Tag Archives: chords

Chords can be any combination of notes but are usually built from major and minor scales.

Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

Learning about jazz piano: a musical journey.

Two facts: for over 40 years, while learning about jazz piano, I have been making my living as a professional keyboard player and piano teacher, and yet failed all my music exams at secondary school.

Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

I’m sure that this failure was partly due to the arrogance of being a typical teenager. I remember making it clear to my beleaguered music teacher that I preferred listening to my Ray Charles records than being forced to study the harmony of Bach. But by the age of 16, when I was already playing Hammond organ in rock bands, music at school had no relevance to me. Although I had learned to read music from private piano teachers, this skill had no place in the environment of a rock band. Tunes were learned not from sheet music, but by listening to records and then transcribing the chords.

Here’s me in the mid 60’s playing organ in an R&B band at some London club.

learning jazz piano
Me in the 60’s

Many years later, when employed as a musical director and theatre composer, my chequered musical education became both a hindrance and blessing. I was now not only surrounded by classically trained musicians, but actually in charge of them. Then suddenly, during a rehearsal of one of my compositions, this uncomfortable situation was turned on its head, when I made the following, seemingly outrageous suggestion to the musicians:

“I haven’t written out this arrangement. Here’s the chord chart. Let’s just improvise and see what emerges!”

In that moment, as I witnessed classically trained musicians freeze at the very mention of the word ‘improvise,’ I recognised the true value of my improvisational skills. The realisation that I possessed a skill that ‘straight’ musicians didn’t have turned my musical life around. It was this moment that ultimately led to my current profession, which is to teach jazz piano to classical and ‘straight’ pianists.

I possess what is known as ‘a good ear.’ When I hear a tune or song, I’m usually able to identify its chord sequence and translate this to the piano. My ‘good ear’ is not a talent I was born with, but a skill that has been developed over the years when accompanying singers and transcribing chords from records.

So here’s the irony: Yes, I would dearly love to play a faultless, exquisite rendition of a Beethoven sonata. But, equally, many classically trained pianists would pay money (and do pay me!) just to sit at the piano and play a 12-bar blues or solo over the chords of a Gershwin tune.

Clearly, there is a middle ground; for any musician, both these skills are invaluable. But if I were to fight my own corner, I’d state the following. Playing music is an aural activity, rather than visual: it requires the ear rather than the eye. Sheet music is just the information. Whether interpreting a Chopin Nocturne or a pop song, we need to grasp the harmonic journey rather than just typing out the notes. And we grasp this harmonic construction with our ‘musician’s ears.’

But this is more than just a theory to ponder; you can work on developing this skill right now, by testing yourself with a simple children’s song or Christmas carol.

  • Try identifying the chord changes, then translating them to the piano. Begin by just spotting the tonic to dominant movement: this is chord 1 to chord 5.
  • Now add chord 4, the subdominant.
    In the key of F major the sequence I – IV – V is simply C – F – G.
    If you can recognise the movement between these three chords you have already decoded thousands of 50’s pop songs.

In summary: stop relying on the music and start using your ear. Perhaps it’s time you were learning jazz piano!

Paul Abrahams at Learning Jazz Piano Online
April 2014

If you are a classical pianist learning about jazz piano, the above article, that I wrote for the website www.pianoplayingadvice.com may help you.




The 2nd golden rule: learning to play jazz piano.

The 2nd golden rule: learning to play jazz piano.

learning to play Jazz Piano with Paul Abrahams

Golden rule number 2 when learning to play jazz piano:

Know all your 7th chords.

When studying jazz piano you must ensure that all 7th chords are under your fingers.

These are 4-note chords that have intervals of either a minor 3rd or a major 3rd.

A minor 3rd has a gap of 3 half steps (semitones).

A major 3rd had a gap of 4 half steps (tones).

There are four types of 7th chords:

  1. Major 7
  2. Dominant 7
  3. Minor 7
  4. Minor 7, flat 5, also known as half diminished.
  5. Diminished.


Major 7

  • Notes 1 – 3: interval = major 3rd
  • Notes 3 – 5: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 5 – 7: interval = major 3rd

Example: F major 7 = F + A + C + E

Dominant 7

  • Notes 1 – 3: interval = major 3rd
  • Notes 3 – 5: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 5 – 7: interval = minor 3rd

Example: F7 = F + A + C + Eb

Minor 7

  • Notes 1 – 3: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 3 – 5: interval = major 3rd
  • Notes 5 – 7: interval = minor 3rd

Example: F min7 = F + Ab + C + Eb

Minor 7, b5

  • Notes 1 – 3: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 3 – 5: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 5 – 7: interval = major 3rd

Example: Fmin7b5 = F + Ab + B + Eb


  • Notes 1 – 3: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 3 – 5: interval = minor 3rd
  • Notes 5 – 7: interval = minor 3rd

Example: Fdim7 = F + Ab + B + D

Apart from the diminished, all these chords are contained within a major scale and can be constructed over each note of the scale. I call this ‘the family row.’

Here are these chords over the scale of F major.

learning to play jazz piano
7 chords, 1 scale


  • There are two major 7 chords. They occur over notes I and IV.
  • There are three minor 7 chords. They occur over notes II, III and VI.
  • There is one minor 7, b5 chord (half diminished). It occurs over note VII.

Learn and recognise these chords in all keys!

Now see what happens when we construct 7th chords over a harmonic minor scale. More complex chords come into being.

Here are these chords over each step of the scale of D harmonic minor.

 learning to play jazz piano

Compare the major and minor family rows and notice the following:

  1.  In both the major and minor rows, V is a dominant 7 chord.
  2.  In both the major and minor rows, II is a minor 7, but contains b5 in the minor row.

These points will become increasingly important when we examine chord structures.

To learn more about converting major scales into chords watch video lesson 1.

To learn more about minor scales and chords watch video lesson 2.

To learn more about the construction of 7th chords watch video lesson 4.

All these topics are covered in eBook 1 of Learn Jazz Piano.


Lesson 15: chord voicing

Lesson 15: chord voicing

For a jazz pianist, chord voicing is an essential skill.

I’m now in the process of preparing lesson 15 of my video course Learn Jazz Piano Online. This 15th lesson of Learn Jazz Piano Online will be all about chord voicing, particularly how to voice left hand rootless chords. Playing these chords will achieve two things: the bass player will have more space and your own solos will sounds so much better.

Lesson 15

Here is a summary of all 14 learn jazz piano lessons online video lessons so far:

Lesson 1 – From scales to chords

  • Soloing over the Pentatonic scale
  • Mastering intervals
  • The V – I concept
  • One formula to construct all major scales
  • 7 chords, one family
learn jazz piano online
7 chords, 1 scale

Lesson 2 – Building a chord sequence

  • Chord sequences
  • The relative minor and its scales
  • The family row of minor triads
  • Soloing in a minor key

Lesson 3 –  Mastering every key

  • The circle of 5ths
  • How to play in any key
  • Preview of the II-V-I sequence
  • Introduction to the turnaround

Lesson 4 – Swing time

  • Learning to swing
  • The construction of 7th chords
  • How to interpret chord symbols
  • Shells – how not to upset the bass player

Lesson 5 – Walking 3s

  • Turnarounds part 2: I – VI – II -V
  • Walking 3s and 7s: the seeds of vertical improvisation.
  • How to use passing notes.
  • Voice leading

Lesson 6 – Extensions

  • Extensions: how to use 9ths, 11ths and 13th.
  • Know which extensions work with which chord.
  • Voicing a chord using extensions.
  • Introduction to Modes.

Lesson 7 – The II-V-I sequence

  • Master the II – V – I sequence in all keys
  • Seven soloing techniques over II – V – I
  • Alterations: know your sharp 11 from your flat 13
  •  Flat 9s and the diminished chord

Lesson 8 – How to comp

  • Comp like a pro
  • Find the best chord voicings
  • Use the right extensions
  • Build up to a five-note comp
  • Explore rhythmic variations

Lesson 9 – Modes

  • Know your Mixodydian from your Dorian
  • Grasp the connection between modes and chords
  • The art of modal soloing and comping
  • How to play ‘So What’

Lesson 10 – Autumn Leaves part 1

  • Playing your first standard
  • Learning the melody
  • The comp
  • The shells
  • The solo

Lesson 11 – Autumn Leaves part 2

  • Taking Autumn Leaves to the next level
  • How to fill out the melody
  • Comping with alterations
  • Soloing with vertical improvisation

Lesson 12 – The Blues part 1

Play with confidence over the blues.

  • How to solo creatively
  • The minor blues
  • Blues in 12/8
    Plus lots of tips, tricks and licks!

Lesson 13 – The Blues part 2

  • Taking the blues beyond the basics.
  • Chord changes that turn blues into jazz.
  • Lydian dominant & diminished scales.
  • Rootess left-hand voicings.

Lesson 14 – Bebop blues

  • Left hand 4-note rootless voicings
  • Constructing the Bebop sequence.
  • How to solo over a Bebop blues
  • Comping over a Bebop blues