A | AABA form |alto saxophone | arco | atonal music |

B |backbeat | ballad | bar | baritone saxophone |bass | bass clarinet | block-chord texture | blue notes |blues form | boogie-woogie | brass instruments | break | bridge

C| cadence | cadenza | chart | changes | chord substitutions | chorus | chromatic harmony | chromatic scale | clarinet | clave | comping |conga drums | consonance |cornet | countermelody | counterpoint | cup mute | cycle | cyclic form

D |degree | diatonic scale | dissonance | Dorian scale | double | double-time downbeat | dropping bombs | duple meter | dynamics

E |electric bass|electric guitar | embouchure | extended chords

F | fake books | free improvisation | free rhythm | full cadence | funk

G | glissando | groove | | growling | guitar |

H |half cadence | half step | half-valving | | Harmon mute | harmonic improvisation | harmonic progression | harmonic substitution | | head | head arrangement | homophonic texture | horn |

I | interval | inversion | irregular meter

J | jam session |

K |keeping time

L | lead sheet | lick

M | major scale (or mode) | |maracas | measure | melodic paraphrase | meter |microtones | minor scale (or mode) | modal improvisation | mode | modulation | |monophonic texture |motive | mouthpiece | multiphonics | mute |

more definitions on Definitions Page Two


AABA form

the standard 32-bar form for many popular songs. AABA refers to the melody and harmonic progression (not the text, which can have a completely different pattern. Each portion of the form is eight bars long, with the bridge serving as the point of contrast. We can think of AABA this way: A = statement; A = repetition; B = contrast; A = return.

A good example of the standard 32-bar AABA form is "The Potboiler", an original composition written for this class by John D'earth. "The Potboiler" is based on rhythm changes (the harmonic progression to George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm").

alto saxophone

one of the most common saxophones used in jazz, smaller and higher-pitched than the tenor saxophone. Listen to Jeff Decker play the alto saxophone.


playing a stringed instrument (such as the string bass) with a bow. For an example, listen to Pete Spaar play his bass arco.

atonal music

            music that does not have a tonic, or tonal center.  Such music will sound dissonant to the average listener, but in fact the concept of dissonance or consonance simply doesn’t apply, since there is no “home key” to resolve to.  Pure atonality is rare in jazz, but musicians nevertheless often use free improvisation, which approximates atonality in its emphasis on elements other than harmony (timbre, melodic intervals, rhythm).

Among jazz musicians, improvising atonal music is known as playing outside.

Many avant-garde musicians prefer to use an atonal approach to their improvising. For an example, listen to the following example by alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy from his 1964 album Out to Lunch

For another example, one that features polyphonic texture, listen to this example from the World Saxophone Quartet (featuring David Murray).


            a consistent accent on beats 2 and 4 of a measure.  The backbeat produces a rhythmic layer that contrasts with the usual accenting of beat 1 (the downbeat) and beat 3 in the underlying meter.

In the following example, the singer, Big Joe Turner, accents the boogie-woogie playing of Pete Johnson with a handclap on the backbeat.


a slow, romantic popular song. One example is the Miles Davis Nonet version of "Moon Dreams." (This example also illustrates block-chord texture).


a rhythmic unit, lasting from one downbeat to the next.   Also known as a measure.  In written music, a bar is marked off by vertical lines known as bar lines. 

baritone saxophone

the largest and deepest of the saxophones commonly used in jazz. Listen to Jeff Decker play the baritone saxophone.


in the rhythm section of a jazz band, an instrument--string bass, electric bass, or tuba--that supports the harmony and provides a basic rhythmic foundation.

bass clarinet

a wind instrument pitched lower than a clarinet; it is used primarily in avant-garde jazz music. Listen to Jeff Decker playing the bass clarinet.

block-chord texture

            a subset of homophonic texture in which the pitches of the accompanying harmony move in exactly the same rhythm as the main melody.  Block-chord texture is typically found in big-band jazz, as, for example, when a saxophone section plays and simultaneously harmonizes a melody. See also soli.

A good example of block-chord texture is the saxophone chorus of Duke Ellington's 1940 "Cottontail."

An older example is the clarinet trio, performing in block-chord style on Jelly Roll Morton's 1927 "Dead Man Blues."

blue notes

notes using variable intonation, "bending" the pitch expressively through microtones.

blues form

A twelve-bar cycle used as a framework for improvisation by jazz musicians. Blues forms share the same basic underlying structure: they begin with a tonic , or I chord, move to the IV chord on the fifth bar (the beginning of the second phrase), returning to I two bars later. In the last phrase (measure 9), they move to the dominant, or V, before finally returning to I in m. 11. This basic form is altered by harmonic substitutions, which fill in the musical space with additional harmonic movement.

There are many examples of performances in twelve-bar blues form on this web site. One example created for the course by John D'earth is "Midriff".


            a blues piano style in which the left hand plays a rhythmic ostinato (i.e., repeated pattern) of eight beats to the bar.  For an example, listen to the boogie-woogie playing of Kansas City pianist Pete Johnson.

brass instruments

            wind instruments played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece.  This category includes the trumpet, cornet, trombone, and tuba. 


            a brief passage (usually 2 to 4 bars) in which the prevailing texture (whether homophonic or polyphonic) is interrupted by monophonic texture.

One example of a famous break comes from Charlie Parker's performance of"A Night in Tunisia".

The Free Bridge Quintet offers a different example with four breaks--for tenor sax, trumpet, piano, and tenor sax again.


            the middle part of an AABA form — i.e., the "B" part.  (Musicians sometimes also call it the "channel.") It usually serves as a contrast, and typically ends with a half cadence.   Its function is to connect, or “bridge,” between the "A" sections.


stopping places that divide a harmonic progression into comprehensible phrases. Cadences that end with the tonic chord are known as full cadences, while those that end with the dominant chord are known as half cadences.


(term from classical music): a virtuoso passage for a single instrument, usually monophonic.


            a shorthand musical score that serves as the point of reference for a jazz performance.  Often, only the harmonic progression is specified.   Also known as a lead sheet.


            jazz slang for harmonic progression

chord substitutions

substituting one chord, or a series of chords, for harmonies in a harmonic progression.


            a single statement of the harmonic/rhythmic cycle defined by musical form (e.g., 12-bar blues, or 32-bar popular song form).

chromatic harmony

            harmony that draws upon the 12-note chromatic scale, as opposed to the more "normal" 7-note diatonic scales (major or minor, e.g.)

chromatic scale

            the scale containing twelve equally spaced notes within the octave, corresponding to all the keys (black and white) on the piano. 

Listen to John D'earth and pianist Bob Hallahan improvise using all the notes available in the chromatic scale. Their music relies on chromatic harmony.


a wind instrument consisting of a slim, cylindrical ebony-colored wooden tube that produces a thin, piercing sound. Listen to Jeff Decker playing the clarinet.


a time-line pattern used in Latin music. Its rhythm can be represented verbally as : dah-dit-dah | dah-dah|, or in reverse form, | dah-dah| dah-dit-dah|.


playing chords in a rhythmically unpredictable fashion as accompaniment for an improvising soloist.  Comping is an important way for the harmony instruments in the rhythm section (e.g., piano, guitar) to add a contrasting rhythmic layer. 

conga drums

In Latin percussion, two tall drums of equal height but different diameters, with the smaller one assigned the lead role.

consonance (adj.: consonant)

            harmonies that are stable (i.e., that do not need to resolve to another harmony).


a partially conical brass instrument used often in early jazz and eventually supplanted by the trumpet.


            (also known as an obbligato). In a piece whose texture consists clearly of a melody with accompaniment (i.e., a homophonic texture): a countermelody is an accompanying part with distinct, though subordinate, melodic interest. If the melodic interest were not subordinate, the texture would be polyphonic: two or more melodies of more or less equal melodic importance.

In classical music, the countermelody is known as an obbligato.

In the following example from "A Sailboat in the Moonlight," the melody is sung by Billie Holiday, while the countermelody is performed by tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

In the following example, John D'earth plays the main melody on trumpet, while Jeff Decker plays the countermelody on tenor saxophone.

counterpoint (adj: contrapuntal)


            two or more melodic lines of equal importance (i.e., polyphonic texture), especially when composed. 

cup mute

an orchestral mute with an extension that more or less covers the bell of the trumpet; see mutes. Listen to this audio example of John D'earth playing with a cup mute.


            a fixed unit of time, repeated in a potentially endless progression, used as a musical framework  In jazz, a cycle (also known as a chorus) usually involves a fixed unit of time and a harmonic progression.

cyclic form

            the tendency to base the overall structure of a musical performance on repeated cycles


individual notes in a scale. If a major scale is defined by "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti," do is the first degree, re the second degree, and so on.

diatonic scale

            the seven-note scales commonly used in Western music.  The most common is the major mode, which is expressed by the syllables “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.”  (Note that the scale begins to repeat itself at the eight note, or octave.) 

Listen to John D'earth and pianist Bob Hallahan improvise using a simple diatonic scale like the major scale.

dissonance (adj.: dissonant.)

            harmonies that are unstable within an overall harmonic context.  Dissonant harmonies build tension that is resolved through movement toward consonant harmonies. 


            the chord built on the fifth degree of the scale,  represented by the roman numeral V.

Dorian scale

A scale that falls halfway between the major scale and the minor scale. One example runs on the white keys of the piano from D to D.

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


to play more than one instrument. E.g., tenor saxophonists often double on the soprano saxophone.



            a technique in which members of a jazz ensemble, especially the rhythm section, play twice as fast while maintaining the length of the overall cycle (or chorus).

Listen to the following example from Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow." You will hear a trombone soloist playing in a slow tempo. Halfway through the excerpt, a baritone saxophone enters playing double-time, accompanied by a double-time drum part.                      


            the first beat of a measure or bar.  If you are counting along with the music, the downbeat is the point at which you count “one.”

dropping bombs

            a technique in which a drummer plays unpredictable rhythmic accents. In the bebop era, a strike on the snare drum was typically followed immediately by an explosion on the bass drum. (Some say the name "be-bop" comes from this combination.) Dropping bombs remains an important way for the drummer to add a contrasting rhythmic layer.

As an example, listen to this excerpt from a solo by Charlie Parker (over "A Night in Tunisia"), where the drummer's interjections are especially frequent: as in the John Coltrane performance of "My Favorite Things": Audio

duple meter

a kind of meter in which the bar is divided into groups of two. In duple meter, the listener would count along either as "1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2...." or as "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4....." Duple meter is the ordinary meter for jazz performance.


            refers to volume, or loudness.  Some jazz passages feature sharp contrasts in dynamics.

electric bass

a four-stringed guitar used in popular music, amplified through an electric speaker. Listen to Pete Spaar play the electric bass.


the position of the lips, facial muscles, and jaw necessary to play a wind instrument.

extended chords (extensions)

            chords to which additional pitches, or extensions (sixths, ninths, sevenths, thirteenths) have been added beyond the basic triad. Such chords are frequently used by jazz musicians to add tension and sophistication to harmony.  

fake books

a collection of lead sheets used by jazz musicians (called "fake" books because musicians "fake," or improvise a performance without detailed notation).

full cadence

a cadence that ends on the tonic chord. A full cadence will sound closed and final.

free improvisation

improvising without reference to harmony, often in an atonal context. In free improvisation, the focus usually shifts to areas that can be masked in harmonic improvisation: timbre, melodic intervals, rhythm, and constant interaction among musicians.

For an example, listen to the following example from the World Saxophone Quartet's "Steppin'"

free rhythm

            music that flows through time without regularly occurring pulses. One appropriate metaphor for free rhythm is "breath rhythm."

An example of free rhythm is the opening from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.


a type of groove with a highly sycopagted bass line and various rhythmic layers, favored by jazz musicians after about 1970.
An example of this groove is performed by the Free Bridge Quintet.


to slide seamlessly from one note to the next. Easily achieved with the voice or on the trombone (with its slide), but also possible with good breath control on other instruments (saxophone, string bass, guitar, trumpet).


A general name for the overall framework that makes rhythmic contrast possible. This includes the jazz-specific concept of swing.


Creating an unusual timbre on a wind instrument by growling in the throat while playing. Listen to these examples of John D'earth growling on the trumpet and Jeff Decker growling on the tenor saxophone.


a plucked string instrument with waisted sides and a fretted fingerborard. The acoustic guitar was part of early jazz rhythm sections, while the electric guitar began to be used in teh late 1930s and came to dominate jazz and popular music in the 1960s.

half cadence

a cadence that ends on the dominant chord. Half cadences sound incomplete; they serve like a comma or a semi-colon in punctuation, providing a stop but not signalling full closure.

half step

One of the intervals in the major or minor scale. In the major scale, the half step falls between the third and fourth degrees of the scale.

half valving

Creating sounds with an unusual timbre by squeezing the valves of the trumpet only halfway. Listen to John D'earth using half-valving on his trumpet.

Harmon mute

a hollow mute made by the Harmon company (hence the capitalization). Originally it had a short extension comine out of a hole in the middle, with which musicians could make various amusing effects. But with Miles Davis, musicians began using the mute without the extension and playing close to the microphone to attain an attenuated timbre. See mutes.

Listen to an example of John D'earth playing Harmon mute.

harmonic improvisation

            creating a new melodic line by drawing on notes from each chord as it goes by in the harmonic progression.   Also known in jazz slang as "running the changes".

An example: the opening of a song uses the harmony C in bar 1, then G7 in bar 2.  (All you need to know is that the chord "C" contains certain notes, while the chord "G7" contains other notes.)  During bar 1, any notes from the "C" chord will be consonant, and others are likely to be dissonant (i.e., they will produce tension that needs to be resolved).  In bar 2, the situation shifts: the consonant notes are those in the "G7" chord.  A soloist using harmonic improvisation must keep track of the chords (or "changes," as jazz musicians often call them) and continually adjust the melodic line to fit the harmonic background.


Coleman Hawkins's performance on "Body and Soul" provides one excellent example of harmonic improvisation.

Another famous example is John Coltrane's harmonic improvisation on the chord changes to his tune,"Giant Steps". Coltrane's melodic line effortlessly adjusts to find notes that are consonant with the chords in the rapidly moving harmonic progression.

Bob Hallahan of the Free Bridge Quintet offers a harmonic improvisation on the chords to the tune "I Got Rhythm".

harmonic progression

            a series of chords used as the basis for improvisation; also known as chord changes.   In a harmonic progression, both the order of chords and their place within a rhythmic cycle are specified. 

            An example: the harmonic progression for an eight-bar phrase may be represented  by the following chart:

            |   C    |   C#o7  |    Dm    |    Fm7  |    Em    |  A7     |    Dm     |    G 7   |


            Each of these symbols represents a particular harmony, according to a shorthand that jazz musicians must learn.  (The “m,” for example, is short for “minor”; “7” means to add another note to a triad.)   The vertical lines (bar lines) show the downbeats of each  bar or measure.   According to this chart, a C-major triad is heard throughout the first measure.  On the downbeat of the second measure, it changes to a C#-diminished seventh chord. 

            Jazz musicians usually treat harmonic progressions as cycles-— that is to say, they are repeated as potentially endless loops.

harmonic substitution

            a technique by which a jazz musician may bypass certain chords in a harmonic progression in favor of other, “substitute” harmonies.  This may be done spontaneously or as part of a pre-conceived arrangement.



            a composed section, typically performed in unison, that frames a small-combo jazz performance by appearing at the beginning and again at the end. 

head arrangement

            an arrangement for big band that is collectively created by the band and not written down (musicians therefore carry it in their “heads”).  A head arrangement typically consists of  block-chord riffs and a set order of solos.  Head arrangements can be created on the spot as musicians extend a piece indefinitely by adding (and instantaneously harmonizing) riffs.

A classic example of a head arrangement is Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump." In the following excerpt, you will hear different solos: in each case, the wind instrument is backed by riffs from a different section (saxophone by trumpets, trombone by saxophones, etc.).


homophonic texture (homophony)

            a musical texture characterized by one main melody with a clearly subordinate pitch accompaniment.  Homophony is the usual texture in a jazz performance (e.g., an improvised solo accompanied by a rhythm section).


            jazz slang for any wind instrument


the distance between two different pitches in a scale. The size may range from a unison (two identical pitches) through numerically indicated intervals (third, fourth, fifth, or octave).


a triad whose lowest note is not the root, but another note in the chord (i.e., the third or the fifth).

irregular meter

            a meter featuring beats of unequal size. A meter of five, for example, can be understood as a grouping of three notes followed by two notes, as if one were counting “1-2-3, 1-2.” This kind of meter is known as a meter of five: it can be heard in the famous composition "Take Five" performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. You may also listed to a different example performed by the Free Bridge Quintet.

A different kind of irregular meter is seven, often broken up into patterns of twos and threes: e.g., 3 + 2 + 2, or 2 + 2 + 3. This latter type (2 + 2 + 3) can be heard in the following example by the Free Bridge Quintet.

jam session

an informal gathering at which musicians perform jazz for their own enjoyment. It can be competitive, with one musician trying to outdo another; or it can be friendly and supportive.

keeping time

jazz slang for the process of maintaining a steady, unchanging rhythmic foundation. "Keeping time" is a necessary element for producing rhythmic contrast. In mainstream bebop, the instruments that keep time are the drummer's ride cymbal and the string bass.

lead sheet      

a shorthand musical score that serves as the point of reference for a jazz performance, usually containing only the composed melody (or head) and the harmonic progression


a short melodic phrase learned by jazz musicians and used in their improvisations. A lick may be repeated precisely between two different solos.

major scale (or mode)

            the most common of the seven-note scales commonly in use in Western musical culture.  It is the scale that we sing to the syllables, “do re mi fa so la ti do.”


In Latin percussion, a gourd filled with beans and shaken.


            see bar.

melodic paraphrase (type of improvisation)

            melodic paraphrase uses a pre-existing melody as the basis for improvisation. The variations may come in rhythm or melodic contour (removing notes as well as adding them), but whatever the change, the original melody should still be recognizeable. Musicians often use melodic paraphrase when they first state a melody, to make the statement personal.

Some improvisers prefer to work primarily with melodic paraphrase. One such musician is the singer Billie Holiday, who took familiar melodies and molded them to her own satisfaction. Listen to what she does with the melody on this example from George Gershwin's famous lullaby (from Porgy and Bess), "Summertime.".

Listen as well to this example of melodic paraphrase on the tune "Oh, Susannah!" by the Free Bridge Quintet. It begins in free rhythm before moving into a normal meter.


            the organization of regular pulsations into a pattern.  Most jazz uses duple meter, or meter organized by 2’s. More rarely, jazz musicians use triple meter or irregular meter


melodic intervals smaller than a half step, used expressively in jazz as part of blue notes.

minor scale (or mode)

            one of the most common of the seven-note scales in Western musical culture.  Its arrangement of whole steps and half steps is slightly different from the major scale, and is often associated with different emotional responses (e.g., sadness)

modal improvisation

            using a single scale as the basis for improvisation, rather than harmonic improvisation, which uses the constantly shifting chord progression.

The most famous example of modal improvisaion is Miles Davis’s "So What," which asks the improviser to draw on one scale for the A sections; during the bridge, the same scale is transposed a half step higher (at about 0:30 in the excerpt).

Another short example is performed by Jeff Decker with the Free Bridge Quintet. .


            see scale.  "Mode" may refer to major or minor scales. They are also used to identify older scales, like Dorian or Phrygian.


            a change of key—i.e., changing the note that serves as the tonic

Listen for the modulation in the following two excerpts from Duke Ellington's "Concerto for Cootie." Ellington modulates into a new key in this example, about ten second into the performance. About twelve seconds into the next excerpt, the band then modulates back to the original key.

NOTE: this concept is far less important for jazz than for classical music, since changes of key are used in European concert music as a crucial means of generating tension and drama. 

monophonic texture (monophony)

            a musical texture characterized by a single melody with no pitched accompaniment: for an example, listen to the opening of Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues."  When a monophonic texture interrupts the usual texture of jazz performance, it is known as a break.


a short melodic or rhythmic idea used self-consciously by a musician in the course of a solo. Motives are usually varied in the course of a performance.


the portion of a wind instrument into which a musician blows. For brass instruments, the mouthpiece is cup-shaped. The musicians places the lips into this cavity, where they vibrate to produce sound.


by heavy overblowing, musicians playing the saxophone can create several pitches at once. These are often used in avant-garde jazz.

Listen to Jeff Decker create multiphonics on his saxophone.


        a device that can be used to alter the sound, or timbre, of an instrument.  (Only the brass instruments use them — e.g., trumpets and trombones).  Trumpet players in particular use a variety of mutes, such as the Harmon mute, a hollow mute with a hole in the middle that is stuck into the bell of the trumpet; the plunger mute, the rubber cup from the bottom part of a toilet plunger, which is waved in front of the bell; the cup mute or the straight mute, both of which are used in symphony orchestras.

On the following example, listen to Ray Nance play a solo with a cup mute on Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A Train'."

Now listen to Cootie Williams play a much wilder-sounding solo on the next example, using the plunger mute, on Ellington's "In a Mellotone."

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