I submitted my second journal for my jazz seminar last week. (See the first one here.) I wrote about the next several chapters of Dave Liebman's A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody, and I reflected on a long class discussion on individual approaches to composing.

Liebman Reading

I prefer not to think of sounds as musical or unmusical, pleasing or undesirable. Rather than placing a value judgment on a sound, I focus on its distinct characteristics. Some sounds fascinate and excite me more than others (and this is how I direct my own musical development), but every sound is different from all others; not better or worse. Even when I can't make sense of the examples provided in Liebman's book, I can tell that they're different from other things I've heard. My approach to this book has been less a means of stimulating creative improvising than a process of classifying sounds. Whether or not I'm inspired by any particular concept or example, I'm still fascinated by hearing and identifying these new ideas. Perhaps I'll find some future use for them, even if subconsciously.

During my last two semesters studying classical music theory with Professor Dutton, he frequently stressed that all this theory came after the music. The composers no doubt had personal theoretical frameworks from which they created, but all the conventional pedagogical analysis tools we know today were developed much later, as a means of explaining what could already be heard. Jazz theory seems to have taken a similar path; all the bebop and chord-scale analysis tools currently well known were not available to the original creators of new styles. The tools were developed in order to conceptualize elements of music that had already been created.

Liebman claims to have taken this same approach of music before theory in the creation of this book. In this case, however, both come from the same person. He explains in the introduction:

These first writings were an attempt to put into words the kinds of sounds I was trying to play on the saxophone. Though reluctant to commit myself on paper, I slowly realized that I was attempting to describe the thought patterns which led me to the melodic lines and harmonies I was playing.1

The reader may end up with a different experience. Without a familiarity with the applications of the concepts presented, the reader is faced with learning the theory before the music. In this situation, the theory no longer serves to explain what has previously been heard, but to introduce the reader to new sounds.

As far as I can tell, this is the first time that I'm experiencing most of these sounds. I enjoy listening to the chromatic developments in jazz since the 1960s, and I imagine I've heard some of these concepts in real musical situations, but I wouldn't be able to identify them. Providing references to specific recordings in which each of these concepts is featured would be an invaluable addition to this book. Not only would it take the reader out of the isolated listening of the accompanying CD and the playing of examples, but it would bring the experience closer to the music before theory approach. Instead of fruitlessly wondering how these ideas could ever be applied tastefully, the reader could hear their applications first and then learn why they sound the way they do and how to categorize them.

One concept resonated with me in the current reading: the effects on the performers of how and whether elements of the music are named. Liebman introduces the idea in the context of notating non-tonal music:

By putting a name on something, be it a chord or scale, this designated material becomes the focal point of the interaction. It serves the purpose of organizing the musician's thought patterns and also functions as a kind of safety net which when needed can be reffered to. On the other hand, without this specificity, the musicians are placed in a situation of having to immediately communicate clearly with each other in a more immediate aural and instinctive fashion.2

This does not put forth any rules or recommendations, but shows that the composer has a great deal of control over how his or her pieces are interpreted through naming alone. Particularly in the realm of improvised music, the manner of notating and naming certain sounds in a composition provides the performer with specific abstractions from which to draw ideas.

Liebman later focuses on chord voicing terminology, detailing the effects of three different naming conventions: relating the chord to the root (often including numbers, sharps, and flats), slash polychords, and a numbered system from the root.3 Using the first, more conventional approach of naming a chord with a root leads to "scale-type close interval lines."4 Slash polychords "can be quickly translated into arpeggio lines and also lead to polytonal scale oriented melodies."5 The final approach does not yield such predictable results, but quickly communicates the tonal colors and voicing range to the improviser. I find Liebman's numbering system preferable to merely writing out the exact voicing, as I can more clearly and quickly see the composition of the chord instead of interpreting all the intervals within a written voicing.


I found our recent class discussion on approaches to composing to be the most helpful moment in this seminar thus far. I recorded a variety of valuable little composing tricks from my classmates, but I had epiphanies with two broad concepts. The first was the necessity to commit to something when in doubt over which path is best. Anyone willing to keep composing frequently in the future will have countless opportunities to employ good ideas that were abandoned for the sake of committing to something. This act is essential in setting the context of a piece. It might sound obvious, but it's essential to understand that every moment of a piece is heard in the context of everything that came before it. The process of composing relies heavily not just on having great ideas, but on selecting appropriate ideas within a context. Even if the commitment is only temporary, a composer needs to choose a path in order to see the whole picture and decide whether to keep it.

My second epiphany came with the discussion of comfort zones. Some members of the class expressed a need to reject habits and force themselves away from what they know in order to grow and inspire creativity. However, I see the composing process as a combination of subconscious comfort and conscious discomfort. Moments of inspiration are impossible to control. When they strike, the results are often genuine and exciting. The source of these ideas is an accumulation of everything the composer knows, and is necessarily within the comfort zone. These are the ideas we want to keep, so I see no need to suppress them. However, their appearances can be infrequent, so we must usually incite them somehow. This is the challenging part, and I think this is where it helps to push oneself beyond one's knowledge, to create an unfamiliar framework to stimulate subconscious inspiration. A composition written completely by conscious construction and no inspiration can sound contrived, so the task of the conscious mind is to avoid boring itself at all costs.


1 Dave Liebman, A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody (Rottenburg N., Germany: Advance Music, 1991), 7.

2 Ibid., 34.

3 Ibid., 41-42.

4 Ibid., 41.

5 Ibid., 42.

Works Cited

Liebman, Dave. A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody. Rottenburg N., Germany: Advance Music, 1991.