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Jazz Piano Chords And Voicings

amatuer pianistMany amateur pianists mistakenly believe that jazz piano is completely inspired and spontaneously, improved out of thin air. While jazz by definition involves improvisation, pianists need to understand that even the most artistic, talented, spur-of-the-moment jazz is firmly founded on fundamental music theory.

Expert chess players are experts because they have studied thousands of board positions; talented writers are talented because they have studied a variety of linguistic patterns that communicate effectively; and champion athletes are champions because they rehearse the basics of the sport over and over and over again.

No matter how unique any of these performers’ works appear to be, they are all rooted in the organized patterns of the basics. Jazz piano works the same way, and understanding the fundaments of jazz piano chords and voicings is the first step towards learning how to improvise and play riffs through jazz chord changes.

Learning jazz piano chords first requires that you are proficient in reading standard major, minor, seventh, and suspended chords. Jazz frequently relies on variations or additions to these common chords.

When you have achieved comfort with these basic chords, transitioning to jazz means increasing your familiarity with the way a seventh chord works and the possibilities it offers. Any seventh chord means that the seventh note of the scale is diminished by one half step.

For example, in an F7 chord, you would play the notes F, A, C, and Eb (Eb being the diminished seventh note on the F scale). When you’re playing your melody with chords beneath it, try to add a seventh as often as possible. Also practice playing inversions of all seventh chords.

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jazz piano chordsOther common chords that contribute to the unique sounds heard in jazz include the “add 9” chord which has no seventh but includes the ninth note of the scale, the ninth chord which has both the seventh and the ninth, an eleventh chord which includes the notes in a ninth chord plus the eleventh tone on the scale, and diminished and augmented piano chords that the raising or lowering of the highest note by one half step.

Each of these chords presents tones that are not common to the more “clean” sounding basic major and minor triads, and frequently include tones that somewhat contrast against one another.

Once you’ve acquired a basic understanding of the chords common to jazz, you want to consider some of the ways these chords may progress from one another. One of the most common jazz chord progressions involves the ii7, V7, I7 progression.

If you were to play this in the key of C, you would play Dm7, G7, and then a C7. Try playing this over and over with both hands, and particular let your left hand gain a familiarity with these chords and their inversions. Another longer chord progression is I7, vi7 / ii7, V7 / iii7, VI7 / ii7, V7 progression.

Notice how the second pair and fourth pair of chords are identical, with variations in between. Also notice how each of the chords has a “7” written into it. Jazz pianists will commonly confess that they throw a seventh note into just about every jazz piano chord they play.

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