Jonny May
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Imagine you are taking a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before. You probably don’t want to look like a tourist, but you’re not sure how to blend in and you don’t know the language. What you need are connections! The right connections will help you avoid awkward moments and allow you to fit in as you adjust to your new surroundings. Of course, the foreign land on your itinerary is jazz piano and the local language is improvisation. The connections you need to step out with confidence in jazz piano improvisation are chromatic neighbors. Without them, you will certainly sound like you’re not from around here. Thankfully, this Quick Tip will give you the connections you need. You’ll learn:

  • Upper Neighbors
  • Lower Neighbors
  • Modes
  • Diatonic 7th Chords
  • Improv applications

Beginner and intermediate players will learn the lay of the land with this simple improv exercise that introduces jazz piano chromatic neighbors. Advanced players will appreciate the comprehensive scope of today’s lesson from jazz drills to practical application.

We’ve already got everything packed—so what are you waiting for?

1st Stop: Diatonic 7th Chords

The exercise shown below for developing fluency with jazz piano chromatic neighbors is centered on an ascending progression of Diatonic 7th chords in the left hand. If you are comfortable with Diatonic 7th chords, you can jump ahead to the 2nd Stop on our trip.

Jazz Piano Chromatic Neighbors Exercise
Jazz piano chromatic neighbors exercise measures 1–4
What are Diatonic 7th chords?

Diatonic 7th chords are the 7th chords that naturally occur in a particular key, without accidentals. For example, in C major, the diatonic 7th chords are all of the seventh chords that employ white keys only.

Diatonic 7th Chords in C
Diatonic 7th Chords in C

While these are not the only chords that can function in C major, they make up the bounded set of Diatonic 7th chords in C. It is common for jazz tunes in C major to also employ others chords, such as G minor 7 or F minor 6; however, these are considered borrowed chords, as opposed to diatonic chords, since they are not native to the key signature.

If you need a refresher on how to find root position Diatonic 7th chords, you’ll find our course on Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises to be a great resource.

2nd Stop: Navigating through Modes

The right hand in our jazz piano chromatic neighbors exercise uses 5-note scale segments from each of the diatonic modes. One helpful way to understand diatonic modes is as the linear counterpart to the diatonic 7th chords. In other words, modes accomplish horizontally what chords accomplish vertically. In the example below, as each measure in the left hand ascends to the next diatonic 7th chord in the key, the right hand also features the corresponding 5-note scale segment beginning on the next mode.

Chromatic Neighbor Exercise m1-4 Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian
Jazz piano chromatic neighbors exercise measures 1-4
What are modes in music?

Modes are scales created when treating each tone of the major scale as a separate starting pitch. Since there are seven tones in a major scale, there are also seven modes for every major key.

While there is much more that can be said about modes, the focus of today’s Quick Tip is on connecting from one mode to the next as you move from chord to chord. For a full discussion on modes, check out our Quick Tip called How to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano.

Now, let’s meet your new neighbors!

3rd Stop: Meet Your Chromatic Neighbors

Chromatic neighbors are a linguistic device that is part of the essential nature of jazz melody. Chromatic neighbors are embedded in the many of the melodies of jazz standards as well as the improvised lines of jazz masters.

What are chromatic neighbors?

Chromatic neighbors are notes that resolve up or down to a chord tone by ½ step.

Chromatic Neighbors in Jazz Standards

Many classic jazz tunes employ chromatic neighbor notes in their melodies. This does not mean that every time you seen an accidental in your fake book that a chromatic neighbor is being used. Remember, the chromatic neighbor is a non-chord-tone resolving to a chord tone by ½ step. Here are a few memorable examples.

“Take the A Train”

The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature tune, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn in 1940, makes prominent use of chromatic neighbors in the melody. In the excerpt below, the G♭ functions as an upper neighbor to the F and the D♭ is an upper neighbor that resolves across the bar line, connecting the G7 to the C6.

Chromatic Neighbor Ex 1 "Take the A Train" Billy Strayhorn Duke Ellington jazz piano
Example 1: chromatic upper neighbors in Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”
“Tenor Madness”

Sonny Rollin’s 1956 recording of “Tenor Madness” is significant as the only existing recording of Rollins and John Coltrane playing together. The tune is a 12-Bar Blues form in B♭. As the form moves to the V7 chord (F7), the melody ornaments the 3rd of the chord (A) using its upper neighbor (B♭) and lower neighbor (G♯).

Chromatic Neighbor Ex 2 "Tenor Madness" Sonny Rollins
Example 2: chromatic upper and lower neighbors in Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness”
“‘Round Midnight”

Thelonious Monk’s classic ballad “‘Round Midnight” written in 1939 is one of the most recorded jazz standards in history with legendary recordings by  Miles Davis (1959), Ella Fitzgerald (1962) and Bobby McFerrin (1986) to name a few. The melody excerpt below shows use of a chromatic lower neighbor.

Chromatic Neighbor Ex 3 "'Round Midnight" Thelonious Monk Cootie Williams Bernie Hanighen Miles Davis
Example 3: chromatic lower neighbor in Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”

Chromatic Neighbor Exercise

As you can see from these examples, the use of chromatic neighbors forms an essential component of the jazz language. Consequently, neighbor notes are also indispensable in jazz improvisation. The following exercise is designed to allow you to deliberately practice connecting melodic lines with upper and lower neighbors as you transition from chord to chord. This lays the foundation for improvisation with chromatic neighbors.

Neighbor Exercise Ascending with Labels Jazz Piano
Neighbor exercise (ascending)

You can download the complete lesson sheet along with six backing tracks from the bottom of this page when you log in with your Piano With Jonny membership. You can also transpose this exercise to any key with one click using our Smart Sheet Music.

In our final stop for today, you’ll see an example of how to transition this exercise into improvisation.

Final Stop: Improv Application with Chromatic Neighbors

By now, you are feeling much more at home with understanding how to identify chromatic neighbors. It’s time to improvise with these new connections. Here is one example of how you might begin to apply this concept in your own playing.

Jazz piano Improvisation Using Chromatic Neighbors
Jazz piano solo using chromatic neighbors

Well done—welcome to the neighborhood! If you enjoyed this Quick Tip, then you will love the following full-length courses in our library:

Thanks for learning with us today—see you next time!

Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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