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JAZZ THEORY (BeBop Drills)

The Use of Tensions 2

Music flows in infinite variations of tension and resolution. In modern harmony, we identify chords by their association with one or both of these phenomena. Tonic, sub-dominant and dominant express varying degrees of rest and motion, and functional harmony uses roman numerals to show locations and tendencies of chords within a key. In BeBop the principal chord of resolution is the major seventh chord, Roman numeral I. Our task here will be to apply the tensions 9-#11-13 to each of the twelve Imaj7 chords.

Previously we learned to extend the scale in thirds and identify each tone with an odd number: 1-3-5-7-9-11-13, returning to 1 when continuing to ascend. The chord tones 1-3-5-7 constitute the major seventh chord, and 9 and 13 fit the sound and function naturally, but for a major seventh chord in BeBop the 11 is altered by raising it one half step to the position called #11 [shorthand for raised eleventh]. Remember to adjust the 11 in each key upward by using the appropriate b, #, or natural sign, not just by adding a # to the note.

Before beginning any drills involving chord tones and tensions, fix the tonal center of the chord in your consciousness. To do this, play the root of the chord you'll be working on, and then sing or hum the pitch in a comfortable range. Horn players and singers must then learn to retain the pitch mentally, while others may do this or continue to sound the note physically. Harmony players may also sound the chord while singing the note before moving into the drill.

Once you feel grounded in the tonality, find the lowest possible chord tone or tension and ascend, as in 1-3-5-7-9-#11-13-1 etc. The C major seventh chord will appear as follows: C-E-G-B-D-F#-A-C. When you reach the highest point descend by reverse order to the starting point. Next, find the chord tone or tension in between the first two notes you played, and ascend and descend from this point in the same fashion. Play each major seventh chord this way in the order of the cycle of fifths [C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F#, B, E, A, D, G]. String players should do this exercise one string at a time; piano players use two hands in octaves.

The sound of the tensions against the tonal center, especially the #11, may be unexpected at first. Just hang in there and you'll be hearing it before you know it! Harmonic players often use the #11 sound at endings and in ballads, and the 9 and 13 show up often in chord voicings and melodic lines. Listen for them, and happy drilling! [top]
- Frank Singer 2002

I originally learned these concepts from Charlie Banacos, private instructor.



The Language of BeBop
The Use of Tensions 1
The Use of Tensions 2 
The Use of Tensions 3 
The Jazz Sub-Dominant Chord - II-7 
The Jazz Dominant Chord - V7  
The II-7 V7 Progression - II V series  
The Key of the Moment  
"Watch out for those chromatics!"    
Ear Training  


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