key, (we are in C major) then the V of V does not have a b9, try playing some songs with a V of V and listen to how a b9 sounds in that place, because that is not a common sound, I can right now only think of one song that has that, and that is to get a blues sound.

You also want to listen to how that dim chord or it’s inversion will resolve not only to the tonic chord, but also to other subdominants like Dm7 and Fm6.

So there are quite a few reasons why this is not just a V of V, and in fact, the diminished chord is not dominant at all, it is subdominant.

But I am sure people will still comment that it is a V of V also on this video…

Think Like The Pros

And this has to do with how you think about chords. Chords are more than notes, because the same chord can be many things depending on what context it is in. This is also a part of what makes Functional harmony such an incredibly powerful tool.

You can use that to not only understand the chord progression and make it simpler, it is also a great help in improvising over chords and knowing what notes to play.

To get into that approach and also how Barry Harris and Pat Martino approach harmony then check out this video which covers that and will make it easier to learn songs and solo over changes!

How The Pros Think About Chord Progressions (and you probably don’t)

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