modernizing chord progressions

Within this text, the phrase to "modernize chord progressions" is oftimes simply an attempt to "freshen up" tunes we love to play. So often this process naturally occurs when jamming with your friends, you'all find your own ways of playing through the songs you love. Some of the ideas which follow simply look at ways pro players might freshen up the material they play every night. Why do this? Well, for variety for sure. Same material, same way every time just might drive us a bit bonkers eh? Working players will over the course of a number of performances discover new ways of doing things while in the process of working their magic, gradually evolving the way they approach and play the music. As one develops in their art, we organically evolve and oftentimes incorporate the influences around us. Oftentimes, a new bit of theory, a new chord change or substitution can cause a major shift in one's entire perspective, thus "modernizing" the way they take of business.

There are a couple of very easy ways to modernize chord progressions, that is if a player wants to go there. Maybe I should say need more than wants, but that is an art thing for sure. The trick here is to "convincingly" play a style and find ways to make it fresh, or modern, as the term is used here.

A common way to modernize our sound is by moving our colors further up into our existing arpeggios. That the traditional harmonic colors of a style are expanded so as to include more of their upper structure color tones, reducing the overall sense of tonal gravity. So, as we move from the basic styles into more complex uses of the musical language, by adding colortones we gain an advancing ability to create and release musical tension? Totally.

With this in mind, compare the following evolution of tonic voicings. Example 1.

 C major triad   C major 7   C major 9   C major 9 # 11

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Hear the gradual softening / blurring of the chords? The C major 9 #11chord of bar 4 above is in a sense a polytonal chord. There is a D major triad above a C major triad. When the harmony is extended into the upper parts of the arpeggio, the tonal gravity governing the elements is reduced, creating a freer, more modern environment ( my term ). Using the colortones is just one of the many ways in which "modernists" can reduce tonal gravity and the overall sense of one pitch being the tonic.

So, why would we want to do this? Reduce tonal gravity and sense of tonal center? Well, the answer to this question is in part based on what stories we are trying to tell in our music, what musical elements are we currently using and how long we have been weaving our tales. Are we using poetic words to share our ideas or instrumental sounds? Perhaps both? What musical style we are working in or are we mixing various styles together in one piece of music? If by altering the sense of tonal gravity, can we shape the predictability of the music? Thus can we use different musical elements to shape how our story unfolds and concludes as the case might be? Do these factors evolve over the years as we search for better artistic ways to tell our tales? Can we as players exhaust existing resources necessitating the search for new combinations of sounds? Do artists ever become bored by what they are doing? So may questions eh? Really just a few of the concerns the creative musician might ask of themselves as they work their magic and seek to evolve artistically.

With these questions in mind, let's evolve a harmonic progression from a more folk / rock stylistic basis towards a more modern realization. Example 2.

  C major triad F maj triad G maj triad C maj triad

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Common enough eh? Sound predictable? It's supposed to. Subbing in a diatonic Two chord and adding a 7th to each chord rearranges the cadential motion into a softer, less tonally directed motion. Example 2a.

     D min 7   G 7    C maj 7

%

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Still predictable? We could easily recolor these chords and "modernize" the motion, reducing the sense of tonal gravity towards the tonic C. Example 2b.

  D min 9 / 13   G 9 / 13 C maj 6/9 #11

C maj 6/9

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Still predictable? Let's try doubling up the Two / Five motion above to disguise our tonal intent. Example 2c.

   E - 9 A 9/13 D - 9 G 9/13  C maj 6/9 # 11

  C maj 6/9

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Still predictable? Let's add a bit of chromaticism in the line featuring the tritone substitute. Example 2d.

E - 9  Eb 9/13 D- 9 Db 9/13 C maj 9

C maj 9 #11

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Still predictable? Must be the bass line! O.k., let's try filtering this last idea through the whole step / half step principle of the diminished color. Example 2e.

 Db - 7  Gb 9 D- 7 G 9/13   C maj 9

  C maj 9 # 11

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This double Two / Five motion is the basis for John Coltrane's "Moments Notice."

Modernizing chord progressions oftentimes are organized by a larger structure than simply the diatonic sense of tonal center, creating unique cycles of chords that close upon themselves just as with more conventional chord progressions. The following idea uses the pitches of the augmented triad ( Ab, C, Eb ) as the focal points of the cadential motion and uses the root motion of minor third / perfect fourth to achieve the desired cycling effect. Example 2f.

C maj 9 Eb 7 Ab maj9 B 7 E maj 9 G 9

C 6 / 9

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Still familiar? Post bop symmetry yes? Wow, what kind of musical monster are you? Can you run the cycle from each of the pitches of the chromatic scale? This last idea is the basic harmonic formula for John Coltrane's explosive "Giant Steps." Is this last idea the most evolved harmonic motion within the American music library over the last 100 years or so? Thinking of the rather up tempo of Mr. Coltrane's original recording to create the musical effect, are there a set of more difficult or challenging changes for creating improvised dialogue for the evolving jazz artist? Comments please!

A modern cycle of pitches. A common compositional technique often used in contemporary jazz is to combine an extended vamp section with a more traditional cycling of chords, creating unique emotional sections within compositions. These vamp sections vary greatly in color, feel and intent. All manner of compositional devices are used. Riffs, modulation, different grooves, different tonalities, the blue colors, all have found a new home in these contemporary vamps. The following vamp idea is created from the cycle of keys / tonalities as based on the cycling of major and minor thirds. This interval cycle creates an alternating Lydian / Dorian environmental scheme that gradually modulates by ascending in half steps. The key scheme for the music is in the following table. Example 4.

a cycle of C major / C# minor / Db major / D minor then
2/5/1 in Db major / then 2/5/1 in B major then to Eb major.

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Cool huh? Not too shabby for the midi sounds either. In this educational format, the midi thing is cool for many reasons, one of which is the near perfect intonation of the pitches and accuracy of the rhythms.

Can we flip the cycle of pitches to minor 3rd / major 3rd, creating an alternating Dorian to Lydian scheme? But of course. And can we cycle downward through the keys? Absolutely! Example 4a.

a cycle of C minor / B major / B minor / Bb major then
2/5/1 in Ab major then Ab major to G 7+ 5 back to C minor.

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Cool huh? Simply combining the new with the notso new. Are there jamm loops for these motions? Of course, we have it all here n'est pas?

Review. So, an easy way to modernize ( jazz up ) any song is simply to sprinkle in chromatic notes into the melody and half step motion into the harmony, which can be further modernized through using different combinations of the colortones. This is the approach oftentimes used by modern, advanced jazz players when using more diatonically based compositions for vehicles of performance, i.e., standards. Again, the general intent is simply to obscure the tonal direction and suspend the tonal gravity of the music.

In modern chord progressions there are no rules or stylistic guidelines that need to be applied to make the music make sense. This is created by the artistic strength and vision of the artist. The term modern tonality in this text describes what is generally termed modern music in today's society. Generally characterized as having a reduced sense of tonal center thus tonal gravity. The less predictable cadential nature of modern music is oftentimes based on an increased chromaticism and use of non-traditionally structured groups of pitches, i.e., scales that are either intervalically outside the traditional structures of equal temper, i.e., 12 tone scales or tone rows, or more diatonically generated groups of pitches that are placed within larger structural frameworks, obscuring their traditional role of creating a tonal center. Cool with this? Pretty out there huh? Well, that's kind of the idea n'est pas...

Where to next?
review new ideas
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