Jonathan Feist


Jazz Harmony, the Berklee Way: An Interview with Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki

Jonathan Feist


Harmony, of course, is one of the core components of musical study by all western musicians. It concerns how notes relate to each other, based both on the physical properties of sound and various cultural ways that these interrelationships are put to use expressively. Harmony can define musical genre, and even within individual styles, the nuances of how individuals will handle notes and chords continue to inspire infinite colors, if not opinions.

Berklee Press recently published “The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony,” an extraordinarily deep and yet practical exploration of jazz harmony and how to use it. Its authors are Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki, the chair and assistant chair of Berklee’s harmony department. Joe and Tom have helped to educate thousands of students, watching them transform their skills and expressive breadth through the study of harmony, so they have a unique perspective on how the study of harmony relates to the evolution of a musician. They both have developed many courses used at Berklee, including Joe’s Berklee Online course, Jazz Composition.

In this interview, Joe and Tom offer some thoughts about key harmonic principles, as well as turn us on to some inspiring music.

How do musicians’ conceptions of harmony typically evolve during the course of their careers?

Joe Mulholland: For most people, it seems there is no straight line. For example, Miles Davis first digested the harmonic intricacies of bebop, he then engaged in a radical simplification of his harmonic envelope during the modal,Kind of Blue period. Next, he embraced the harmonic innovations of Shorter and Hancock in his mid ’60s quintet and then abandoned that in favor of simple vamps and quasi-free tonality in the ’70s. At the end of his career, he chose a lot of simple pop tunes as vehicles for improvisation.

My own development has proceeded on several fronts. I started out playing a mix of blues and rock tunes from the ’60s and ’70s, but always had a parallel interest in jazz and, to a lesser degree, classical music. Being a pianist and amateur guitarist, I loved chord progressions and the power and nuance they brought to music, so I explored each of these areas when I had the time or opportunity to do so. More recently, the best of Brazilian popular music has been a very productive field for new ideas. I love harmonic richness and complexity, but never for its own sake. I am always aware that simplicity and directness of expression are prime values.

Tom Hojnacki:  I think that most of us start out by learning how to play a few chords and using them to harmonize tunes. I had classical piano lessons as a child and had a facility for reading written arrangements but didn’t really consider the vertical or harmonic aspect of the music. Around the age of ten, my cousins taught me to play some folk and rock songs on the guitar. I later got hold of published sheet music for the songs; something like the Time/Life Great Songs of the ’60s collection.  In the back of the book, I discovered a chart that translated chord symbols into piano notation, so I was then able to play these same songs and sing them at the piano independent of the original arrangement. That was the start of my interest in harmony. I think musicians who are attracted to rock and jazz music learn a few simple songs and sense that there are harmonic patterns that occur repeatedly in different songs. As our knowledge of repertoire increases we encounter tunes that are harmonically more complex.  Many of us seek a theory of music that explains the relationships we sense, and helps to explain the various patterns we encounter in the tunes so that we can improvise within them. Ultimately, what the theory helps us to understand is that more complex tunes, even though they have very intricate and exotic sounding surface harmonies, are still at the bedrock level based on the move from tonic to subdominant or dominant and back to tonic.

What is chord scale theory, and how does it make music more effective?

JM: Chord scale theory is a way of organizing, prioritizing, and choosing the notes in a tonal environment. Awareness of functional harmonic categories (tonic/subdominant/dominant, modal interchange, substitute dominant, etc.) guides the process. It is ultimately nothing more than listening carefully to all the possible choices of notes in a given moment of music and choosing the best ones.

TH: In a way, knowledge of chord scales can be like training wheels for your ears. They guide you in your choices until you can pedal off on your own!

What is a tension substitution?

JM: Replacing a chord tone in a voicing with one of the tensions of the chord.

When and why should tensions be substituted?

JM: Tensions substitution is used for a more complex, richer sound in a voicing. It can provide more colors and create opportunities for chromatic voice leading in an arrangement or accompaniment.

TH: But more importantly, we should be asking the question, “What is a tension?”

Okay, what is a tension!

TH: Chords at the most basic level consists of triads (three-note chords: root, 3, and 5) and seventh chords (four-note chords: root, 3, 5, and 7). These chords are conceived as stacks of thirds. Tensions extend the stack with more thirds (up to seven or in some cases eight notes: root, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13). These extensions of the basic chord types add more color or tension to the harmony and also help to clarify the role that each chord will play in a progression. If chords are like actors in a drama, then tensions are like the costumes that they wear to give them added credibility in their roles.

How literally should chord symbols be interpreted?

JM: That depends on the source. A well-vetted fake book or published manuscript can usually be taken at face value, at least as a starting point. Even then, there can be typos or other errors. The other problem is that chord symbols, being shorthand, are inherently ambiguous. Depending on the style of the person compiling the charts, they may be very simple (“C”) or more detailed (CMaj7[9,#11,13]) according to the intent of the book.  Finally, there is the matter of regional variation in how to say the same thing.

TH:  A notated score represents a fixed reality. A lead sheet with chord symbols represents a range of possibilities for how to perform a tune. The more you know about harmony, the more options you have!

What does “outside” mean?

JM: Where you have to live, if you are a freelance jazz musician!

TH: But, seriously folks! Playing “outside” means to play notes consistently that are not directly related to the chords of the tune. To do this skillfully and musically requires that you really understand how those chords work together. You have to know the boundaries before you can step outside of them.

How has jazz harmony evolved, during the history of jazz?

JM: It has evolved in multiple directions; there is no straight line. Currently, the music can include just about anything: no conventional harmony at all, simple modal systems, triadic “folk” harmony, bebop chromaticism, multitonic schemes, and more.

TH: While it is true that there are many eddies and currents in the stream of the music, I think it is fair to say that the history of the development of harmony in jazz over the past hundred years parallels that of European classical music over the last thousand years. The early roots of jazz—the field holler, country blues and the earliest vocal traditions of the African-American church—are roughly equivalent to Gregorian chant through the pre-tonal music in the European tradition, New Orleans jazz, and ragtime mirror Baroque polyphony. The harmony of the Swing era might be compared to the harmony of the classical style of Haydn and Mozart. Bebop is analogous to Wagnerian chromaticism. Modal jazz is similar in conception to the late 19th century Russian and French scalar music known as Impressionism and the sound of the most dissonant free jazz is akin to that of atonality and serial music, what the historians term Expressionism. The Princeton theorist Dmitri Tymoczko in his recent book The Geometry of Music makes the point that jazz is a style in which all of the major historic styles of harmony now co-exist with one another.

What standards or interpretations of standards can you recommend as something that makes particularly effective use of jazz harmonic theory? What should we listen for?

TH: Gosh, there are so many! If I had to choose one starting point, though, I would choose Bill Evans. His performances of tunes like “Emily,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” or “On Green Dolphin Street” embody most of what we discuss in our book. His chord voicings often employ up to seven or eight different notes of the chromatic scale.  His choice of tensions clearly defines the tonality in which he is working while others present striking unexpected surprises. To really appreciate what he does, first seek out the original sheet music of these standard tunes and get to know them before listening to an Evans interpretation. Then, the essence of jazz harmony will be clearly apparent.

Here’s “Emily”:

[Ed.: A good source for legal sheet music is Hal Leonard’s Sheet Music Plus, or it’s Real Book series.]

Could you suggest a couple excellent interpretations of the same tune to show two different masterful harmonic interpretations? What should we listen for?

TH: First learn Gershwin’s original published sheet music arrangement of “Someone to Watch Over Me” before listening, so that you have a reference point. I would suggest Keith Jarrett’s and Chick Corea’s solo piano performances of this great standard. Each musician harmonizes the tune and arranges it in such a way as to make it a vehicle for his own distinctive solo style.

For his part, Keith makes some of Gershwin’s original chromatic harmonies more diatonic opening up long passages for his warm “open spaces” lyrical approach to melody.  He also chooses diatonic II V’s and substitute dominants to replace Gershwin’s original descending diminished chords giving the tune a more contemporary feel.

Chick on the other hand is a more percussive player. He prefers a brighter piano tone and has a very biting modernist approach to harmony akin to Bartòk and Hindemith. He employs a tonic pedal point superimposed with parallel dissonant harmonies in the A section of the tune.  The result of this combined with the accompanying rhythmic ostinato is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Chick reharmonizes some critical chords in the tune with modal interchange chords voiced in fourths. This allows him to improvise with minor pentatonic melodic patterns and to play rubato cadenzas suggestive of the Debussy preludes.

Standards give us a reference point to investigate and appreciate the individual artistry of different great players!

How about taking us out with some tunes from your book’s accompanying recording?

Sure, we wrote these tunes for the book, specifically to illustrate different aspects of jazz harmony.

1. “Lucky,” (with substitute dominants), by Tom Hojnacki

2. “The Slip-Up,” by Joe Mulholland

3. “Moonlight On Spot Pond,” by Joe Mulholland

4. “The All-Nighter,” by Tom Hojnacki

Piano: Joe Mulholland and Tom Hojnacki

Bass: Bob Nieske

Drums: Bob Tamagni

Engineered by Peter Kontrimas, PBS Studios in Westwood, MA.

Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.