William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... "Make" the Changes? (Part 4: Common Tones)


One of the most foundational skills that must be established early in an improviser's development is the ability to use melodies to clearly and accurately describe harmonies (or, "changes"). This process, often referred to as "making the changes", is one that causes many inexperienced jazz musicians a lot of confusion. This is the last in a series of posts in which I discuss four specific ways you can guide the listener's ear through jazz harmonies, and thereby "make the changes".

4. Connecting the Harmony with Common Tones

Post-1960s Jazz Composition

In the second post of this series, I discussed how to clearly describe movement between chords by taking advantage of strong resolutions that occur between the harmonies. In the third post of this series, I discussed how to achieve the same goal through the emphasis of tones chromatic to the key. Those two posts were written within the context of the functional major/minor harmonic syntax found in songs of the Great American Songbook era and bebop era. However, around the 1960s, jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans began a trend in jazz composition that was quite a departure from the traditional major/minor system of tonal function. These composers used chords that were (for the most part) standard jazz harmonies, yet they allowed the harmonies to interact in ways that defied the chords' standard functional behavior within major and minor keys.

To see an example of this, let's take a look at the first five bars of Wayne Shorter's "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum", which was recorded on Shorter's landmark 1964 album Speak No Evil.

As you can see, the chords used are all ones we've seen before in pre-1960s compositions: dominant 7th chords (with and without altered extensions), minor 7th chords, major 7th chords, etc. But what do you notice about the way the chords are behaving? They're not functioning in ways that offer any sense of tonality or key! Let's look at the first three chords: Eb7#11  |  D7#9  |  G-7  |. Okay, that's not so bad, I guess. We could view the D7#9 to G-7 as a V-i, and we could view the Eb7#11 as a tritone-substitute for V/V, which would be A7. That progression happens a lot--at the end of a minor blues, for example. But then what happens after that? The G-7 moves to an Abmaj7. That's kind of weird. If the first three chords established that we're in G minor, then what's the Abmaj7 doing there? Maybe we're actually in Eb major, and the G-7 was acting as iii, so the Abmaj7 is IV? But then we move to a Bmaj7, which has nothing to do with G minor or Eb major.  Then we move to a D7? Okay, I'm confused. After that, we arrive at what seems to be a ii-V in the key of C major, but we're clearly not in the key of C major. And where does the progression resolve to? Eb7#11! Okay, now I'm really confused...

How does one make sense of a progression like this, and more importantly, how does one go about improvising over it? We can't take advantage of 7-3 resolutions, and since we're not in a clear major or minor key, we can't really approach the chromatic harmonies in the manner I suggested in my previous post. So what are we to do? 

When I first attempted tackling tunes like "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum", I did so by applying memorized chord-scale relationships to them. So on "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum", I would be thinking something like this:

Now, aside from chord-scale theory's inherent problems which I've discussed previously, copying and pasting memorized chord-scale relationships to progressions like this can often lead to a very segmented and choppy "start-and-stop" sound. If the goal of the improviser is to create linear melodies that flow through the harmonic progression, changing gears at each new chord will probably not produce a very desirable or smooth sound. In light of this, how can we approach progressions like "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" to achieve a smooth and linear sound?

In 2010, music theorist Keith Waters authored an article in which he explored the harmonic progressions of post-1960s jazz composition and argued that coherence can be observed within these progressions when viewing them through the lens of Neo-Riemannian theory and the Tonnetz. The article is intended for an academic audience, and I definitely do not intend the casual reader of this blog to attempt deciphering it (there's a lot in it that I struggle to understand). However, to attempt grossly oversimplifying his ideas, I will say that Waters observes that structure and coherence can be found in post-1960s jazz progressions by way of the common tones shared by the various harmonies. It seems simple enough, but what does that mean for us? What are common tones and how can they aid us in improvising over post-1960s harmonic progressions?

Common Tones: Chord Progression Hinges

For our purposes we will be thinking of a common tone as a chord tone that is shared between two or more harmonies of a progression. For example, take a look at the first two bars of Bill Evans's "Time Remembered".

The F# in the melody is highlighting the fact that the chords B-7 and Cmaj7#11 both share the pitch F# as a common tone. It is the 5th of B-7 and the #11th of Cmaj7#11. I like to think of common tones like this as hinges within chord progressions--they can be used to connect harmonies that are seemingly unrelated. Take, for example, the Abmaj7 to Bmaj7 movement in "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum".

At first glance Abmaj7 and Bmaj7 seem to have little to do with one another. One comes out of a flat key, one comes out of a sharp key, and there aren't any major or minor keys that contain both of them. However, if we looks closer, we find that the fifth of Abmaj7 (Eb) is enharmonically the third of Bmaj7 (D#). Therefore, this note can function as a powerful hinge to connect these two chords in a very logical and musical way.

Using Common Tones

So how can we use these musical "hinges" in our improvising? I find it most effective to utilize them as motivic points of departure and arrival in my improvised lines. To do this, I try to find common tone relationships between harmonies, then extend those relationships as far as I can theoretically and aurally justify. In other words, I begin with a common tone between two or three chords, then keep it going as long as I can. To illustrate this, let's take a look at the first 16 bars of "Time Remembered".

The first and most obvious hinge we come across is the F# connecting the B-7 and Cmaj7#11. Can we use that hinge to connect the Cmaj7#11 to the Fmaj7#11? Not really. An F# is an extremely unstable tone over an Fmaj7#11, so it would make for a pretty weak hinge between those chords. Well, what other note can act as a hinge between B-7 and Cmaj7#11? What about a B? That works well as the root of B-7 and the 7th of Cmaj7#11. Can we connect it to Fmaj7#11? Yes, it's the #11! As seen in the example below, we are able to use B natural as a hinge connecting the first 5 bars. However, the hinge gets broken when we arrive at the G-7. As the major 3rd of a minor chord, B natural would make an extremely weak connection to G-7.

Is there a note we can use as a hinge to connect all the chords in the first 16 bars? Actually, there is! The example below demonstrates how the note D can be used to connect all the chords in the first 16 bars of "Time Remembered".

Now that we've established the note D as an ideal common to use in improvising over this tune, where do we go from there? Well, now it's time for you to implement your creativity as an improviser. How can you use the note D to motivically and musically connect all the chords in the progression? Below is an example of what I came up with.

Allowing Common Tones to Influence Your Chord-Scale Relationships

So now you may be asking yourself, "Okay, I understand why he was using the note D so much, but how was he coming up with all the other stuff?" Basically, I was using my chord-scale knowledge to choose appropriate tones to embellish the D with, but I was also allowing common tones between the chords influence my chord-scale choices. This helps us achieve our goal of connect the chords with as homogenous a sound as possible. For example, take the first two chords: B-7 and Cmaj7#11. Early in our jazz education, we are taught to equate minor 7th chords with the Dorian scale. Why is this? Because in the early stages of improvising, we are most often dealing with minor 7th chords as ii chords in major keys within ii-V-I progressions. The first chord of "Time Remembered" is clearly not function as a ii chord within the key of A major, so is there any reason to blindly attach a B dorian scale to it? Not really. Given the fact that the second chord is a Cmaj7#11, using a G# over the B-7 (as in a B dorian scale) would not be the best option if our goal is to produce a homogenous sound between the two harmonies. A G natural would be a much better option, resulting in either the use of a B aeolian or B phrygian scale.

Using Common Tone Collections

This naturally leads us to the idea of using multiple tones to connect harmonies. If we can find multiple hinges between two or more chords, why not use all of them to create a sort of "hinge scale"? One common "hinge scale" used by jazz musicians is the pentatonic scale, and one common use for it is connecting a minor 7th chord to a major 7th chord whose root lies a half-step up. When this happens, the Root, b3, 4, 5, & b7 of the minor 7th chord (which spell a minor pentatonic scale) can be used as the 7, 9, 3, #11, & 13 of the major 7th chord. This happens twice in the first four bars of "Time Remembered":

A post-60s jazz tune that employs this harmonic device a lot is Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil". Check out how Wayne Shorter uses a C minor pentatonic scale at the beginning of his solo to connect the C-7 and Dbmaj7#11 chords.

Common Tones in Standard Tunes

Can these common tone concepts only be applied to post-60s jazz composition? Of course not! Below is a common tone etude on Henry Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses" that uses common tone ideas based around the note A, as well as a few pentatonic ideas.

Improvising over chord changes in many post-1960s jazz tunes can be tricky, but hopefully you found these common tone ideas helpful. How do you like approaching tunes of the post-60s harmonic vernacular? Leave your comments below!