4 Levels of Jazz Piano Harmony

Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
Level 3

Learning Focus
  • Analysis
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Reharmonization
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing

One of the most confusing topics for jazz piano students is harmony.  How do professional jazz pianists know which chords work with a melody, which extra harmony notes they can add to those chords, how to distribute the notes of the chord with the melody, and how to add extra passing chords? In today’s jazz piano lesson, I’m going to teach you the 4 levels of jazz piano harmony so that you can easily play any jazz lead sheet.  You’ll learn these 4 harmonic pillars, including chord:

  1. Function: how chords move from one to another
  2. Color: which colors you can add to each chord type
  3. Voicing: how to spread these notes to get a beautiful sound
  4. Passing chords: which notes you can add between the main chords of a song

If you understand these pillars, you will be able to transform any melody into a beautiful jazz arrangement. In today’s lesson, we’ll be working with a simple lead sheet melody. Are you ready to finally understand jazz piano harmony? Let’s dive in.

Jazz Piano Harmony: Start with Melody

In music, you have 3 primary components: melody, harmony, and rhythm.  The king of all of these is melody… your harmony and your rhythm serve it.  Therefore, whenever you explore jazz harmony on a given song, you want to make sure that the melody is rock solid.

In today’s jazz piano lesson, we’re going to look at a very simple melody to demonstrate the 4 levels of jazz harmony.  Here is the melody I would like you to learn:

Simple lead sheet piano demonstration melody for 4 pillars of jazz piano harmony
Simple lead sheet piano demonstration melody for 4 pillars of jazz piano harmony

As you can see, the melody is only 2 measures, but the principles you will learn in today’s Quick Tip apply to any song.  I recommend that you memorize this melody and practice playing it in other keys. By the way, with the Smart Sheet Music, you can practice this whole lesson in any key with the click of one button.

Now that you have the melody in your hands, it’s time to start the harmonic process.  First on the agenda… 7th chords!

Jazz Piano Harmony Pillar 1: 7th Chords

Whenever you want to add jazz harmony to a melody, the first step in the 4 levels of jazz piano harmony is to find which 7th chords you want to use harmonize this melody.  A 7th chord is a 4-note chord built in 3rds, and they come from the major scale.  For example, if you take a C Major Scale (C D E F G A B) and build a 7th chord on the C, you will have the notes C E G B.  This is called a C Major 7 Chord, and it is your first “Diatonic 7th Chord” (by “diatonic” we mean that it comes from the C Major Scale).

Diatonic 7th Chords

If you build another 7th chords on the 2nd note of the scale, the D, you have D F A C, and we call this D Minor 7.  Now, if you do this all the way up the scale, you have Em7, FMaj7, G7, Am7, and B diminished 7.  If you want to play jazz piano, it is crucial that you know your diatonic 7th chords because they are the basis of jazz harmony… all other jazz harmony is built on them.  You can do a deep dive on diatonic 7th chords in our Diatonic 7 Chords Exercises course, where you learn your diatonic 7  chords in all 12 keys with exercises.

Once you have played all your diatonic 7 chords in the key of C, it’s time to start adding some chords to the melody.  Which chords do you add?  Well, there’s not necessarily “right” or “wrong” chords, but there are certain chords that will harmonize this melody better than others.

Finding Your First Chord

Let’s look at our first melody note, C.  If you analyze this melody, it uses notes from the C Major Scale.  Therefore, it is safe to assume that this song is in the key of C Major.  Most tunes that are in a given key will start with a chord built on that note.  In other words, if a melody uses primarily notes from the C Major Scale, then is most likely going to start on a C Major Chord (C E G). Furthermore, because the first note is a C, and this is a chord tone for a C Major chord, then we know it will work with a C Major Chord.

Now, since we are playing jazz, we want to make this chord a 7th chord, so we can add a 7th to the chord.  However, in jazz music, a common substitute for the 7th on a major 7 chord is the 6th, in this case, the A. Try playing a C Major 7 (C E G B) with your melody note C, and then try a C Major 6 (C E G A). Which do you like better? Generally, I like to use the A to harmonize a melody note C. Therefore, I would play a C6 for the first chord.

To learn all your 7th chords in all 12 keys and how to use them in songs, checkout these courses for additional practice: Major 7 Chords Course, Dominant 7 Chords Course, & Minor 7 Chords Course. You can also checkout the 7th chord exercises courses: Major 7 Exercises, Minor 7 Exercises , & Dominant 7 Exercises.

Now that we have our first chord, how do figure out which diatonic 7th chords to use for the remainder of the melody? The secret is to start at the end and work your way backwards.

The 5-1 Principle

A very important principle of jazz harmony is that 5 leads to 1.  In other words, a chord built on a G will usually lead to a C chord (G is up 5 notes from C).  Since we are using 7th chords, we will make it a G7 (G B D F).  Play a G7 to a C Maj7:

G7 to C Major 7, root position 7th chords
G7 to C Major 7, root position 7th chords

Notice how it feels like a nice resolution? This is called the 5-1 principle and it works over nearly all chords.

Now, since the song starts on a C6, we can add the G7 at the end of the tune on the melody note B:

Melody with C6 G7
Melody with C6 G7

This brings us back to the C6 chord. Well, how do we add more chords to the arrangement? Continue using the 5-1 principle!

What chord can we add in front of the G7? If we count up 5 notes from G, we have D.  Let’s make that a 7th chord (D F A C).  Now we have the chords C6, Dm7, G7:

Melody with G6 Dm7, G7 2-5-1 chord progression
Melody with G6 Dm7, G7 2-5-1 chord progression

This is called a 2-5-1 chord progression and it is one of the most common progressions in jazz music (for a deep dive on the 2-5-1 chord progression, checkout our course 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises.

Now, there is room to add one more chord to this arrangement.  What do you think is a good chord? Well, let’s count up 5 notes from D, and we have an A.  Let’s make this a 7th chord, and now we have an Am7 chord.  Now our chord progression is C6 Am7 Dm7 G7:

Melody with C6 Am7 Dm7 G7 turnaround progression
Melody with C6 Am7 Dm7 G7 turnaround progression

The Turnaround Progression

This is called the Turnaround Progression, and it is one of the most common and most important progressions in jazz music (it’s used on hundreds of songs!). The reason it is so powerful is because of this 5-1 harmonic principle.  The progression wants to perpetually loop itself, so it is a very pleasing harmonic progression to write melodies on.  For a deep dive on the Turnaround Progression, checkout the Amazing Turnaround Progression course.

Now, the Turnaround is not the only progression in jazz music, and there are other melodies where another progression might work better.  The key to remembers is that your chord progression must serve your melody, meaning that the chords will usually contain notes from the melody. Secondly, you want to use this 5-1 principle to create an interesting chord progression (for other uses of the 5-1 principle on 8 different chord progressions, checkout the Lead Sheet 7th Chords course).

Now that you understand chord function, it’s time to add some color to the chords.

Jazz Piano Harmony Pillar 2: Chord Extensions

G7 to C Major 7, root position 7th chords
G7 to C Major 7, root position 7th chords

The next pillar in the 4 levels of jazz piano harmony is extensions.  It’s great that you have the basic 7th chords, but we want to add more color to them.  How do we do that? With chord extensions.

What is a chord extension?

Chord extensions are the remaining 3 notes of a chord after you’ve built a 7th chord.  Specifically, they are the 9th, 11th, and the 13th of a chord.  For example, on a C Major 7 chord (C E G B), if we continued building 3rds up the chord, we have a D (the 9), and F (the 11), and the A (the 13).  For more on chord extensions, checkout our course Coloring Dominant Chord With Extensions.

Now, which chord extensions can you add to the above chords? Well, here is a quick guide:

  • Major 6 or Major 7 Chords: add the 9
  • Minor 7 Chords: add the 8 and/or 11
  • Dominant 7 Chords: add the 9 and/or 13

Now, go through the chords of this arrangement and try adding the extensions above.  On the first chord, C6, add the 9, the D.  Quite nice! On the A minor 7 chord, add the 9 (the B) and the 11 (the D).  On the Dm7, add the 9 (the E) and the 11 (the G), and on the G7 chord, add the 9 (the A) and the 13 (the E).

Now, these chords all sound really nice, but how do you distribute the notes, or spread the notes out on the keyboard, so that they sound good with the melody?  This is the topic of Chord Voicing, and it is the next pillar of jazz harmony.

Jazz Piano Harmony Pillar 3: Chord Voicing

How do you spread the notes out on a chord so that it sounds very beautiful?  This is called Chord Voicing and there are many options for each chord. For example on a C6 chord, you could play C A in the left hand and D G C in your right hand.  Or you could play C E G in your left hand, and G C D in your right hand.  If you added up all the ways you could play each chord, there are literally hundreds of options, and this is what get’s jazz piano students confused…. which is the “right way”? Well, there isn’t exactly a “right” or “wrong” way, but there is a more ideal with and a less ideal way.

When it comes to chord voicing, there are 2 general things I like to do. I like to spread the notes out in primarily 4th intervals, or “quartal” voicings, or I like to play notes of the chord close together, or chord “clusters”.

Using these two ideas, you can come up with a very nice sounding arrangement.   Here is an example of what the arrangement sounds like with the spread out notes:

Jazz piano harmony pillar #3, melody with quartal and cluster voicings
Jazz piano harmony pillar #3, melody with quartal and cluster voicings

If you analyze this sheet music, you’ll discover that the notes in each of these chords is the same as the notes from Pillar 2, but they are primarily spread out in 4th intervals or clusters. You will also notice that bottom of the chord usually contains the “primary” notes of the chord (1 3 5 and/or 7), while the top contains more of the extensions “9, 11, and 13”.

Now, it’s beyond the scope of this lesson to discuss each chord in detail, however, you can do a deep dive on Quartal Voicings in our Quartal Voicings course, and you can learn more about rootless voicings in our Rootless Voicings course.

Now that you have played these beautiful chord voicings, it’s time for the final pillar our 4 levels of jazz piano harmony, passing chords.

Jazz Piano Harmony Pillar 4: Passing Chords

A passing chord is a chord that you can between two other chords. If you analyze this arrangement, there are a lot of gaps between the chords, and it’s ideal to fill these gaps in with other chords.  How do you do this? With passing chords! There are many ways to use passing chords in an arrangement, but one of the most common devices that jazz musicians will use is Tritone Substitution and Secondary Dominants.

What is a Secondary Dominant Chord?

A secondary dominant chord is a dominant 7 chord a 5th above a target chord.  Therefore, if I want to get to a Dm7 chord, I can use an A7 (A is 5 notes above D). If I want to get to a G7, I can use a D7 (D is 5 notes up from G). Therefore, in this arrangement, you can add an E7 in front of the Am7, and A7 in front of the Dm7, and a D7 in front of the G7 like this:

Melody with secondary dominant passing chords
Melody with secondary dominant passing chords

Now, let’s combine this with our next concept, tritone substitution.

What is Tritone Substitution?

Tritone substitution is a type of chord substitute where a dominant 7 chord is substituted for another dominant 7 chord a tritone, or 3 whole steps, away.  For example, a C7 can be substituted for a Gb7 (Gb is 3 whole steps up/down from C).  For a deep dive on how tritone substitution works, plus other types of passing chords, checkout our Passing Chords & Reharmonization courses (Level 2, Level 3).

Therefore, what if we use our tritone substitution idea on this arrangement? Well, we would replace the E7 with Bb7, the A7 with Eb7, and the D7 with Ab7.  Now, let’s add the corresponding chord colors to each of these chords and voice these chords using quartals and cluster chords.  Finally, we end up with this arrangement:

Jazz piano harmony pillar #4, melody with quartal voicings, cluster voicings, and passing chords
Jazz piano harmony pillar #4, melody with quartal voicings, cluster voicings, and passing chords

For even more passing chord ideas, you can learn 5 in this Quick Tip.

Jazz Piano Harmony Conclusion

As you can see, the topic of jazz harmony is quite complex and there are many layers to the 4 levels of jazz piano harmony. However, if you truly understand each of these ideas, you will start to be able to create beautiful jazz arrangement of any lead sheet.

Now, if you want to do a deep dive on analyzing and understanding jazz chord progressions, checkout the Jazz Standard Analysis course.

Another excellent course is our 6 Jazz Ballad Harmonic Approaches (Level 2, Level 3).

And finally, for a deep dive on how to apply the harmonic concepts above to tunes, a great course is The Way You Look At Me Jazz Ballad course (Level 2, Level 3)

That’s all for today’s lesson!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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