O | obbligato | octave | ostinato |

P |pedal point | | pentatonic scale | piano | pizzicato | polyphonic texture (polyphony) | polyrhythm | playing inside | playing outside | plunger mute |

Q | quartal chords |

R |reed instruments | register | resolve | rhythm section | ride pattern | rhythm changes | rhythmic contrast | rhythm section | riff | root | rubato | running the changes

S| saxophone | scale | scat-singing | send-off riff| slash chords | soli | soprano saxophone |standard | stop-time | straight mute | stride |string bass | swing | swing eighth notes | syncopation |

T| tempo | tenor saxophone | texture | timbre | | timbre variation | time-line pattern | tonal music | tonic | trading fours | transpose | triple meter | triad | trio |trombone | trumpet |tuba | turnaround

U | unison

V | vamp | variable intonation | valve trombone| vibrato | voicing

W | walking bass | whole-tone scale | wind instruments |

more definitions on Definitions Page 1


classical music term for a countermelody.


an interval in which one pitch has a frequency exactly twice the other (in the ratio 2:1). Such pitches are clearly distinct--one is higher than the other--but they sound so similar that men and women singing "the same note" actually sing pitches an octave apart. Music theory gives notes an octave apart the same letter name (e.g., A = 440 cycles per second, but also A = 220). Indeed, the word "octave" (from the Latin "oct" = 8) derives from the standard seven-note diatonic scale: once the seven pitches are finished (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti), the eighth note (do) is the octave.


            any repeated melodic or rhythmic pattern.

pedal point

a technique in which the bass line stays predominantly on one pitch for a limited passage.  In a normal harmonic progression, the bass line is continually striking new pitches, since each harmony has a different root.  To stay on one pitch is an unusual effect, and is usually not maintained for long.

In the tune "Midriff", the bass stays on one note (the dominant, or the fifth degree of the scale) for an entire chorus of a twelve-bar blues.

pentatonic scale

a five-note scale, usually corresponding to the black keys on the piano. Frequently used by improvising jazz musicians.

Listen to the following example, with John D'earth and pianist Bob Hallahan improvising in a pentatonic scale.


a stringed keyboard instrument on which a pressed key triggers a hammer to strike strings. It is a standard part of the rhythm section.


the technique of playing a stringed instruent by pkycking the strings with the fingers; usualy the preferred method in jazz for paying the string bass. Listen to Pete Spaar playing his bass pizzicato.

playing inside

            improvising within the structure of the harmonic progression

playing outside

            improvising outside the structure of the harmonic progression.  This may mean improvising atonally (without reference to a tonal center).

Listen to the following example of the Free Bridge Quintet playing outside.

plunger mute

the bottom part of a sink plunger, waved in front of the bell of a brass instrument to create unusual timbres. See mutes.

In the following example, listen to John D'earth improvise using a plunger mute.

polyphonic texture (polyphony)

            a musical texture characterized by two or more melodies of equal importance or interest playing simultaneously, such that no one melody sounds like the main melody.   In classical composition, also known as counterpoint.

One jazz style that features polyphony is New Orleans jazz. Listen to the following example of New Orleans polyphony by the Free Bridge Quintet.

Another example shows the Free Bridge Quintet (with Prof. DeVeaux on piano) using polyphony on a modern version of Autumn Leaves."


            see rhythmic contrast

quartal chords

Chords built using the interval of the fourth, rather than the third (as with normal triads).

Listen to pianist Bob Hallahan improvise using quartal chords.

reed instruments

            wind instruments in which the sound is generated by a thin, flexible reed mounted in the mouthpiece. Reed instruments include the clarinet and the saxophone family (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones). (Double-reed instruments such as the oboe and bassoon are rarely used in jazz.)


range, for an instrument. Playing high on a trumpet is known as playing in its upper register.

resolve (noun: resolution)

The process by which an unstable dissonant tone moves to one that is stable and consonant.

rhythm changes

a tune in AABA form based on the harmonic progression of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." An example is John D'earth's tune "The Potboiler."

rhythm section

            the instruments in a jazz ensemble that provide a rhythmic and harmonic foundation.  Normally, the rhythm section will comprise a bass instrument (string bass, electric bass, tuba); percussion (usually the drum set); and one or more harmony instruments (piano, acoustic or electric guitar, banjo, the Hammond B-3 organ, vibraharp).

To hear a rhythm section in action, listen to the following example by the Free Bridge Quintet. Set in twelve-bar blues form, it begins with a full chorus of Pete Spaar's walking bass line, accompanied by a light backbeat on the drum's high-hat cymbal. The next chorus adds the (which comping of pianist Bob Hallahan. In the third chorus, we hear the intense rhythmic contrast of Robert Jospe's drumming. Finally, we add Jeff Decker as a soloist on top of this rhythm section accompaniment.  

rhythmic contrast

            the basic rhythmic principle underlying African-derived musics, including jazz; also known as polyrhythm

            Music using rhythmic contrast features at least two contrasting rhythmic layers.  One layer is typically a relatively unchanging part that serves as a rhythmic foundation. Musicians refer to maintaining the rhythmic foundation as "keeping time." (A good example in jazz would be the walking bass line or the ride patterns played on the drummer’s ride cymbal.)  Other layers are more variable (e.g., comping, improvised solos, dropping bombs). 

ride pattern

the steady pulsation played on the ride cymbal of a drum kit. It forms the rhythmic foundation for jazz after about 1945.


a short, catchy, repeated melodic phrase.  Riffs are often used to articulate the structure of a twelve-bar blues, making it clearer to the listener to hear the form.  

Listen to the following example to hear the Free Bridge Quintet creating riffs within a twelve-bar blues.


the lowest, or foundation note of any chord.  Harmonies are built from the bottom up, and you can build a chord, or triad, on any note.  That note will then be the root of the chord.


            the expressive stretching of time — roughly halfway between playing in strict tempo and "free" rhythm

running the changes

jazz slang for harmonic improvisation.


invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s, a family of single-reed wind instruments with the carrying power of a brass instrument. See alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and baritone saxophone.


            a collection of pitches within the octave from which melodies may be drawn.  NOTE: for the purposes of this class, “scale” is synonymous with “mode.”


            improvising by a vocalist, using nonsense syllables instead of words (e.g., "doo-bee-doo-ba-doot-'m-do-ba").

send-off riffs

ensemble riffs played in the first few bars of a chorus. The riff, played by the entire band, interrupts or precedes a solo by a single improviser, "sending" them off on their way. The soloist then completes the rest of the chorus.

A good example of a send-off riff comes in the middle of John D'earth's solo on "Midriff".

slash chords

complex extended chords formed by placing a triad over a different root: e.g., an A major chord over an F root. The name comes from the usual abbreviation for these chords as "A/F"--"A-slash-F." Since slash chords are usually fairly dissonant, pulling the music away from the tonal center, improvisers tend to to play outside over them.

To hear the sound of slash chords, listen to the following example performed by Bob Hallahan of the Free Bridge Quintet.


            a passage for a section of a jazz band (trumpets, saxophones, trombones, etc.) in block chord texture.  The term is deliberately ironic, because of course a "solo" by definition means one instrument.  Block chord texture gives the surface impression that an entire section of instruments is playing a "solo," because they are all playing in the same rhythm.

        A soli is, necessarily, composed ahead of time.  (All those instruments couldn't manage to play the same rhythm spontaneously!)  So there is an additional irony: "solo" in jazz generally means an improvisation--and again, a good soli will be written in the style of a good improvised solo, but it is not, and cannot, be improvised.

Listen to the following example of three horns playing a soli.

soprano saxophone

the smallest and highest-pitched saxophone used in jazz. Listen to Jeff Decker playing the soprano saxophone.


a popular song that has become part of the permanent repertory of jazz musicians.



            a technique in which a band plays a pattern of short chords separated by silences.  The intervening musical space is then filled in with monophonic improvisation.  Stop-time is usually used in early jazz. Typical patterns for stop-time include playing on the downbeat of every other measure; or playing on beats 1, 2, and 3 of a measure. 

For more modern jazz, listen to the following example of stop-time playing by tenor saxophonist Jeff Decker over the harmonic progression of the tune "Cherokee."

straight mute

the standard mute for brass instruments in the symphony orchestra, it dampens the tone without too much distortion. See mutes.

Listen to John D'earth playing trumpet with a straight mute.


            a technique for a pianist's left hand.  It involves a steady alternation of bass notes (low notes) with chords in a "boom-chick, boom-chick" rhythm. 

            Stride is also the generic term for the style of jazz piano playing using this technique.

string bass

the most common bass used in jazz, the same acoustic instrument found in symphony orchestras; also known as the double bass. Listen to Pete Spaar play the string bass.


  1. jazz from the period 1935-1945, usually known as the Swing Era.
  2. a jazz-specific feeling created by rhythmic contrast within a particular rhythmic framework (usually involving a walking bass and a steady rhythm on the drummer's ride cymbal).

swing eighth notes

An uneven division of the beat used by jazz musicians. Eighth notes are normally divided evenly, while swing eighth notes range widely, usually falling into the ration of 2:1.

Listen to the Free Bridge Quintet performing an example with straight eighth notes. Now listen to the same group perform the same passage with swing eighth notes.


an accent that (temporarily) contradicts the usual accentuation of a meter.  If you have a meter of 4 beats to the bar, beats 1 and 3 normally receive the greatest emphasis.  A syncopation might involve an unexpected accent on beat 4, or on a note in between the 3rd and 4th beat.  NOTE: syncopation is not a term we use much, since its meaning is supplanted by rhythmic contrast


            the speed of the music.

tenor saxophone

a common type of saxophone, larger and deeper than the alto saxophone. Listen to Jeff Decker play the tenor saxophone.


            the relationship between melody and harmony in a piece of music.  Different types include homophonic, monophonic, and polyphonic texture.


            the “quality” of a sound, as distinct from its pitch; also referred to as “tone color.” Timbre is what distinguishes the same note being played on two different instruments — i.e., instruments such as the trumpet and piano have a noticeably different timbre.             

            In addition, skillful musicians can vary the timbre on their instruments, often using external devices such as mutes.  The tendency to vary the timbre for expressive purposes is called timbre variation

            In other words, a saxophone has an inherent distinctive timbre (enabling you to tell it from a trumpet, say), but individual saxophonists have often developed techniques that allow them to play a variety of timbres (e.g., more growling or raspy or breathy sounds). 

timbre variation

            the tendency to vary timbre for expressive purposes. In jazz, this may involve special technique, including the use of mutes and growls.

The Duke Ellington band of the 1920s relied heavily on timbre variation. Listen to this example of Bubber Miley playing a full chorus of the 12-bar blues relying on growls in the throat and the plunger mute for tonal color.

time-line pattern

a repeated, asynmmetric pattern that serves as a basic foundation layer in African music (and, to a lesser extent, African-American music). One version of a time-line pattern, known as clave, is basic to many kinds of Latin music.

tonal music

            music characterized by an overall tonal center (the tonic) that serves as the center of gravity for the music.  All harmonies are organized in relationship to this tonal center, and are more or less dissonant to it.  The tension and released created by the resolution from dissonance to consonance imparts a sense of forward movement to tonal music.


the first note or “degree “of a scale: “do” in the scale “do re mi fa so la ti.”  Represented by the roman numeral I.  In tonal music, the tonic is the note that melodies and harmonies will return to for a sense of closure.

trading fours

A technique in which musicians consistently alternate brief solos of pre-set length (for trading fours, four bars; musicians may also trade twos, eights, and so forth).  Trading fours usually occurs after each musician has had a chance to play a solo, and often involves alternating four-bar segments with the drummer.

In the tune "The Potboiler," John D'earth and Jeff Decker trade sections of varying lengths: trading eights (eight-bar sections), trading fours , and trading twos (two-bar sections). Later in the performance, the four members of the band (trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass) trade fours with the drummer.


To shift an entire musical phrase to a higher or lower pitch. This usually involves raising or lowering each note by the same precise interval.



            the standard three-note chord that serves as the basis for tonal music


  • a musical group with three members

  • the third, or “C” section of a multi-section march or ragtime form. 

triple meter

a meter in which the measure or bar is divided into three beats. Triple meter is common in many kinds of dance music (e.g., the waltz), but it is relatively rare in jazz, where most meters are duple. When it is used, the meter is often covered over with polyrhythm.

One example of triple meter is the John Coltrane performance of "My Favorite Things." To hear the triple meter in this performance, it may help not to listen to the piano, or even to the soprano saxophone, but rather to the drummer, who keeps time, or to the bass, mostly playing on the downbeat of each measure.


a low-pitched brass instrument that uses a slide to adjust the column of air. By using the slide, the trombone is capable of glissandi, also known as "smears" (a good example of variable intonation). See also


the most common brass instrument. Its vibrating tube is completely cylindrical until it reaches the end, where it flares into the instrument's bell. Listen to John D'earth playing the trumpet. The timbre of the trumpet is often modified with a mute.


a large, low-pitched brass instrument with an intricate nest of tubing ending in an enormous bell. Often used in early jazz groups as a bass instrument because of its powerful volume.


A faster, more complex series of chords that comes in the last two bars of a blues or the A section of an AABA form. Also known as a turnback.


a musical interval formed by two differing instruments sounding the same pitch. It is closely related to the octave. The sound of the unison (or octave) is used in the openings of bebop recordings, as in the following example of alto saxophone and trumpet playing a passage from Charlie Parker's "Koko".

A similar passage is performed in the "Midriff" by John D'earth on trumpet and Jeff Decker on tenor saxophone.

valve trombone

a trombone that uses valves, instead of a moveable slide, to change pitches.

One example of a valve trombonist was Juan Tizol of the Duke Ellington band, whom you can hear at the opening of "Conga Brava."


            a short, repeated chord progression, usually used as the introduction to a performance.

A good example of a vamp comes at the outset of Clifford Brown's performance of "I'll Remember April."

variable intonation

            the bending of pitches for expressive purposes; pitches bent in this way are called "blue notes". As an example, listen to saxophonist Jeff Decker playing bend his pitches.

One master of variable intonation was the Duke Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Listen to this example of a note that he bends out of shape using only his breath and his embouchure.


a slight wobble in pitch produced naturally by the singing voice. It is often imitated in instrumental playing by wind instruments.


the particular way a musician chooses to play the notes in a particular chord. A triad only has three pitches, but these can be spread out or doubled in infinite variations.

walking bass

            a bass line featuring four even beats per bar, usually serving as the rhythmic foundation for the jazz ensemble. 

whole-tone scale

a scale constructed entirely out of whole-steps. Used occasionally in 1920s jazz, and noticeably by Thelonious Monk from the 1940s on. Because it avoids the intervals of a fourth or fifth (the intervals normally used to tune instruments), it has an eerie, floating sound.

Listen to John D'earth and pianist Bob Hallahan improvise using the whole tone scale.

wind instruments

            any instrument that is blown into to create a pitch: includes brass instruments and reed instruments (e.g., saxophones), as well as flutes.   In jazz slang, a wind instrument is a horn

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