Jazz Composition: 7 Hacks From The Pros

Would you like to learn how to create your own jazz composition properly?

You’re in the right place.

In this lesson, you’ll discover 7 aspects of what makes a great jazz tune.

Let’s get started.

How To Properly Craft A Jazz Composition Video

Before going any deeper, take 7 minutes to watch how Steve discusses important elements of jazz composition:

Now that you have watched the video above, let’s go deeper into the concepts discussed.

One Important Aspect For Jazz Composition Before Going Further

The first thing you need to do is decide on the form of your jazz composition.

A jazz composition, just like any other tune, can be divided into distinct sections.

Think of each section as a complete musical statement.

We label sections in music as letters (A, B, C, D, etc.).

What we call an A section is the first musical idea in the tune.

The succeeding sections are usually contrasting responses to the previous idea.

Let’s look at the piece, “On Green Dolphin Street“, as performed by the Count Basie Orchestra, as an example.

In the video below, you’ll hear the A section being sung from 00:15 to 00:28:

This is the first part we hear in the tune.

Now the B section of On Green Dolphin Street sounds really different from the A section.

You can hear it from 00:29 to 00:41 in the video:

After the B section, the A section is repeated:

Lastly, in response to the A section, you’ll hear a different section. We’ll call this the C section of the tune:

You can hear the C section from 00:55 to 01:09 of the video.

Because of the sequence of sections, we can say that “On Green Dolphin Street” has an ABAC form.

Many tunes have different forms, depending on the composer.

Other than ABAC, the most famous forms are ABA and the AABA form.

What makes each section distinct depends on seven factors you’ll discover below:

1. How To Place Your Chords Properly

The first aspect you want to consider is harmonic rhythm.

Harmonic rhythm simply talks about when and how long are the chords being played out.

For example, the A section of Green Dolphin Street has this particular harmonic rhythm:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

The harmonic rhythm as shown above is Fmaj7 for 2 bars, Abmaj7 (or Fm7(9) in other versions) for 2 bars, and then the rest of the chords for 1 bar each.

For the B section, the harmonic rhythm is as follows:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

 

We have 1 chord per bar except on the 8th bar where you have each chord occupying a half note.

When we look at the C section, the harmonic rhythm is also a bit different:

  

Varying the harmonic rhythms between sections already creates great variety.

Now let’s look at another rhythmic aspect.

2. Why Melodic Rhythm Matters

The second thing you need to look at is melodic rhythm.

You want the rhythms of the melody of each section to be distinct.

For instance, the A section of Green Dolphin Street uses long rhythms.

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

In the B section, we have different rhythmic patterns going on to match the verbiage of the lyrics:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

The C section also gets busier rhythmically speaking:

Let’s examine the next aspect of melody: the pitches themselves.

3. How To Give Your Song Sections More Identity

The sequence of pitches you use to build your melody matters a lot.

This is what makes a melody recognizable.

nt each melody to be distinct from each other.

This is the melody for the A section of Green Dolphin Street:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

Now this is for your B section, that is completely different from the A section:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

 

If you look at the C section, only the first few notes are similar to the B section. The rest of the pitches are completely different:

  

The rule is don’t play the same pitches of the A section in the same sequence and rhythm in a different section.

Make each section distinct pitch-wise.

To be more specific, here’s how it’s done using Green Dolphin Street:

  1. The A section starts on the root and focuses on it. Also take note that the melodic contour is primarily going downwards.
  2. The B section starts on the 5th of the key and ends the 1st phrase on the 5th. The melodic contour tends to go down and then up.
  3. The C section also starts on the 5th but ends the 1st phrase on the root. The melodic contour is also a bit different with extremes in register going up and then down in the end.

Be conscious about writing each section of your music as 3 distinct melodic ideas.

Let’s move on to another technique that will improve variety.

4. How Different Registers Create Variety

The next thing to consider is playing your different sections in different registers.

For instance, when we go to Green Dolphin Street, the A section is somewhat in a middle register.

The B section goes to a bit of a lower register than the A section.

Lastly, the C section goes low and then goes to a higher register towards the end.

The use of different registers from one section to the next creates a pleasant contrast.

Listen again to Green Dolphin Street to hear it happen.

Let’s look at another factor that can potentially influence the first 4 items we talked about.

5. How Chord Progressions Influence Your Jazz Composition

When writing music, consider the chord progression you use for each section.

Once you’re done drafting out a melody, you can harmonize it in different ways.

The chords you use per every melodic idea all depend on the melody notes.

Each melody note is almost always a chord tone of a particular chord.

Given that one note can be a chord tone of at least three different chords, you can use this to your advantage.

You can have different sets of chords from one section to the next.

If you look at Green Dolphin Street A section, we have a root major to root minor chord progression followed by a II and then bII chords before resolving to I:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

The B section has a ii-V-I-VI followed by another ii-V-I in a different key and then ends on a ii-V before going back to the A section:

Jazz Composition

Jazz Composition

The C section starts on the ii chord followed by a ii(b5) – V – i of the relative minor and then goes through another series of 2-5-1s that act as secondary dominants:

You also have a turnaround on the C section as well.

Because of the variation in the chords, this gives each section a distinct sound.

Talking about chord progressions, we have another trick related to this.

6. One Jazz Composition Trick That Creates Obvious Distinctions Between Sections

The secret here is to make sure that you’re using a completely different starting chord for each section.

This will influence the way you write your melody. This will also dictate how your chord progression will go.

For instance, the A section of Green Dolphin Street starts on the I chord.

In contrast, the B section starts on the ii chord.

It’s a pretty obvious trick, right?

Now let’s go deeper into talking about chords for your composition.

7. How To Balance Familiarity & Novelty

When most people listen to music, they usually want a blend of something familiar with a bit of spice.

This where you balance the use of diatonic and chromatic chords in your tune.

Diatonic chords are also what some people call family chords.

Family chords are called such because they exist naturally in a given key.

Chromatic chords don’t belong to a song’s key yet they will eventually resolve to the key.

On Green Dolphin Street features a mix of both family and chromatic chords.

The A section starts with a family chord, the I chord, and then we have a series of chromatic chords that go back to the I chord:

Now, the B section starts off with a familiar ii – V – I in the song’s key and then goes chromatic with another ii – V – I a minor 3rd higher.

Lastly, the C section starts with the ii chord but then goes to the ii(b5) – V – i of the relative minor.

After that, it ventures off into a series of secondary dominants that eventually resolve to the I chord

Now that you know these jazz composition hacks, let’s go further into refining your skills.

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We hope that you enjoyed this lesson on jazz composition.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for the next lesson, feel free to leave a note below.

All right. Time to put your creativity to work and start writing some music.

About The Author

Mark A. Galang

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at FreeJazzLessons.com. He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music.