So, You Want To Read A Jazz Chart?
Growing up as an aspiring guitar player, and surrounded by jazz-enthusiast guitar teachers, I was rather taken aback by what all these brilliant musicians couldn’t tell me. The Howard Roberts Guitar Book, was thrust into my face with its note-for-note transcriptions of jazz stylings, and it just wasn’t doing it for me. And, I had no idea why, other than that I must be stupid. I was told early on, “You have to get you the Real Book,” which is a giant book of jazz standards with each song written simply as a chord chart with the melody written out on on a musical staff for each song. I know guitarists and even classically trained piano players that, to this day, can’t read a “jazz chart.” What could be so esoteric about a jazz chart, which is usually nothing more than one page of music describing how the song should be played? Well, it’s rather cryptographic in many ways to a new musician, or even a musician that’s never been properly introduced to a chart. The first thing I did when I saw weird chord names such as Bb7#5 or Cmaj7#11 was to run down to the music store and buy a chord book. This book would have you trying to memorize every chord in every key inside of its 200+ pages. That was never going to happen. In this article, I’ll show you why there is no need to ever buy a book of chords, to figure out for yourself rather easily how to construct any chord from an understanding of the numerical progression of the major scale, and to decipher all the variations of cryptic symbolism inherent in a jazz chart.
We’re going to start with a classic piece of music by Thelonious Monk, called “‘Round Midnight.”
Here’s the chart from the Real Book, as Miles Davis performed it:
The first chord symbol we notice above the staff is Eb-. Ok, the “-” symbol simply indicates it is minor in key. The thing about jazz charts is that they are not consistent in their symbolism. The “-” symbol means it is minor, but so does a small “m,” which you will find in other charts. It’s the same thing. So is the capital “M” for “Major,” the same as writing “maj,” or in some cases, the symbol for major is written with the symbol, “Δ,” as in “CΔ7.” A little standardization would be nice, but flakey musicians don’t seem to like that. The same thing goes for augmented and diminished chords, which will sometimes be written simply with a “+5” or “-5” symbol, or they will be written as “aug” or “dim.” (Note: another inconsistency and confusing thing in these chords is that sometimes an augmented chord will be written with the “+” sign as in “F+” or “F+7.” This means that there is a +5 in the chord, even though you would naturally think it would have something to do with the third, since “-” denotes a minor chord.)
After getting around the inconsistencies in interpretation of the chords, we need to figure out how to construct these things. Frank Zappa taught me that there are only 3 basic chord types in the universe of Western musical composition – they are Major, minor, and dominant chords. Others will argue, but these are the three main types of chords that a musician must know. So, what makes up these chords? The chords are made up completely from the notes in the “diatonic major scale.” *
We can define the diatonic major scale as the simple 8-tone scale commonly learned when we’re young as the solfeggio scale. This solfeggio scale involves assigning the notes of a scale a particular syllable, and then practicing by singing different note sequences using these syllables.
It is simply, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.
These syllables also are assigned a number, respectively, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (1 or octave). These numbers are called the “degrees of the scale.”
The Major scale is made up of whole steps and half steps, with the half steps occurring between 3 and 4, and 7 and 8. The rest are all whole steps. On the guitar, whole steps and half steps are easily represented by the frets – a half step is one fret, and a whole step is two frets. On the piano, the space between the white keys separated by a black key are whole steps – half steps are between the white and black keys, except where two white keys are next to each other (a half step). In a C major scale, the half steps are denoted on the piano as the two white keys next to each other, or 3 and 4 and 7 and 8 (which is why there is no B#/Cb and there is no E#/Fb).
With this numbering system of the major scale, one can figure out what any chord is by its symbol. So let’s get back to the three types of chords, and how they are constructed.
A Major chord has the notes, 1, 3, and 5 in it. Simple. The C Major chord has the 1, 3, and 5 of the C Major scale in it, period.
Now a minor chord is comprised of the 1, b3, and 5 in it. The third is flatted, or reduced in pitch by a half step. The flatted 3rd is all that makes a chord minor.
A dominant or 7th chord has in it a 1, 3, 5, and a b7, the seventh being reduced by a half step. If you think this is weird or stupid, you are not alone. Why would a C7 chord be called “dominant,” or have a b7 in it? Why wouldn’t it simply have a natural 7 in it if it’s called a “C7” chord? Well, if it has a natural 7th in it, it is called a Cmaj7, or a CM7, or a CΔ7 chord. All dominant chords have a flatted 7th, something that will just have to be committed to memory.
The cool thing about this numbering system for chord construction, is that we don’t even have to know what notes are in the chord, we just have to know what the numbers of the notes are that correspond to the chord.
Let’s go back to the ‘Round Midnight chart above to illustrate this.
The first chord is Eb- or E flat minor. Now if we play an Eb Major scale, and count from the Eb we would start on, our third, we know, has to be flatted, or reduced by a half step, 1-b3-5. Now we know how to play that chord, even though we don’t really know the exact notes that make up the chord.
Besides the Major (1-3-5), minor (1-b3-5), and dominant (1-3-5-b7) chords, there are other chords that we can figure out based on this simple system. Let’s look at the next chord in the chart above, C-7b5.
We have to start with the “C” in the C-7b5 and play a C Major scale. We count from C as 1 and we see the minus sign and know that the chord is minor, and hence, the 3 needs to be flatted (b3). Next we see a “7” and since it doesn’t say “maj7” or “Δ7” we know it too must be flatted (b7). Finally, we see a “b5” in the chord, so we count the Major scale to the 5th note and we know we have to flat this 5. The final chord structure ends up, “1(C)-b3-b7-b5.”
Now, what about these chords that have a “9” or an “11” in them? If the scale only goes to 8, what are we to do with these chords? This is simple as well – we just count from 8 forward and add the next note in the sequence. The chord symbol will also tell you if these extra numbers are to be flatted or sharped, e.g., “Cmaj7b5#9” etc.
You will notice further across in the first stave a Bb7 with the term “alt” after it. This is an altered chord. The main use of alterations is to add them to dominant (flatted 7th) chords. These alterations add even more tension in the resolution to the root chord. Alterations to the dominant chord are specifically the b9, the #9, the b5 and #5. On charts like the one above, normally altered chords will be labeled as “Alt.” and it is your choice to decide which alterations to use based on how it sounds with the chord that follows it (this explanation of altered chords is simplified here – an entire chapter could be written just about altered chords).
You should, at this point, be able to figure out all of the rest of the chords in the ‘Round Midnight jazz chart, and any other jazz chart you encounter. Remember, it’s as simple as counting the degrees of the scale, and adjusting each note in that scale to fit the chord symbol.
* Technically, these chords are made up of the notes in an equally-tempered, 12-tone chromatic scale, but for our learning purposes here, we’ll stick to the 8-tone diatonic, or major scale.