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How to Write Jazz Music

Updated on April 20, 2016
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician and the author of books for children and adults.

Follow a step-by-step guide to write jazz music at the piano
Follow a step-by-step guide to write jazz music at the piano | Source

Like most forms of music, jazz has its idiosyncrasies; but don’t let that put you off. It is, in fact, just another way of presenting the same notes, chords, melodies, and harmonies used in everything from classical to folk to pop music – so writing jazz music shouldn't be any more complicated than writing any other type.

One quick note needs to be addressed first, before we begin. When using the verb “write” in relation to jazz music, what we’re really talking about is “creating” the music. Whether you choose to write it down or not is completely up to you.

All of the music you hear is made up of a combination of different elements including melody, harmony, and rhythm – and the same goes for jazz. People tend to panic when the word “jazz” is mentioned, because they think it requires them to be able to play like Duke Ellington. They think the improvisational element makes it inaccessible. The fact is, though, that jazz is made up of all the same constituents as most other forms of music, and that information should be enough to help put things into perspective.

A typical three-note chord or triad
A typical three-note chord or triad | Source

Jazz Progression 2-5-1

We're going to approach the subject of writing (creating) your own jazz music in a number of steps, using three common chords you may already be familiar with.

Like any piece of music, your jazz composition needs to have a solid foundation, something on which to base the structure and flavor of your creation. One of the simplest ways to get started is by using three chords found in dozens of jazz pieces known as the 2-5-1 progression, a common cadence you'll also find in many other musical styles as well.

In classical and popular music, these chords are three-note chords or triads, sometimes extended to four-note chords when the seventh degree of the scale is included. In the key of C, for instance, these three-note chords are made up of the following notes:

  • The 2 chord – the chord formed on the second degree of the scale, or D, with the notes D, F, A.
  • The 5 chord – the chord formed on the fifth degree of the scale, or G, with the notes G, B, D.
  • The 1 chord - the chord formed on the first degree of the scale, or C, with the notes C, E, G.

In jazz music, chords used tend to be more exotic than triads, making extensive use of the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th degrees of the scale. These chords are partly responsible for giving jazz music its unique qualities.

Here’s an example of the 2-5-1 and 2-57-1 progressions using basic triads in the key of C major. Note that inversions are used to make moving from one chord to the next as easy as possible:

A 2-5-1 chord progression in C major
A 2-5-1 chord progression in C major | Source
A 2-57-1 chord progression in C major
A 2-57-1 chord progression in C major | Source

Here’s an example of the same progression using all 7th chords:

The 2-5-1 progression using all 7th chords
The 2-5-1 progression using all 7th chords | Source

Create Jazz Chords on the 9th and 13th

Now let's extend these chords to give them that real jazz flavor we're after. We'll do that by turning the 2 chord into a 9th chord, the 5 chord into a 13th chord, and the 1 chord into a 9th chord.

A standard triad is a 1-3-5, using the first, third, and fifth notes of a key. To make 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th chords simply keep adding intervals of a third to create bigger and more unusual sounds. Here’s what the 2-5-1 progression with these kinds of jazz chords looks like (29, 513, 19):

Changing basic chords into jazz chords
Changing basic chords into jazz chords | Source

You'll notice a couple of things here. First of all, these chords have lots of notes in them, so it isn't possible to play every note and add a right hand melody. Second, some notes are shared between chords, which can help with harmonic considerations later when working on your melody.

The basis of this lesson is to start with some chords and develop a piece of jazz music from there. With that in mind, we need to move the chords down the keyboard to make it easier to play them with the left hand, and to leave room for the right hand to play the melody. We don’t need to use all of the notes in every chord, as long as the general jazz feel is maintained. Here's one way to achieve that:

Making the chords fit nicely for the left hand
Making the chords fit nicely for the left hand | Source

Another reason for playing the chords in this formation is that it makes it easy to move from one chord to the next. This will allow you to focus most of your energy on creating a melody above it.

While playing these chords I felt compelled to add another one to the mix, the 6 chord. It just sounded like the music wanted to go there. I used a 67 chord which also flows smoothly from the 19 chord that precedes it. Here’s the whole four-chord progression I ended up with:

Adding a 6 chord to round things off
Adding a 6 chord to round things off | Source

Adding a Melody

The next step is to try and use the notes contained in the chords to create a melody. Keep in mind that there are notes shared between certain chords, and these notes can be used as a sort of glue to hold things together. Here’s an example of the kind of melodic fragment you might try:

Improvised melody above the chord progression
Improvised melody above the chord progression | Source

That’s not bad, but the chords are boring, plodding along in their chunky way. I decided to “jazz” them up with a bit of rhythmic variety, as in the following:

Adding rhythmic interest to the left hand chords
Adding rhythmic interest to the left hand chords | Source

I experimented with this melodic idea until I came up with something that worked for me. The next step was to extend it using repetition and slight variation, keeping the jazzy feeling while letting the melody unfold as naturally as possible.

Keeping the melody going
Keeping the melody going | Source
A new melodic idea...
A new melodic idea... | Source
... which still fits in with the same chord progression
... which still fits in with the same chord progression | Source

My improvised melody seems to work well, so now it’s time to flesh out the whole thing. I used midi software to add sax, bass and drums, which helps to give me an idea about what the piece would sound like being played by a jazz band. You can listen to my piece as it develops by watching the video below.

How to Write Jazz Music using Chords

Jazz Writing Technique Recap

Let’s recap the steps involved in writing or creating some jazz music:

  1. Start with a 2-5-1 chord progression, a solid foundation to build on.
  2. Add jazzy 7th, 9th, 11th or 13th chords.
  3. Configure chords so they fit nicely among your fingers.
  4. Use chord notes to improvise a simple melody.
  5. Add rhythmic variety to the chords.

Remember that you don’t need to be able to improvise a melody all at once. You might come up with just a bit of a melody in the beginning. That’s fine, because it gives you something to work with. It’s not necessary to create a complete melody at one sitting. You might have to change the key, or the chords you’re using. The secret is to be patient, let your imagination run wild, and be brave enough to try things out.

Also remember to use whatever melodic phrase you come up with in as many different ways as you can. Repetition helps make your music easier for listeners to follow, and it makes your job a lot easier, too.

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    • profile image

      Jaszko 3 years ago

      And that's how another Duke Ellington was born. Give me your email address and I'll make you famous, 'cause this thing is even easier!

    • JohnMello profile image
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      JohnMello 3 years ago from England

      Thanks Jaszko. What "thing" might that be?

    • profile image

      Pcrudy 18 months ago

      Excellent.

      Might I suggest that people download and use the free versions of Finale Notepad or MuseScore2 that allows one to enter all of these essential jazz progressions for study and listening.

      I hope that pages like this also start to do the same and then export the examples into Music XML files that we can all import into these programs.

      Thanks!

    • JohnMello profile image
      Author

      JohnMello 18 months ago from England

      Thanks Pcrudy, good point :)

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 3 months ago from Great Yarmouth

      Oh I wish I could play a musical instrument. I love listening to jazz music.

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