Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, genres, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
S2 | E3 – What Makes Jazz, Jazz ?
Jazz is music for musicians.
Really, that’s it.
I could end this article here, but it probably warrants a little more explanation.
If we want to go way back, jazz started after the Civil War in New Orleans. Recently freed black people still worked long hours six days a week. They’d go to church on Sunday mornings and some would then go to the open market in Congo Square in the afternoons to play music together. Much of that music was improvised. Congo Square is considered to be the birthplace of jazz.
Others say that jazz started with ragtime piano, which I’ll get to, but I’d argue that jazz didn’t really become jazz until the invention of the drum set. Prior to that, percussion wasn’t handled by one person. Some people played snare drums, others played tom toms, a few had cymbals and tambourines. One would play the bass drum. That all changed with the bass drum pedal.
The bass drum pedal allowed musicians to play the bass drum with a foot (which is why it’s now also called the kick drum) and have their hands free to play other instruments. That could be a guitar or trumpet or something, but it could also be other drums.
There’s some argument about who invented the bass drum pedal, and patents for various designs go back to 1850, but the drum set itself is thought to have been invented by Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler in New Orleans in the mid-1890s.
He made his own bass pedal out of a steel spring, a chain, and wood from a milk crate, and then tied a snare drum to the bass drum with rope. It wasn’t much, but he was an immediate hit and other drummers started putting together their own sets.
When a group of drummers play a single drum each, their parts must be fairly rigid and predictable. Each player has to play right on the beat and stay in sync with all the others. Once the drum set came along, a single drummer could experiment with playing different parts with his various hands and feet.
He, and it was almost always he, could play a straight beat on the kick drum, for instance, and triplets on the ride cymbal. He could leave notes out. He might be slightly late on some beats. It might be late by only milliseconds, but playing “behind the beat” or even “ahead of the beat” makes the music more lively. More danceable.
There are endless variations that are easier for one person to come up with, or improvise, than for an entire drum section of a band. Ragtime piano players had been experimenting with syncopated rhythms for a while. It’s subtle but you can hear it in this piano roll of Grizzly Rag that George Botsford recorded in 1910. There’s nothing stiff or regimented about it like there would be with a drum section.
That kind of loose rhythm ragtime solo artists were using could now be done by an ensemble with a single drummer giving them a swinging beat. This is why this syncopation is called swing, and swing is a crucial element of jazz. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre called swing. Here’s a quick video explaining the elements of swing.
The key word here is “experiment.” Ragtime players tried something new, and they came up with beats that swing, and then drummers with the newfangled drum set tried it, too. Experimentation – the pushing of boundaries, exploring new sounds and rhythms and harmonies and structure – is what I mean when I say “jazz is music for musicians.”
Jazz is musicians pushing the art and themselves and each other as far as they can go.
Now, sometimes that makes the music unlistenable for some non-musicians. But some of the most popular songs of the first sixty years of recorded music are classified as jazz. With its swinging rhythms, it was primarily dance music.
In the 1940s, the United States had a war to pay for. To help with that effort, the federal government instituted a 30% Cabaret Tax.
It was an excise tax on any establishment that served food or drink and had live music for dancing.
A few nightclubs got around this by hiring performers to lip sync to records. Since no one was singing or playing instruments, it didn’t meet the legal definition of cabaret, and audiences still got to see performers in elaborate costumes.
Other venues replaced the dance floor with tables and chairs. If there was no dancing, they didn’t meet the definition of cabaret either. Not only did this save the club all that tax, there were more seats to put customers in. For the musicians, it meant they were no longer limited to playing just dance music. They could experiment more.
The chief result was bebop. This major subgenre of jazz was sometimes too fast for dancing because musicians were free to see how fast they could go. They played parts of astounding complexity at lightning speeds, and an awful lot of it was improvised, made up on the spot.
Here’s John Coltrane making it up as he goes on a 1959 tune called Giant Steps. It’s the one jazz sax players aspire to, both because of the speed and the complexity of the chord pattern he’s playing over. In this video, someone has transcribed his improvised solo.
The structure for bebop and other jazz songs is head / solos / head. The head is a recognizable melody that’s played at the start and end of each tune. The chord structure under that melody is then repeated as the various players take turns improvising solos over it. Each solo might be twice through the chord pattern, but if a player is having a particularly good night, he might solo through it three or four or twenty-seven times.
Every night is different, which is why live jazz recordings always have the venue and date listed on the cover.
The other thing you’ll find on every cover is a list of the personnel. Like authors, the best musicians have their own voice. Chet Baker and Maynard Fergurson both play trumpet, but sound nothing alike. Dedicated jazz fans can look at the personnel – this piano player with that bass player and those two horn players – and tell whether they’ll like a record or not.
In addition to speed, another common characteristic of bebop and all jazz is extended chords.
In last week’s article about country music, I talked a bit about the 7th chord. To make this explanation as easy as possible, let’s start with a major chord.
The C major chord is made up of three notes, C, E, and G. Notice that it skips over the notes D and F. (The technical explanation is that the notes are a third apart, but let’s keep this simple.)
If we keep using that pattern to add more notes, we’ll skip over the A and add a B, which is the 7th note in the C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. So this new chord made up of C, E, G, and B is called C major 7.
Let’s extend it further and say the scale is two octaves: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. From that B we just added in the C major 7 chord, we’ll skip over the next note, which is C, and add the D. So now we have C, E, G, B, and D. It’s called a C major 9. We call it a 9 to specify we want the second D up from our root note.
And if we keep going, we’d skip the E, add the F to use C, E, G, B, D, and F, and we’d have a C major 11 chord.
These extended chords can get as complicated as you want. You can add another note up for a 13 chord. You can flatten, say, the 7 or sharpen some other note. You can put any of these notes in the bass part. Some extended chords are beautiful. Others, not so much, but this is why jazz musicians must understand music theory inside and out.
If you want to have a little fun, go to http://www.gootar.com/piano/index5.php and start clicking notes on the keyboard. You can select notes on a pseudo piano keyboard and the site will tell you the name of the chord.
In this very abbreviated history of jazz, the next big change was fusion.
This was the joining of jazz musicianship with rock intensity and instruments. The synthesizer became an important instrument.
1973 was a big year for fusion with album releases like Return To Forever’s Light As A Feather, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. While fusion attracted jazz players, a lot of rock musicians joined in. Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and Phil Collins were part of the fusion scene.
The 1980s brought smooth jazz, a sort of mellowed out, vocalless R&B with excellent musicianship. Many in the jazz community saw it as a money grab by artists and labels, and that it was a step backwards. While it’s true that smooth jazz didn’t have much experimentation, there’s no denying the talent of players like Chuck Mangione, George Benson, and Kenny G.
It’s hard to say where jazz is going in the 21st century. Part of that is my own lack of knowledge.
To my ears, jazz in 2022 sounds more influenced by bebop than by anything since. Throw in some contemporary classical, too.
The other part of predicting where jazz will go is the great jazz experiment will take us where musicians yet to be born take it.
The next Miles Davis could still be in diapers. Hang on, this could swing hard.
Metropolitan Dance Band – Music Box Rag (1914)
Mildred Bailey – Rocking Chair (1932)
Tommy Dorsey – Boogie Woogie (1938)
Miles Davis & Charlie Parker – A Night In Tunisia (1946)
Oscar Peterson – Smiles (1947)
Miles Davis – Move (1957)
Les McCann & Eddie Harris – Compared To What (1969)
Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters – Chameleon (1973)
Weather Report – Birdland (1977)
Spyro Gyra – Cafe Amore (1980)
Kamasi Washington – Final Thought (2015)
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