Does Jazz Harmony Exist?

You may have read my post Where Jazz Theory Got it Wrong, which outlines why using chord/scale theory for all jazz repertoire is problematic for historical, theoretical, and practical reasons.

Chord/scale theory is the practice of assigning each chord symbol it’s own mode (e.g. “play F Dorian over Fm7”). This is practical for approaching non-functional modal jazz tunes, but retroactively applying chord/scale theory to older jazz tunes can turn into a mess. For example, here is a chart a 9th-grade student brought to a lesson, which about made my head explode!


Dumping a mode onto each chord obscures chord function, voice-leading, and the form of the tune. And this isn’t how jazz musicians before 1958 conceived of harmony!

My NEC classmate Darcy James Argue addressed this issue in a Facebook post. This turned into an epic discussion, a highlight being Darcy’s discussion with Vijay Iyer about whether or not “jazz harmony” exists at all. (Darcy is on the cutting of large jazz ensemble composition—check out his brilliant and provocative music.)

Here is Darcy’s original post:

So I posted this as a comment to another thread, but I thought it merited reposting here. These are my thoughts after my first year of teaching theory at The New School is coming to a conclusion.

I think the Mark Levine-inspired “modes of melodic minor” approach to thinking about harmony, which is what a lot of young jazz musicians (including me) learned coming up, is problematic in many ways. My main issue is that the chord-scale associations are often discussed as if each chord existed in a self-contained universe. “Play seventh mode melodic minor on altered chords” can be a useful, practical solution in certain situations, but this approach is totally disconnected from any mooring in chord function or key or traditional harmony and voice-leading.

For instance, In a functional context, the primary “altered scale” for use on the V7 chord in the key of C minor is… the C minor scale. Not the melodic minor, or harmonic minor, or natural minor, but the *C minor scale* — a scale where the 6th and 7th degrees are variable and can be raised or lowered as necessary.

The minor scale with variable 6th and 7th is the actual scale we use when building diatonic chords in minor, and you’ll notice that on V7, it gives you both the natural fifth and the b13, and options for b9, nat. 9, and #9.

Obviously many chord-scale oriented players opt for the harmonic minor scale here, and that is actually a great choice for reinforcing the key. But you’ll also hear plenty of pre-modal musicians play lines that include both the leading tone and the subtonic, e.g., G – F – Eb – D – C – B – Bb – Ab – G. (And of course, another classic choice that is rarely taught these days is the melodic minor of the key — particularly on ascending lines!)

The tonic minor scale is where the b9, #9, and b13 tensions really come from. And in the key of C minor, they do not have anything to do with Ab melodic minor!

I think you could probably teach most of functional jazz harmony without talking about modes or chord-scales at all, using just the diatonic major scale, the diatonic minor scale (with variable 6th and 7th degrees), applied dominants and their related ii7 chords, tritone substitutions, applied diminished seventh chords, and modal mixture.

This is exactly what I aimed to the do when writing The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony. But my material is only an introduction—as this thread shows, the relationship between jazz and tonal harmony is deep.

For further reading, dive into Robert Rawlin’s critical review of Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory Book in the Society For Music Theory.