Common Errors in Jazz Music Notation

October 28, 2009

When, in their music notation, jazz musicians violate fundamental rules of music theory, jazz is made less accessible to the classical music community, not to mention the promotion of inaccurate musicianship standards to jazz students. By contrast, jazz writers’ adherence to correct theory would benefit everyone, jazz and classical musicians alike.

In this article I’ll discuss several dubious music notational practices engaged in by jazz and pop musicians, especially composers and arrangers.

Sharp Nine/Flat Ten
Jazz musicians think of chords as being stacked in intervals of thirds 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. When a tone foreign to the chord is included, such as Eb in a chord consisting of C E G Bb Eb, they are likely to change that tone enharmonically in their mind to D# in order to suit that mode of thinking, and then call the chord C7#9 instead of C7b10. However, it’s not the 9th that has been raised but the 10th lowered. (I personally think of the b10 as a blue note anyway, which is a lowered rather than a raised tone.)

A classical musician picks up that music sheet and sees C E G Bb Eb with a chord symbol above it that says C7#9. He or she looks for the D# indicated by the #9, can’t find it in the chord, and rightly says “I’ll never understand this crazy jazz language.”

Example 1

I have no objection to the chord being called C7#9, provided that the underlying notes of the chord are spelled that way… with a D# rather than an Eb. But if the chord tones are spelled with an Eb (as I tend to do in my own original music and solo piano arrangements), then I feel strongly that the chord symbol should say C7b10. It is simply wrong theory and confusing to classical musicians to spell the notes of a chord one way but then identify the symbol above it another way. Please note the correct chord spelling in the examples below.

Example 2

It’s that inconsistency with respect to chord spelling that jazz writers frequently engage in, and by so doing make the language of jazz unfriendly and difficult to comprehend. I may be in the minority with respect to my views in this matter, but I feel justified in adhering to classical theory when writing jazz, instead of going along with incorrect and sloppy jazz custom and practice.

Dominant 7th (b9)
Speaking of enharmonic changes and correct theory, if one were to want to write an Ab7b9 chord, the chord tones should consist of Ab C Eb Gb Bbb, not Ab C Eb Gb A. The 9th degree of an Ab chord or scale is Bb; thus the lowered 9th is Bbb, not A.

Example 3

Diminished 7th
Again, if correct theory is to be observed, a C diminished 7th chord should ideally be spelled C Eb Gb Bbb, not C Eb F# A. After all, C up to A is a major 6th, not a diminished 7th that C to Bbb is. The definition of a diminished 7th chord says that it must consist of a diminished triad plus a diminished 7th above the chord root.

That being the case, why write F# in that C diminished 7th chord instead of Gb? In a diminished 7th chord there must be a diminished 5th, not an augmented 4th. (C up to Gb is a diminished 5th, whereas C up to F# is an augmented 4th.)

Example 4

Enharmonic note changes employed by jazz writers ostensibly to make music reading easier actually often make it more complex and difficult, especially for classically trained musicians.

Minor 6th
Additionally, I have an objection to a Cm6 chord being spelled C Eb G A, when according to correct classical theory the Cm6 chord should be spelled C Eb G Ab. Remember, the C natural minor scale’s 6th degree is Ab, not A.

But unfortunately, in jazz chord notation, a Cm6 chord always translates to a minor triad with a major 6th above the chord root. Why a major 6th? Shouldn’t the interval of a 6th up from the root of a Cm6 chord be a minor 6th – Ab not A? A minor 6th chord with a major 6th can just as easily be spelled correctly in terms of classical theory as Cm#153;#174;6, not Cm6. Similarly, an Am6 chord in jazz (a minor triad with a major 6th above the chord root) should ideally be spelled Am#6, not Am6.

Fake Book Chord Symbols
Many of the earliest fake books in pop music history derived their chord symbols from published piano-vocal sheet music. I have sometimes seen incorrect chord symbols in these books that resulted from writers ignoring the left hand notes of the original sheet music chord. An example of this would be the left hand playing a bass clef low D while the right hand plays a treble clef F A C E above it. That chord in its totality is Dm9, not FMA7, a symbol I have at times encountered for this chord. While many of the notes in both of these chords are identical, the omission of left hand notes from the chord symbol could likely result in compromised voice leading at the very least.

Example 5

I’m realistic enough to understand that I’m not going to single-handedly change the jazz world with the above observations, but I do hope with this article to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of jazz musicians about some of their questionable musical practices, and thus influence their musical thinking.

In the meantime, until such time as the above musical practices have been modified or changed, it is imperative that musical purists learn to function within these broken rules of theory, if they are to participate successfully in the jazz world.

Lee Evans is Professor of Music at NYC’s Pace University. He is the author/composer/arranger of over 90 books, plus numerous articles. Among his most widely used books is How To Play Chord Symbols In Jazz Popular Music (Hal Leonard), co-authored with Dr. Martha Baker.

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