Half Steps And Leading Tones

Let me start by stating a few rambling thoughts of my own about the modern jazz language. First off – I grew up trying to emulate the great bebop players of the 40’s and 50’s.  Their music was full of dissonant colors which were captivating in there use, when playing an improvised solo. What in the heck were they doing?

Many things including the playing of extentions to the Dominant V7 chord and ending phrases on the Major 7th or flat 5th, were being employed.  Ellington of course was a prime mover in creating these dissonant sounds, by combining these elements together in his compositions.

Major and minor scales we take for granted in our western culture, as our hymn books and pop music, even favorite classical compositions are based on this.  The jazz musician is bent on extending this vocabulary.  After all, there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale we use, and some of those notes when added to the Major or minor triad are rather colorful, even though they are not a chord tone.

This all leads up to the fact that we jazz musicians hear differently than most people. I can say that, since we have learned the basics and wish to extend our vocabulary, and the only way to do that is stretch the harmony and pick up on what others have done which appeals to us.

Enter the flat 9th, plus 9th, flatted 5th, raised 5th, plus 11th, 13th, and poly chords. Mr. Bach and others of course have used these devices to extend their palette, but not in such a dramatic way as the jazz musician.  In order to have a more direct effect the jazz musician accents, or in many cases puts the added or dissonant note on the strong beat.  The flat 9th for example, will be played “on the beat” and held.  This is not treated so much as a passing tone.  The same thing can be said of the other intervals mentioned above.  What does this matter – you say?

For one thing, the dissonance caused by holding the flat 9th over the root below, creates a color that the jazz musician finds pleasing.  This unresolved interval actually is part of the root’s overtone series!  Similar aspects for the other intervals mentioned above. What does this have to do with “half steps”?

It’s another day – but alas a very historic Day!

Jazz musicians like to point out the half step intervals for a variety of reasons. Instead of constantly playing scale wise passages or outlining the chords at hand, mixing up the intervals and creating a complex melodic passage is more the norm.  For example let’s take a Dm9th chord in the tonal area of C Major.  The half steps here are between E and F, and B and C. in this chords scale.  A typical fragment of melody might be B,C,A,F, E to D.  We’ve outlined the chord but in a very unusual way. The non-chord tone B is played on the beat, as well as the E being played on the beat!  The change in direction of the line should be noted too!  The mixture of intervals should be noted also. We have first a half step B-C, then a minor third down C-A, a Major third down A-F, then another half step F-E, and finally a whole step E-D. This is just the beginning of knowing where you are going and why.

So it is the mixture of intervals,( Major and minor thirds, Major and minor seconds, whole steps, half steps,) which form the majority of intervals we play in forming a melodic improvisation.  Larger intervals come into play usually at the beginning or ending of a melodic statement, not in the middle.i

The half step between the flat ninth and its root is good to point out as in the following series of notes descending; C7+5b9 – –  Eb,Db,C,Ab,E,Eb,Db,C .  We use the raised ninth also to fill out the scale. In this example we started on the raised ninth and proceeded downward through the chord to the root C again.   An example with this same chord being used, only this time ascending might be Bb,C,Db,Eb,E,Ab,C,Eb,Db,C,Bb.C.  This series of notes outlines the above chord and also contains the intervals we find most common.  The half steps here are C to Db, Eb to E, Db to C.  The Eb is the raised ninth, written here looking like a lowered 10th or lowered 3rd, but written and thought of this way for ease of seeing the whole step between the flat ninth and raised ninth.  I like to keep the note names either as all flats or all sharps and not mix up the designations, as this makes it harder for the musicians brain to comprehend quickly.

A few words about the leading tone of a piece of music.  Normally we call the seventh tone of the scale of the key we are in – the Leading Tone.  In F Major this would be the E natural.  This note in F Major is also the 3rd of the V chord in F and normally points and leads to F, the key tonic note.   This is a strong relationship (E to F) and is true in F minor as well.  I would add that the second degree of the key (G in this case) when added to the leading tone (E) makes for a strong resolution to F when used together (E – G -F.   Using this 7-2-1 melodic device is a strong way to emphasize the tonality you are playing in at the moment. Here are a few samples – E,C#,D or C#,E,D to point at Dm7,  G#,B,A to AMajor (or A minor), D#,F#,E to Em7.  After pointing out the root of the chord we go ahead and play the notes of the chord.  Example – Ex.1 E,C#,D,F,A,C,B,C,A,F,E,D.   Ex.2  A,E,C#,D,C,A,F,E,D.   It is always good to point out the leading tone at times, to help establish the tonality you are in.

The leading tone can be used on a minor seventh chord just to point out the root and then move on through the chord tones including the minor seventh note now.

Ex. (Gm7 –  C7)  How about this line of notes decending – D,Bb,A,F#,G,F,E,G,C.  Here we used both the leading tone and the second degree of the G minor scale, finally moving through the flat 7th of the Gm7 chord to the 3, 5, and 1 of C7. Another Ex.

(Gm7 – C7)   Bb,G,A,F#,G,Bb,D,F,E,C.  Here we strongly point out Gm, then outline the Gm7th chord, resolving the minor 7th note F to E – the third of the C chord.

( more to come – – – )


I know a better method would be to post some notation files here.  I need to try a few pdf files here – please stay tuned.  Thanks.  This is just a temporary test below.




Author: sorensensound

Retired professional musician.

2 thoughts on “Half Steps And Leading Tones”

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