Category Archives: Educational Materials

The Accessible Music Notation Project

An important announcement!

Some of you may know that I have been working on and off over the past few years on tools and methodology to support blind musicians as well as educators working with them.  I have managed to put this work to good use in my own teaching, but so far, I have not developed anything really polished enough to be ready to share it with the rest of the world.  Recently, I became inspired to try to change that.  After engaging in discussions with some blind musicians and educators – including some of the experts in the field – I have come to believe strongly that that there are some real needs here and some real opportunities to address them.  While I am sure there are any number of people more qualified than I to be dealing with these issues, the universe seems to be telling me that I need to take the initiative to start making some things happen.  So, I have launched The Accessible Music Notation Project:

Right now, the “we” referred to throughout the site is the “royal we” – that is, it’s really just me speaking for myself (albeit with the support of some people I respect).  But I hope to see the project grow over time.  I hope to find musicians and educator willing to share their ideas regarding what is needed, programmers willing to help address these needs, and perhaps people and organizations willing to help fund these efforts.

I honestly do not know where all this might lead, but I have ideas of what I think is possible, and I intend to be setting forth as time permits.  Please feel free to share this and if you have ideas for me, please let me know.  Replies on the site itself would probably be best for any substantial comments.  One of the whole reasons for creating the site was to make sure there was a permanent record of some of the ideas being tossed around via email over the past few weeks.

Other Scale-Based Voicings

There are other logical ways of constructing voicings; too many to describe individually here.  Most approaches are similar in that they they associate a scale with each chord and construct the voicing from notes in that scale. By using a scale approach, you can devise your own patterns for voicings. For instance, a second with a third stacked on top is a somewhat dissonant but not too cluttered sound that many pianists use extensively.  For a chord such as Fmaj7, you can apply this format at any position in the associated F lydian or F major scale.  Since the F major scale contains an avoid note (Bb) in this context, one would normally opt for the lydian scale and the B natural, so that none of the generated voicings would contain any avoid notes.  The particular pattern described above yields “F G B”, “G A C”, “A B D”, “B C E”, “C D F”, “D E G”, and “E F A” over the F lydian scale.

Most of these voicings are very ambiguous, in the sense that they do not readily identify the chord.  As with the 3/7 and quartal voicings, however, you will find that the presence of a bass player, or just the context of the chord progression being played, will allow almost any combination of notes from a given scale to make an acceptable voicing for the associated chord.

You may wish to experiment with different patterns and different scales to see if you can find any voicings you particularly like.  Often, the goal is not to find a voicing that completely describes a given chord, but rather to find a voicing that conveys a particular sound without seriously corrupting the chord.  You may find that at a given point in the music, you may wish to hear the characteristic authority of a perfect fifth, or the characteristic dissonance of a minor ninth or of a cluster of several notes a second apart, but without the characteristic wrong note sound of a completely random selection of notes.  Thinking of the associated scale and putting your sound into that context gives you a logical and reliable way to get the sound you want without compromising the harmony.

Close Position and Drop Voicings

The simplest voicing for a four note chord is the close position voicing, in which all the notes in the chord are arranged as close together as possible.  For example, a C7 chord might be voiced in close position as “C E G Bb”.  This is referred to as root position, since the root, C, is at the bottom.  The chord might also be voiced in close position as “E G Bb C”, which is also called the first inversion, since the bottom note has been inverted to the top.  The second inversion is “G Bb C E” and the third “Bb C E G”.

A drop voicing is created from a close position voicing by dropping one of the notes down an octave.  If the second note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 2 voicing; if the third note from the top is dropped, the voicing is called a drop 3 voicing.  For a C7 chord in root position, “C E G Bb”, the corresponding drop 2 voicing is “G C E Bb”.  The second note from the top, G, has been dropped down an octave.  The corresponding drop 3 voicing would be “E C G Bb”.  Drop 2 and drop 3 voicings can be constructed from any of the inversions of the chord as well.  On the piano, the dropped note must normally be played in the left hand, so these are almost always two handed voicings.  The intervals in these voicings make them perfectly suited for guitar.

Close position and drop voicings are effective when used to harmonize a melody, particularly in a solo setting.  Each melody note may be harmonized by a different drop voicing, with the melody note on top.  Pianists and guitarists often use this type of approach in their own solos.  A phrase in which every note is accompanied by close position or drop voicings is said to be harmonized with block chords.  Red Garland, Dave Brubeck, and Wes Montgomery all regularly played block chord solos.

Polychord and Upper Structure Voicings

The basis of a polychord voicing is to play two different chords at the same time, such as one in the left hand and one in the right on a piano. The relationship between the two chords determines the quality of the resultant chord.  These are always two handed voicings on a piano, or five or six string voicings on the guitar.  They produce a very rich, complex sound compared to the voicings presented so far.

The simplest style of polychord voicing is to play two triads; for instance, a C major triad in the left hand on a piano, and a D major triad in the right.  This will be notated D/C.  This notation is overloaded in that it is usually interpreted as meaning a D triad over the single note C in the bass; it is not always clear when a polychord is intended. Polychords are seldom explicitly called for in written music, so there is no standard way to notate them.  You must normally find your own opportunities to play polychords.

If you take all the notes in this D/C voicing and lay them in a row, you will see that this describes either the C lydian or C lydian dominant scales.  Therefore, this voicing can be used over any chord for which those scales are appropriate.  If you experiment with other triads over a C major triad, you will find several combinations that sound good and describe well known scales.  However, many of these combinations involve doubled notes, which can be avoided as described below.  Among the polychords that do not involve doubled notes are Gb/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, Bb/C, which produces a C mixolydian scale, Dm/C, which produces a C major or C mixolydian scale, Ebm/C, which produces a C HW diminished scale, F#m/C, which also produces a C HW diminished scale, and Bm/C, which produces a C lydian scale.  These polychords may be used as voicings for any chords that fit the corresponding scales.

You may have noticed that Db/C, Abm/C, Bbm/C, and B/C also involve no doubled notes and sound very interesting, although they do not obviously describe any standard scales.  There are no rules for when these polychords may be played as voicings.  When your ear becomes accustomed to the particular nuances and dissonances of each, you may find situations in which you can use them.  For example, the last polychord listed, B/C, sounds good when used as a substitute for Cmaj7, particularly in the context of a ii-V-I progression, and especially at the end of a song.  You may resolve it to a normal Cmaj7 voicing if you wish.

You can construct similar polychords with a minor triad at the bottom. Db/Cm produces a C phrygian scale; F/Cm produces a C dorian scale; Fm/Cm produces a C minor scale; A/Cm produces a C HW diminished scale; Bb/Cm produces a C dorian scale; and Bbm/Cm produces a C phrygian scale.  In addition, D/Cm produces an interesting, bluesy sounding scale.

I mentioned before the desire to avoid doubled notes.  One way to construct polychords that avoid doubled notes is to replace the triad at the bottom with either the third and seventh, the root and seventh, or the root and third of a dominant chord.  Voicings constructed in this fashion are also called upper structures.  They always imply some sort of dominant chord.

For example, there are several possible C7 upper structures.  A Dbm triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9#5 chord.  A D triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#11 chord.  An Eb triad over “C E” yields a C7#9 chord.  An F# triad over “C E” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An F#m triad over “E Bb” yields a C7b9b5 chord.  An Ab triad over “E Bb” yields a C7#9#5 chord.  An A triad over “C Bb” yields a C7b9 chord.

You will find it takes a lot of practice to become familiar enough with these voicings to be able to play them on demand.  You may wish to choose a few tunes and plan ahead of time where you will use these voicings.  It is well worth the effort.  The richness and variety introduced by these voicings can add a lot to your harmonic vocabulary.

Quartal Voicings

A style of voicing made popular by McCoy Tyner is based on the interval of the fourth.  This type of voicing is used most often in modal music.  To construct a quartal voicing, simply take any note in the scale associated with the chord, and add the note a fourth above, and a fourth above that. Use perfect fourths or augmented fourths depending on which note is in the scale.  For instance, quartal voicings for Cm7 are “C F Bb”, “D G C”, “Eb A D” (note the augmented fourth), “F Bb Eb”, “G C F”, “A D G”, and “Bb Eb A”. This type of voicing seems to work especially well for minor chords (dorian mode), or dominant chords where a suspended or pentatonic sound is being used.

These voicings are even more ambiguous, in that a given three note quartal voicing can sound like a voicing for any number of different chords.  There is nothing wrong with this.  However, if you wish to reinforce the particular chord/scale you are playing, one way to do this is to move the voicing around the scale in parallel motion.  If there are eight beats of a given chord, you may play one of these voicings for the first few beats, then move it up a step for a few more beats.  The technique of alternating the voicing with the root in the bass, or the root and fifth, works well here, too.  On a long Cm7 chord, for instance, you might play “C G” on the first beat, then play some quartal voicings in parallel motion for the duration of the chord.

As with the 3/7 voicings, these voicings are convenient left hand voicings on the piano or three or four string voicings on the guitar. They can also be made into two handed or five or six string voicings by stacking more fourths, fifths or octaves on top.  For instance, the Cm7 chord can be voiced as “D G C” in the left hand and “F Bb Eb” in the right, or “Eb A D” in the left and “G C G” in the right.  The tune “So What” from the album Kind Of Blue used voicings consisting of three fourths and a major third. On a Dm7 chord, the voicings used were “E A D G B” and “D G C F A”.

3/7 Voicings

It is somewhat of a shame that the most common type of voicing used by most pianists since the 1950’s has no well established name.  I have seen these type of voicings called Category A and Category B voicings, Bill Evans voicings, or simply left hand voicings.  Because they are based on the third and seventh of the associated chord, I call them 3/7 voicings.

The basis of these voicings is that they contain both the third and seventh of the chord, usually with at least one or two other notes as well, and either the third or the seventh is at the bottom.  Because the third and the seventh are the most important notes that define the quality of a chord, these rules almost always produce good sounding results.  Also, these voicings can automatically produce good voice leading, meaning that when they are used in a chord progression, there is very little movement between voicings.  Often, the same notes can be preserved from one voicing to the next, or at most, a note may have to move by step.

For instance, consider a ii-V-I progression in C major.  The chords are Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7.  The simplest form of the 3/7 voicing on this progression would be to play the Dm7 as “F C”, the G7 as “F B”, and the Cmaj7 as “E B”.  Note that in the first chord, the third is at the bottom; in the second chord, the seventh is at the bottom; in the third chord, the third is at the bottom.  Also note that, when moving from one voicing to the next, only one note changes; the other notes stay constant.  This is an important characteristic of 3/7 voicings: when they are used in a ii-V-I progression, or any progression in which root movement is by fourth or fifth, you alternate between the third and the seventh at the bottom.  An analogous set of voicings is obtained by starting with the seventh at the bottom: “C F”, “B F”, “B E”.

Normally, you would use more than just the third and seventh.  Often, the added notes are the sixth (or thirteenth) and ninth.  For example, the C major ii-V-I could be played as “F C E”, “F B E”, “E B D”, or as “F A C E”, “F A B E”, “E A B D”.  The added notes are all sixths or ninths, except for a fifth in the first chord of the second example.  When playing these four note voicings on guitar, any added notes will usually be added above the third and the seventh, or else your voicing may end up containing several small intervals, which is usually possible to play only with difficult hand contortions.  Thus, the C major ii-V-I might be played with four note voicings on guitar as “F C E A”, “F B E A”, “E B D A”.

Note that none of these voicings contain the roots of their respective chords.  It is assumed that the bass player will play the root at some time.  In the absence of a bassist, pianists will often play the root in their left hand on the first beat, and then one of these voicings on the second or third beats.  Actually, you can often get away with not playing the root at all; in many situations, the ear anticipates the chord progression and provides the proper context for the voicing even without the root.  It is not forbidden to play the roots in these voicings, but it is neither required nor necessarily better to do so.

These basic voicings can be modified in several ways.  Sometimes, you may wish to omit either the third or the seventh.  Often, a minor of major chord that is serving as a tonic will be voiced with the third, sixth, and ninth, and these voicings might be interspersed with regular 3/7 voicings. Also, voicings with the fifth or some other note at the bottom can be interspersed with true 3/7 voicings.  This might done for any of several reasons.  For one thing, when played on the piano, note the voicings described thus far all tend to slide down the keyboard as the roots resolve downward by fifth.  The normal range for these voicings is in the two octaves from the C below middle C on the piano to the C above middle C.  As the voicings settle downward, they will start to sound muddy, at which time you might want to jump up.  For instance, if you have ended up on a Dm7 as “C F A B” below middle C, and need to resolve to G7 and then Cmaj7, you might want to play these two chords as “D F G B” and “E A B D” respectively to move the voicing upward while preserving good voice leading.  Also, roots do not always move by fifths; in a progression such as Cmaj7 to A7, you might want to voice this as “G B C E” to “G B C# F#” to preserve good voice leading.

One thing to note about these voicings in the context of a diatonic ii-V-I is that, because the chords imply modes of the same scale (D dorian is the same as G mixolydian is the same as C major), a given voicing can sometimes be ambiguous.  For example, “F A B E” might be either a Dm7 with the seventh omitted, or a G7.  In the context of a modal tune like “So What”, it clearly defines the Dm7 or D dorian sound.  In the context of a ii-V progression, it probably sounds more like a G7.  You can use this ambiguity to your advantage by making one voicing stretch over several chords.  This technique is especially useful when applied to the more general scale based voicings discussed later.

Another thing you can do with 3/7 voicings is alter them with raised or lowered fifths or ninths.  For instance, if the G7 chord is altered to a G7b9 chord, then it might be voiced as “F Ab B E”.  In general, the notes in the voicing should come from the scale implied by the chord.

These voicings are well suited on the piano for playing in the left hand while the right hand is soloing.  They can also be played with two hands, or with all strings on a guitar, by adding more notes.  This provides a fuller sound when accompanying other soloists.  One way to add more notes is to choose a note from the scale not already in the basic voicing and play it in octaves above the basic voicing.  For instance, on piano, for Dm7 with “F A C E” in the left hand, you might play “D D” or “G G” in the right.  In general, it is a good idea to avoid doubling notes in voicings, since the fullest sound is usually achieved by playing as many different notes as possible, but the right hand octave sounds good in this context. The note a fourth or fifth above the bottom of the octave can often be added as well.  For example, with the same left hand as before, you might play “D G D” or “G D G” in the right hand.

The 3/7 voicings are perhaps the most important family of voicings, and many variations are possible.  You should try to practice many permutations of each in many different keys.

iPhone/iPad apps for the jazz musician and educator

I suppose every blogger with a smartphone or tablet has this idea that it might be good idea to share a list of their favorite apps. You’d the think the world would have had enough of these articles, yet I constantly get questions from people, especially with regard to my iPad – “what do you really use that thing for?”

I’m going to try to keep my list reasonably focused: the apps that actually help me in my day to day activities as a professional jazz musician and educator. Some, of course, will be very specific to music. Others are more general, but I’ll try to describe how they can be of use to musicians and educators specifically.

You’ll note there is relatively little in the way of hardcore “content creation” apps here. I’m still usually more comfortable using my PC for music notation (MuseScore), audio editing (Audacity), and so forth. These are things I do not generally need to deal with when away from my computer, and the range and power of applications available for Windows or Mac is still quite a bit ahead of what is available for mobile devices. Even the free applications for Windows and Mac (MuseScore and Audacity are both open source) are as good as or better than the high end apps for iOS.

But even a laptop is more hardware than I want to carry around most of the time. My iPhone and iPad, on the other hand, go with me to the classes and lessons I teach, the ensembles I direct, and the gigs I play. The apps I list here save me from needing my computer or stacks of papers and books in order to get my job done on a day to day basis.

Some apps I tend to use more on my iPhone, others I tend to use more on my iPad, and others still I use on both equally. I’ll talk about this more as we go. BTW, while I am an iOS user, I should mention that most of these apps have Android versions as well. And even when there is no Android version of a specific app, there is usually something pretty comparable you might look into.

Finally, I should mention that as a professional musician, I am as sensitive to price as anyone. A lot of these apps are free. But for the ones that aren’t, I think they are well worth what they cost, as they really help me do my job.

Music Apps

These are the apps that you wont read about on general lists of recommended apps, because they are mostly useful only to musicians and educators.

Set List Maker

This gets top billing because it was really the game changer for me – the app that transformed my iPad from an interesting novelty to an indispensible tool. Set List Maker does what the name suggests – it helps me put set lists together for gigs. And it does this very well – much better than trying to do so with paper and pencil, constantly erasing or crossing out titles as I experiment with different ideas, etc. But Set List Maker also does so much more than just manage set lists. As a performer, I lead a few different groups, each with its own repertoire. As an educator, I also direct several others, again each with its own repertoire. Set List Maker manages separate databases for each of these ensembles, letting me track which songs I do with each. For each song in the database, I can keep notes on arrangement and solo order, attach recordings and PDF charts, list the tempo, and more. I have a special set list for each ensemble I use to track what tunes to work on in rehearsal, and of course a list for each gig. During performance, I can consult my notes, read the chart, use the built in metronome to count off, etc. Being able to track what we’ve performed on which concert is another benefit.

Anyone who leads/directs bands – especially multiple bands – will be likely to appreciate this app. I use it primarily on my iPad as I much prefer typing on the larger keyboard, also reading charts on the larger screen. But it also runs on iPhone and easily shares data between them via the cloud. Entering data on the iPad but then running from the iPhone on the actual gig would make a lot of sense, if you weren’t needing to actually read charts from the screen.

iReal Pro

This is a very popular app (formerly known as iReal b, and before that iReal Book) whose main function is to provide automatic playalong accompaniment (piano, bass, drums) for practice, and it does a great job of this. I’ve long been a fan, if not actually a regular user, of Band-in-a-Box for Windows/Mac. But iReal Pro presents a rather nicer user interface, not to mention a much more portable package. iReal Pro does almost as well as Band-in-Box in terms of the actual quality of the accompaniment, and it costs only around a tenth as much. Entering your own chord progressions is possible if a bit awkward, but the real value for most people will be the 1000+ songs (and that’s just in the jazz category) you can download from the company’s web site in a matter of seconds. Being able to provide this kind of accompaniment to my students during lessons – and of course the fact they they can get this at home too – is having an unbelievable impact. It is literally transforming the musical experience for many of my students. And it’s also bailed me out on gigs when someone calls a tune I don’t know. I put this in the indispensible category; I cannot recommend it highly enough!

This app runs equally well on iPhone and iPad. I tend to use it on the iPhone more for playback, but I like the iPad for entering my own songs (and these can be shared as well). And of course, iPad is easier to read on a gig, but the chord-symbol-only display is such that it’s not bad on iPhone either. Oh yeah, Android version too


I know hundreds of songs, and when I do a gig as a sideman doing jazz standards, I really don’t need to consult fakebooks very often. So I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking any with me at all. But I own quite a few, legally produced and legally purchased, and I have PDF versions of many of these loaded onto my iPad. unrealBook is the app I use to access these. It comes with no PDF files itself, but allows you to load any PDF files you already have. And if you create a specially formatted index file along with the PDF, unrealBook provides a very handy facility that makes it easy to find any given tune regardless of what book it lives in. Again, you need to provide the PDF and index files, but unrealBook takes it from. So from the point someone calls some onscure tune I don’t remember to the point where I have the chart in front of me on the screen is a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to carry around a stack of fakebooks to have access to them on the gig.

Because the main point of this app is presenting charts to read on a gig, it really only makes sense on iPad.

Pro Metronome

I assume everyone reading this knows what a metronome is. This app is not terribly fancy, but the free version does everything I would expect and then some. It’s easy to dial in a tempo and easy to select a time signature so you can hear a “special” sound to mark the downbeat – that much is the bare minimum I expect from the windup pendulum metronome I used as a child. This app also lets you tap in a tempo, so you can easily figure out what tempo you want. And in addition to selecting a time signature, you can even customize the sound used for each beat individually. So you can choose 7/4 and set it up to play a strong accent on 1 and then secondary accents on 4 and 6 if you wish. All with a simple and nice looking interface, for free (a paid version unlocks more features).

This app runs on both iPad and iPhone, but somehow the size of the iPhone seems a more natural fit.


GarageBand can do quite a few things, but to be honest, I primarily use it for one feature: live performance. If I’m directing a band in rehearsal and need to demonstrate some musical concept but can’t be bothered to walk over to the piano, I can play the GarageBand keyboard and the students can hear. And if we are rehearsing without a bassist – which happens all too often – I can hook up my iPad to an amp and play bass lines using the GarageBand keyboard. There are other apps that do this at least as well, I’m sure, but I suspect most musicians will need no prodding to check out GarageBand for its other music creation features. So that is why I list it here rather than any of the simpler apps that exist to just provide a virtual keyboard or other instruments.

Because I use this mostly for live performance, the larger screen of the iPad makes it the more natural choice. But when I do create loops in advance – as I have on occasion for playalong tracks where I need something more specific than iReal Pro can do, I like the iPhone for playback. Songs can be synced between devices via the cloud.


Photographers have Flickr, videographers have YouTube, and musicians have SoundCloud. That should give you an idea of what this is about: a sharing site for audio recordings. You don’t need the SoundCloud app to participate, but I find it useful just for its recording feature (the iPhone is a fair-to-middling audio recorder) and the ability to instantly upload recordings. If I didn’t wish to access the SoundCloud sharing service, an app like Pocket WavePad might also be a good choice just for recording and editing on the iPad or iPhone. It’s a much more full-featured audio program, but a bit clumsy to get music into and out of.

The extreme portability of the iPhone makes it the natural choice for live recording applications. Plus I imagine most iPhone models have better audio specs than most iPad models, although I could easily be wrong about that.


There are quite a few apps out there to help one learn music from recordings – marking a section to loop, slowing down the audio to make it easier to hear what is goong on in complex passages, etc. But for my money, the most valuable feature a transcribing app can offer is easy to use basic transport controls. In particular, a simple way to mark a spot and start playback there, or to back up just a few seconds to hear a given phrase again. iLift is easily my favorite of the apps I’ve tried for transcription precisely because of how well it handles the basic transport controls. Displaying the waveform on the screen is an especially nice touch. I don’t actually use the slowing down feature as much as some might, and I will confess that the quality of slowed down playback in iLift is not quite up to the standard of the very best apps. But I just find it so much easier to use than anything else I’ve tried that I am very willing to settle for a slight (and it is slight) degradation in audio quality when slowing down. Oh, by the way, it also has a function to adjust the overall tuning of a track to better match whatever instrument you might be using, and also to actually change the ley of the recording. It isn’t unique in providing these functions either, but again, it’s the ease of use that really shines here.

The iPad version is easier to use on some ways – the bigger screen makes it easier to take advantage of the waveform display to help you set the song markers. But it definitely looks good and works well on iPhone too.


If you teach a class that meets regularly, you’ve probably made up, or thought about making up, lesson plans. There are plenty of calendar and to-do-list apps out there, but most are not optimized for the specifics of teaching a class. They won’t show Thursday as being the next lesson after Tuesday if you teach that type of schedule, they won’t have an easy way to move all lessons back a day to accomodate a snow day, they won’t have an easy way to attach assignments or other files to a given day’s plan, or otherwise model much about teaching classes actually works. This is what Planbook does. To be honest, I don’t really “love” this app – the interface seems very clunky to me – but I haven’t found anything I like better. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this!

Planbook runs on iPad only, but even if it was available for iPhone, I’d prefer using it on iPad for the larger screen.


In my teaching, I often want to play a recording of a song for a student, so I want access to a large library of recordings. There is an awful lot of music available on YouTube for free, and I do take advantage of this, but I find it is worth it to me to pay for a subscription to Spotify. This gives me a much more useful search engine for music, better organizational facilities, and an easy way to download music to use offline. On the other hand, music from Spotify can’t be loaded onto iLift or other apps, so I do also purchase music on iTunes.

I tend to prefer to use my iPhone for music playback, but I like how Spotify runs on both iPhone and iPad as well as on my PC, and I appreciate that it synchronizes data (like playlists) automatically.

Productivity Apps

These are the apps that are of equal interest to people who are not musicians or educators. But again, I will focus on how I use these apps in my work.


This is a basic note-taking app, but its main claim to fame is how well it synchronizes notes between devices. It does a lot more in terms of letting you attach pictures, web links, and more, but I mostly just type. And like any typing-heavy app, I use it mostly on my iPad.

TeamViewer / TeamViewer HD

Splashtop has been my ace in the hole that allows me to feel comfortable leaving my laptop at home. The app gives me full access to my PC from my iPad – or even my iPhone. A server program runs in the background on the PC, and I connect to it over the Internet from my iPad. The result is that everything on my PC at home is displayed on my iPad screen, and the iPad on-screen keyboard (or a Bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPad) controls the PC. It’s like my iPad is a monitor and keyboard attached to my computer at home via an impossiby long cable (that also happens to be invisible). My computer doesn’t run quite as fast when accessed remotely as when using my PC normally at home, but playing audio and video is actually quite feasible.

Since I originally posted this article, I became aware that Splashtop has become more expensive for new users. Rather than selling the app outright, it is now offered for free, but they charge a (very low) monthly fee to access your computer from anywhere but while actually at home. As a long time user who paid for the app originally, I am grandfathered in and don’t have to pay the monthly fee. For what you get, I think many may still decide it is worth the price. But since I know there are other remote access apps out there, I decided to look into them for you. Two years ago when I initially compared, I found that Splashtop was really the only good choice if you wanted to work with audio, and it also handled video much better than other apps. But the others have made great strides since, and I’m happy to report that TeamViewer – which is free for “personal” (as opposed to corporate) use – works reasonably well for audio now and does provide a viable alternative. It still doesn’t seem to do as good a job with video as Splashtop, but that’s probably not an issue for most musicians considering this type of app. Other apps also offer free versions but don’t handle audio or video at all; others still handle audio and video but charge monthly fees higher than Splashtop’s. So the choice really comes down to Splashtop versus TeamViewer, I think.

Anyhow, no matter which remote access app you use, you will find that taking a program designed for a PC (with mouse and keyboard) and running it via a tablet (with touchscreen only) is an interesting exeperience. Some applications are pretty awkward to use this way, as you might imagine. Others – like Audacity for editing audio – actually work so well you might easily forget you aren’t running them locally on your iPad. It’s a real “wow” experience, technologically speaking.

Obviously, the iPad is easier to use for viewing your PC display, but the iPhone does work better than one might expect.

Google Drive

There are a number of “cloud” services out there to choose from, and of course, we don’t really have to choose at all. I have free accounts with several of them, and use different services for different purposes. But the one I use the most is Google Drive. Compared to Dropbox – and it is always compared to Dropbox – it offers several features I especially value. One is being able to easily share entire folders (as opposed to just individual files) with my bandmates or students without requiring them to sign up for accounts. The other killer feature is “Google Docs” – the office apps (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation) built on to Google Drive. I use Google Docs for my class rosters, grade books, syllabi, course notes and handouts, and so forth. I can use my computer to create these documents – as well as scores using MuseScore, or other files – and save them to my Google Drive folder. Then they are instantly available on my iPad and iPhone, where I can view them, edit them, and – very importanly to someone like me to who is to cheap to pay for unlimited data on my mobile plan – I can make files available for offline access. If I save the files in a folder that I have shared, then the files are also immediately available to others. This makes it incredibly simple to share files with my students or bandmates – I simply send them a link to the shared folder and they can always access the latest versions of the files I save there. I can also access my Google Drive files on any other computer. This allows me to create school-related documents at home, save them to my Google Drive, and access them on a school computer to print them. So this has also replaced my flash drives.

Documents in Google Drive are of course easier to edit on my iPad, but the convenience of being able to access files on my iPhone is nice too.


I think of Google Drive as a service where my files primarily live in the cloud but where I can have a local copy of them on my PC and can also view them on my iPad and iPhone. SugarSync is kind of the other way around – I think of the files as primarily living on my PC but a copy is kept in the cloud. Google Drive presents itself as a “special” location my PC, and I don’t feel inclined all my files there. SugarSync allows me to designate any folders I want for cloud storage.

With this in mind, I use Google Drive to store files that I know in advance I will want to access remotely or share with others – like my teaching materials or ensemble charts – but I use SugarSync to back up my entire Documents folder from my PC to the cloud. These are files I may never need to share or access remotely, but that I want to have backed up offsite. And if that were all SugarSync did – cloud backup for PC – I would find it valuable but of course not relevant in a list of iOS apps. But the fact that all of my PC documents also live in the cloud means that SugarSync can also provide an app to allow me to access these any of these files can from my iPad or iPhone should the need arise – so naturally, they do just that! Of course, many of the files on my PC are in formats I can’t open on my iPad, but many of the files I am most likely to want to view remotely (eg, PDF) will open on my iPad just fine. And sometimes, I don’t actually need to open a file from my PC – I just need to email it to someone. This is accomplished very easily – much more so than logging in to my PC via Splashtop and doing it that way. SugarSync does a great job of giving me quick remote access to all of the documents on my PC.

As with Google Drive, actually working with my documents is something I am more likely to do with my iPad, but having access to them – such as to just email to someone – is very valuable from my iPhone as well.

Genius Scan

This app allows you to take a picture of document (or use an existing picture) and automaitcally turn it into a PDF. It make it easy to build a multi-page file by taking pictures of each page, it provides cropping controls, and it does some effective automatic contrast adjustment and B&W conversion to turn a color photo into a readable document. I find this handy to create PDF copies of sheet music, but it has plenty of other uses, too. Once you have created the PDF, you can send it to any other app, including email or a cloud service to make the document available to others.

The app runs native on iPhone, and since my iPhone has a much better and easier to use camera than my iPad anyhow, I use the app on my iPhone exclusively. But for sheet music in particular, I would be likely to then transfer the file to my iPad (via email or a cloud service) to actually use the document.


Listing this app is a bit of an indulgence. It has nothing to do with music, and it’s not really the sort of general productivity app I can honestly claim that most people would benefit from. But I love Paper and want to give it some props here anyhow. It’s a drawing app, and it appeals to me primarily because I am also an artist. Paper is not the most full-featured drawing app in the store – on the contrary, it is pretty limited. But it really feels very natural and produces great results. And it does have one useful application for music educators: I use it as a portable whiteboard to demonstrate things for my students. I can easily draw in some staff lines and a few notes, big enough for a small roomful of students to see. It also has a clever “rewind” feature that lets me erase the notes and leave the staff lines so I can keep reusing the same page, which is rather nice.

Paper is iPad only. And for the type of use I am talking about, I can’t see wanting to use it on anything smaller.

Secondary Dominants and Downton Abbey

Today while teaching my Jazz Theory & Aural Skills class at DU, I had a revelation – a way of explaining the notion of “secondary dominant” chords by appealing to concepts and terminology from the TV show “Downton Abbey” (or substitute your favorite show, movie, or book about British aristocracy). Sound far-fetched? Read on.

As many musicians know, “most” chords in “most” songs are diatonic, meaning they consist exclusively of notes that are in the key. So in the key of C, we expect to see C, Dmi, Emi, F, G, Ami, and Bdim chords as triads, or Cma7, Dmi7, Emi7, Fma7, G7, Ami7, and Bmi7b5 as seventh chords, since these chords consist of notes from the key of C. We often label these chords with Roman numerals: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and viiø. But most songs also include at least a few chords that are not diatonic – chords that include at least one note not in the key. The majortiy of these non-diatnoic chords fall into a few basic categories that explain the function of the chord, and by far the most important such category is the “secondary dominant”.

OK, I know, I promised you Downton Abbey, and so far, the hasn’t been an earl in sight. Well, here’s the deal. The most important relationship in music is V-I. That is, the most important chord in music is the I chord (called the “tonic”), and the V chord (called the “dominant”) serves to lead to the I chord. We could even say that the I chord is so important – wait for it – so important that it gets its own personal valet, the V chord. V for valet (pronounced, in Britain, to rhyme with “palette”), get it?

In the key of C, this is to say that G7 typically leads to Cma7. But sometimes, other chords like to feel important too. Sometimes, for instance, the ii chord – Dmi7 – wants to feel important. How do we make that happen? We give him his own personal valet too, of course! That is, we give him his own personal V chord. In the key of D minor, the V chord would be A7. We could say that A7 is the valet of Dmi7. Or, in Roman numeral terms, we could say it is the V of ii. In traditional classical notation, that is written V/ii, read as “V of ii”.

We’re still in the key of C, so Cma7 – the I chord – is still the earl of the estate. And G7 is still the primary valet – the personal valet of the I chord. But A7 chords do often occur as the personal valets of the ii chord, Dmi7. Chords like A7 – not the primary valet (the actual V chord in the key), but valets of some other diatonic chord – might be called secondary valets. The valets of ii, and of iii, and of IV, and of V, and of vi, are all common chords. So in the key of C, we may see A7 chords that lead to Dmi7 (V/ii leading to ii), B7 chords leading to Emi (V/iii leading to iii), C7 chords leading to Fma7 (V/IV leading to IV), D7 chords leading to G7 (V/V leading to V), or E7 chords leading to Ami7 (V/vi leading to vi).

These are the most common non-diatonic chords there are. And these chords that I am calling secondary valets in reference to Downton Abbey are, of course, actually called “secondary dominants”. Dominant = V, and V is for valet. So there you have it!

Some day, I’ll explain how a “suspension” can be explained using the Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner cartoons.

Gift of Jazz Winter 2013 Jazz Courses

The Gift of Jazz winter courses offered by professional pianist, composer, and educator Marc Sabatella begin on January 26, 2013.

The theme to this series of courses is Modal Jazz, a phrase that encompasses the music of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane’s “A Love Surpeme”, Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”, Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil”, and much more.  The primary aspect of modal jazz that we will be looking at is the idea of using scales as the harmonic foundation of composition and improvisation.

Please enroll soon to reserve your spot!

Jazz Composition – Beyond Functional Harmony (Saturdays: 10:00 – 11:15 am)

  • Dates:  January 26 – March 16  (8 week program)
  • Fee:  $150

Some of the most beloved jazz recordings of all time are based on relatively sparse composed material – most notably, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.  These deceptively simple foundations allows the performers to build their own structures, improvising with just a few scales rather than being locked into a predictable chord progression.  At the same time, composers like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter extended the vocabulary of jazz harmony to include unique but more complex sonorities that also encourage the use of scales as improvisational tools.  In this class, we will learn to create compositions that go beyond conventional harmonies and provide different types of frameworks for jazz performance.  The final projects will be performed by a professional combo at Dazzle.

Jazz Improvisation and Theory – Improvising Using Scales (Saturdays: 11:30 – 12:45 pm)

  • Dates: January 26 – March 16 (8 week program)
  • Fees:  $150

Improvisation in modal jazz involves learning a set of scales and developing the ability to create melodies with them.  This is something most musicians have always done using the major scale, minor, and/or blues scales, but modal jazz introduces other possibilities.  In this class, we will learn a number of other useful scales and when/how to use them, playing over tunes by people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others.  This course culminates in an (optional) performance at Dazzle.

The Gift of Jazz Small Jazz Ensemble – Modality (Saturdays: 1:00 – 2:15 pm)

  • Dates: January 26 – March 16 (8 week program)
  • Fees:  $150

Work on soloing and playing in a combo setting with a special emphasis on the modal jazz – music that encourages the use of a variety of scales as a basis for improvisation. This course culminates with a performance at Dazzle.

Space in all classes is extremely limited. Discounted tuition is available for students interested in taking more than one class. To enroll click here! (tuition is non-refundable unless the class is not held).

We hope to see you there!

The Harmonic Language of Standards – In-Depth Summary

Here is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book. There is enough detail here that if you are so inclined, you can actually learn quite a bit just from studying this. You will have to do a lot more work on your own to figure out all the applications, of course. But I hope the amount of information I provide here will be sufficient to convince you to buy the book!


This purpose of this book is to help you improve your skills in playing standards, by which I mean the songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and others. The harmony used in these songs is actually quite similar to the harmony found in classic music, and is variously referred to as tonal or functional harmony.

Previous generations of jazz musicians often learned hundreds or even thousands of standards by ear and are able to play them in any key, with improvised variations on the chord progressions. For various reasons, however, few younger jazz musicians learn as many of these songs or the skills involved in playing them by ear or transposing and reharmonizing them on the fly.

I believe that one key to these skills is the ability to understand chord progressions at a more intuitive level. We are able to play melodies by ear and transpose them because we can understand melodies in this way. We do not usually think in terms of “memorizing” a melody one note at a time.  We hear and remember most melodies in phrases, not as a series of unrelated pitches. If the melody is random or atonal in nature, this does not apply, but it works for most standards. The same is true of lyrics. We do not normally learn lyrics one letter at a time, or even one word at a time, but as a series of phrases that have meaning. If the lyrics to a song are in a foreign language we do not understand, we have much greater difficulty learning them. And this is precisely the problem most of us experience with chord progressions – they are written in what is essentially a foreign language. Fortunately, as with any other language, it is possible to learn the language of harmony.

Scales And Chords

The starting point in the study of harmony is learning major and minor scales and the various chord types. I expect that most readers will already have a good working knowledge of this material, but I include this chapter for the benefit of those who need the review, and to establish a common set of definitions and concepts for subsequent chapters.

I start by demonstrating the major scale and how each scale defines a key. I also explain the concept of key signature, and introduce the circle of fifths.

The real core of the chapter comes as I list and define the various types of chords. I start with the triads found diatonically within a major scale, then move on to the different types of diatonic seventh chords. I then introduce the various extensions and alterations that can be made to those seventh chords, as well as seventh chords that are not found within the major scale. I also briefly describe some other chords types, including sixth chords, suspended chords, and polychords. Next I describe the natural or pure minor scale and the chords diatonic to it, saving a full exploration of the different minor scales until later.

The most important concept that I establish in this chapter is that while there are many different types of chords, in the study of tonal harmony they can all be classified according to one of six categories or qualities.  These correspond to the basic types of seventh chords, and are as follows: major seventh chords, dominant seventh chords, minor seventh chords, tonic minor chords, half-diminished chords, and fully diminished chords. This section, entitled Chord Quality, is the one part of this chapter that everyone should read, including musicians already familiar with the basics of chord construction.

Functional Harmony

In the introduction, I state that rules in harmony are like the law of gravity – they do not tell you what you must do or not do, but instead simply describe cause and effect. For this reason, I prefer the term “guidelines” to “rules”. This chapter examines the guidelines employed in functional harmony, showing why certain combinations of chords tend to be used in certain ways.

The complete set of rules is a little longer than I had hoped, but several of them are just variations on or corollaries to others, or are pretty obvious but are included for the sake of completeness:

  • Any diatonic chord can be used at any time.
  • The dominant (V) tends to resolve to the tonic (I).
  • Any chord that contains a minor seventh interval between the root and seventh will tend to resolve downward by fifth.
  • Chords with a major seventh interval between the root and seventh are stable.
  • The IV chord can resolve satisfactorily to the I chord.
  • Any diatonic chord can resolve downward by perfect fourth to another diatonic chord.
  • Any diatonic chord can be replaced by another diatonic chord that has two tones in common with the original chord, when considered as triads.
  • The viiº chord may be played as a fully diminished seventh chord, particularly when it substitutes for V.
  • If one chord can substitute for another, then the original chord may be left in place and the substitute chord may be inserted either before or after it.
  • Any major, dominant, or minor chord may be preceded by a chord that tends to resolve to the original chord.
  • Any time we have a ii-V progression, we can simplify it to V.
  • Any major, dominant, or minor chord may be preceded by the dominant seventh chord a fifth above.
  • Any major, dominant, or minor chord can be preceded by a diminished chord a half step below.
  • Any two chords whose bass notes are a whole step apart may be connected by the diminished chord whose root is between the other two chords.
  • A major or minor chord may be preceded by a diminished chord built on the same root, without affecting the resolution of the preceding chord to the target chord.
  • The iv chord can substitute for the IV chord in a IV-I progression.
  • In a iv-I progression, the bVII7 chord may be inserted after or even replace the iv chord.
  • Any dominant seventh chord that resolves downward by fifth may be replaced by the dominant seventh chord a tritone away.
  • In a minor key, any chord diatonic to the harmonic or natural minor can be used at any time; the harmonic minor is usually preferred.
  • When tonicizing a minor chord with a secondary dominant or secondary ii-V, the use of a b5 on the ii chord and a b9 and b13 on the V chord reinforces the motion toward a minor key.
  • A minor key progression may use the i6, IV, or viØ chords from the melodic minor.
  • A minor key progression may borrow the I chord, or other chords, from the parallel major.

Common Idioms

While the guidelines listed in the previous chapter can explain most of what happens in tonal chord progressions, we can usually simplify our understanding of a song considerably. Just as there are many possible chord types but they all fall into one of six basic qualities, we can divide most harmonic phrases into one of a few basic categories. To a large extent, phrases within a category are interchangeable, so not only does learning a song reduce to just recognizing its structure in terms of these categories, but once we have done so, we also have the tools we need to reharmonize the song by substituting other idioms from within the same categories.

Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each. The categories of phrases I have identified are described below.

Cadential Progressions

Cadential progressions are phrases like the familiar ii-V-I cadence whose purpose is to lead us back to the tonic or I chord. Also in this category are the iv-I and iv-bVII7-I minor plagal progressions covered in the previous excerpt. There are a number of other examples, and in this section, I present a few of them and show how the guidelines from the previous chapter can be used to derive these cadences. I also hope to get you to hear that despite the differences between them, they are all serving the same function – to lead us back to the tonic.

Precadential Progressions

If a cadence is something that leads us back to the tonic, a precadential progression is something that leads us to a cadence. In practice, this most often means something that leads to the ii chord, since that is the most common way to begin a cadence. There are quite a few different commonly occurring idioms that serve as precadential progressions, such as I-IV-iii-VI, I-VII-bVII-VI, and I-ii-iii-#iiº.  Recognizing how these progressions all work to serve the same function is the purpose of this section.

Note that while most precadential progressions begin with the tonic, it is possible to begin a precadential progression from the ii, iii, IV, or vi chords as well. These progressions are discussed separately, as they are interchangeable if they start from the same place.

Static Progressions And Turnarounds

Sometimes, a song just needs to stay around the tonic for a while. This is especially common at the beginning of a tune, where I call them static phrases. It is also common at the end of an eight-bar section, where we typically reach the I chord at the beginning of bar seven and then need to fill space until we reach the I chord at the beginning of the next section. Static phrases that occur in this context are also called turnarounds.

While the simplest static progression is just to stay on I throughout, other variations may consist of a short precadential phrase paired with a short cadence, as in the ubiquitous I-VI-ii-V. Other possibilities occur as well, such as I-ii-iii-ii or I-I7-IV-#ivº. Again, the purpose of this section is to help you recognize how each of these progressions works to perform the same function.

Transitional Progressions

I define a transitional progression as a phrase that appears to be leading us away from the tonic and toward one of the other diatonic chords, but does not actually constitute a modulation to a new key. Another term I sometimes hear for this is tonicization. The distinction between this and a modulation is that in the latter, once we reach our destination, we stay there a while, and see other phrases that function in the new key, whereas in a transition, the target chord immediately turns around and functions with respect to the original key.

Most transitions consist of a ii-V relative to the target chord. I sometimes refer to this as a secondary ii-V. For example, a transition to the vi chord might consist of a secondary ii-V leading to that vi chord, or, in other words, viiØ-III-vi.

Unlike with the previous categories of idioms, there are not usually many different ways of achieving a given transition, although there are a couple of different ways to transition to IV and also to vi. It is also true than you can substitute a transition to one chord for a transition to a different chord, if the target chords can substitute for each other. In practice, this means a transition to the IV can often be replaced by a transition to ii or to vi and vice versa.

However, instead of focusing on the different ways of transitioning to a given chord, the primary purpose of this section help you learn to hear the difference between the transitions. There are only four common transitions: to ii, iii, IV, and vi. We almost never see transitions to V or viiØ. In minor keys, it is the chords diatonic to the natural minor that serve as targets of transitions.


A modulation is like a transition that sticks. Once we reach our target – which, unlike in a transition, is not necessarily a diatonic chord – we stay there long enough to have another phrase or two in the new key. In fact, once we reach the new key, we tend to see exactly the same types of phrases we saw in the original key: static progressions, cadences, and so forth. Thus the modulation itself – the motion into the new key – is the final category of phrase we must learn. And because there are so many potential targets for a modulation, this is often the most difficult type of phrase to learn to hear. We can instantly tell a modulation is occurring, but identifying the new key can be more difficult. Fortunately, as with transitions, there is usually only one way a modulation is actually accomplished – via a secondary ii-V. So the purpose of this section is to help you hear the different modulations.

This section includes examples taken from actual standards to demonstrate all of the different possible targets of a modulation. I explain how you can use the circle of fifths to help you decide where a modulation is going – you can learn to tell the different between a modulation in the sharper direction versus the flatter direction, and also between a modulation that is closely related on the circle versus one that is more distant.

This chapter concludes with a complete harmonic analysis of a standard, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, by George Gershwin. I manage to reduce this whole tune down to just a handful of easily heard and understood idioms.

Learning And Playing Songs

The final chapter of the book is where I show you how to go about applying all the information presented in previous chapters. In fact, rather than trying to master the preceding material before starting this chapter, I recommend just reading through the preceding material and then turning here to see how to really learn to use it in practice.

The basic practice regimen I describe involves learning tunes – a lot of tunes. For each tune, you will start by playing it from a lead sheet, then move on to playing it from memory, and finally transposing it into a few different keys. I give hints on how to apply your developing understanding of harmony to make both the playing from memory and the transposing go more smoothly. I stress using your ear at all steps along the way to help you establish the connection between theory on paper and the actual sounds of the music.

The key to the approach is to recognize the idioms used in the chord progressions. Rather than hear a 32-bar standard as consisting of 32 unrelated chords, you learn to hear it as just perhaps six or seven idiomatic phrases that all fall into one of just a few easily recognized categories. The idea is to use the process of learning tunes as a way of getting familiar with these idioms, and this in turn will make learning tunes easier.

You should find your skills in memorization and transposition improvising noticeably in a relatively short period of time. I also show how to apply these same skills to playing a song by ear when you do not have a lead sheet for it.

I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.

I conclude by discussing ways that your understanding of harmony can be an aid to improvisation and to composition. Although this is not a book about improvisation per se, I know that application to improvisation is an area that will be of special interest to a number of players.