William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

So How Do I... "Make" the Changes? (Part 2)


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 second 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".

2. Resolving from One Chord to the Next (Chord Tone Resolution)

In the first post of this series, I discussed how to clearly and accurately describe a single harmony through what I refer to as "internal resolution". In this second post, I will be discussing how to clearly and accurately describe the movement of one chord to another. One of the ways jazz musicians "make" changes is by playing melodic ideas that guide the listener's ear from one chord to the next as the harmonies "progress" through a progression. So how do jazz musicians do this? How do they convey through single-note lines that one chord is moving to another chord? Well, to get to the bottom of this, we first must examine the ways chords move in jazz.

How Chords Move in Jazz

Anytime one chord moves to another, an interval is created between the roots of the chords. The most common root movement found in jazz is the dominant-tonic movement: down a 5th, or up a 4th. This root movement can be seen below in the most common chord progression found in jazz: the ii-V-I progression.

Now, when chords progress in this manner, certain resolutions between chord tones occur. These resolutions are the key to understanding how to convey the sound of the chord movement with single-note lines.

Cyclical Resolutions

I call the resolutions between chord tones whose roots are moving downward in fifths "cyclical resolutions". I call them this because of the Cycle (or Circle) of Fifths. If you follow the Circle of Fifths counterclockwise, you will notice that the roots of the keys are moving downward in fifths (or upward in fourths). So how do chord tones resolve in cyclical progressions like the ii-V-I? Like this:

  • Roots resolve to 5ths
  • 3rds resolve to 7ths
  • 5ths resolve to Roots
  • 7ths resolve to 3rds

These resolution principles are illustrated below with a ii-V-I in C major.

Do you see the symmetry in these resolutions? The Roots and 5ths resolve into one another, as do the 3rds and 7ths. Another important thing to note is the common tones. The Roots resolve to the 5ths, but since the note stays the same, it may be easier to think of the Root as becoming the 5th rather than resolving to it. The note is staying the same, but changing function. This goes for the 3-7 resolution as well.

The 7-3 Resolution

All four of these resolutions are important, but one of them is more important than the rest when it comes to using the resolutions to guide the listener's ear from chord to chord. This resolution is the 7-3 resolution, and it is of primary significance due to the importance of the 3rds & 7ths within 7th chord harmonies. Within any given 7th chord harmony, the most defining and integral notes are the 3rds & 7ths. Why is this? Because the 3rds and 7ths (unlike the roots and 5ths) are conveying the quality of the chord. As discussed above, when chords are moving in cyclical motion, the 3rd of the first chord becomes the 7th of the second chord, and the 7th of the first chord resolves down by half step to the 3rd of the second chord. This half-step 7-3 resolution is the strongest way to define the transition between chords in a cyclical relationship. In other words, it is the strongest way to define the transitions between the ii, V, & I chords in a ii-V-I progression. These resolutions are illustrated below.

So now that we have the strong resolutions in place, how do we connect the dots to create strong lines leading in and out of the resolutions? There are several extremely common navigational devices jazz musicians use to lead in and out of these 7-3 resolution. One of the first devices I learned is illustrated below.

This idea begins on the root of the ii chord, arpeggiates to the 7th, resolves to the 3rd of the V chord, descends scalarly to the 7th of the V chord, then resolves over the barline to the 3rd of the I chord.

Here's another simple idea that leads in to and out of the 7-3 resolution. This one begins with a descending scalar line over the ii chord, resolves to the 3rd of the V chord, then descends to the 7-3 resolution in the same manner as the previous example.

Extending the Lines

Now that we've spelled out two simple ways of navigating a ii-V-I via 7-3 resolutions, we need to dig a little deeper into the ideas to try to get as much out of them as possible. One of the first things I notice about these two lines is that they are very short. They fit nicely in a short ii-V (in which the ii & V chords get two beats apiece), but not necessarily in a long ii-V (in which the ii & V chords get one bar apiece). This is something that used to drive me nuts. I would learn a cool short/long ii-V lick and then realize that the lick only worked over half the ii-Vs I was going to face! Over the years I gradually learned that I was driving myself nuts for no reason, because with a little creativity and musical sensibility, the lines could easily be adapted to fit ii-Vs of the opposite length.

So how can we adapt the above ii-V ideas to fit a longer ii-V? Here are two ideas for doing so:

  • Extend the line to delay the 7-3 resolution. This essentially requires stretching out the musical material used over the ii & V chords in order to keep the 7-3 resolutions straddling the chord changes. So how do we do this? There are lots of ways: using neighboring tones, using passing tones, using enclosures, altering the rhythm, etc. You are only limited by your creativity! In the examples below I demonstrate two possible extensions of the ii-V-I lines I introduced above.


  • Make the 7-3 resolution early and continue the momentum. This means that you make the first 7-3 resolution early (i.e. you anticipate the resolution to V), then continue the dominant momentum through the rest of the ii & V chords, releasing the momentum by resolving to the I at the proper time. So how do you continue V-chord momentum after you've resolved to it early? One way I like to do this is by using the dominant bebop scale. If you are unsure of what the dominant bebop scale is or how to use it, refer to my earlier blog post about it. The example below demonstrates this technique of momentum continuation.

Achieving Other Shapes & Colors

So what else can we do with these lines? One cool thing you can do is incorporate octave displacement to achieve more interesting shapes. To illustrate this, let me introduce another simple ii-V-I line:

This line uses the same ii-chord material as our first idea did, but after resolving to the V, rather than descending scalarly, we arpeggiate up to the 9th of the V chord, then resolve by step to the 5th of the I chord. Now, the line sounds perfectly fine as it is, but by introducing octave displacement between the first two notes of each measure, we are able to achieve a much more jagged, interesting shape.

Sounds pretty cool, right? What if you were to incorporate octave displacement into other parts of the arpeggio ideas? What if you were to apply it to the scalar parts of the ii-V lines? You could probably come up with some pretty cool stuff, right?. Again, you are only limited by your creativity!

Now, aside from a few chromatic notes here and there, all the ii-V lines I've introduced in this post have been fairly diatonic. However, in terms of functional, goal-based harmony, the ii-V progression is all about creating tension leading to a release. So as an improviser, you definitely want to experiment with lots of ways to create tension over the ii-V progression--specifically over the V chord, which is the harmony most fertile for creating tension. One simple way to begin introducing tension into your playing is by experimenting with the altered tones available over the V chord. There are four alterations that can be made to a V chord:

  • Altered 9ths: The 9th can be lowered to a b9 or raised to a #9
  • Altered 5ths: The 5th can be lowered to a b5 or raised to a #5

It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the subject of altered dominants in detail, so for now let's just isolate one of them: the b9. In the beginning stages of exploring altered dominant sounds, the b9 is a good place to start for couple of reasons:

  • It lends itself well to being used in an arpeggio. If you arpeggiate a dominant 7(b9) arpeggio from the 3rd to the b9th, the resulting structure is a diminished 7th arpeggio. Diminished 7th arpeggios are a simple and symmetrical structure that should be internalized in all keys. After you've done so, you can use them in two contexts: over dim7th chords, and over 7(b9) chords.
  • It helps convey minor tonality. The three chromatic alterations that distinguish minor tonalities from major tonalities are: 1) lowered 3rds, 2) lowered 6ths, and 3) lowered 7ths. In order to allow for functional harmony to occur in minor keys, diatonic harmonies must contain a leading tone. Thus, the harmonic scale. So, the two major-to-minor alterations we are left with are b3rds and b6ths. The b6th of a minor key, when sounded vertically over the V chord, functions as the b9 of the V chord. So in other words, using a 7(b9) arpeggio (i.e. diminished 7th arpeggio) is an excellent way to convey an altered V chord anticipating the resolution to a minor i chord. And since minor keys occur in jazz just as much as major keys do, it is important to practice resolving to them with the appropriate dominant sounds!

To experiment with the sound of the b9 alteration, practice incorporating it into the ii-V-I lines discussed in this blog post by lowering the 9ths over the V chords to b9ths. The following example illustrates this alteration applied to two of the ii-V-I lines discussed above.

Minor Keys

So by now--especially after all that discussion of minor keys--you may have noticed that this post hasn't addressed ii-V-i lines in minor keys. Although I have written a blog post on that subject, I will address it briefly here as well.

As stated above, although the three alterations that convert a major tonality to a minor tonality are the b3, b6, & b7; in order for functional harmony to occur in minor keys, there must exist a leading tone. So, the two major-minor alterations we are most concerned with are the b3 and b6. Therefore, we should be able to convert all the major ii-V lines discussed in this blog post to minor ii-V lines by simply making those alterations.

To illustrate this, below you will see four of this blog post's seven ii-V lines with the necessary b3 & b6 alterations applied to them.

Hopefully this post has shedded some light on how to go about guiding the listener's ear from one chord to the next as harmonies "progress" through a series of chord changes. If you would like to explore a book-length study of the 7-3 resolution within the ii-V progression, I highly recommend Bert Ligon's Connecting Chords With Linear Harmony. Stay tuned for the third post of this series, in which I'll discuss secondary dominants and how to navigate them using strongly-placed non-diatonic tones.

Do you have any thoughts on ii-V-I progressions and the 7-3 resolution? Leave your comments below!