VI. Jazz

Embellishing Chords

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

Sometimes, jazz performers may add new harmonies into an existing chord progression. This chapter summarizes some of the common ways harmonies are added.

  • When adding a harmony to a chord progression, you will have to change the harmonic rhythm to insert an additional chord.
  • An applied V7 chord can be added before a chord.
  • An applied ii7 chord, as in the ii–V–I schema, can be used to embellish a dominant-quality chord. In other words, preceding a dominant-quality chord with the mi7 or ∅7 chord a fifth above it creates the effect of a ii–V.
  • Common-tone diminished seventh chords (CTo7) create neighboring motion in all voices that embellish a chord. The root of the chord of resolution is always shared as a member of the CTo7—hence the term “common tone.” (Note: See this chapter for more information on CTo7 chords in Western classical music.)

Jazz performers often aim to add their own twist to existing jazz standards. This chapter and the next explore some of the ways that performers improvise by embellishing harmonies in jazz. Sometimes, harmonies are replaced with other chords; this technique is discussed in the following chapter (Substitutions). At other times, a new harmony is added, so that the chord progression has more chords. These new harmonies embellish existing chords in the progression. The addition of new embellishing harmonies into a chord progression is the focus of this chapter.

This chapter will use the opening few bars of “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington (1930) as a backdrop and add embellishing chords to it. If you take a moment to familiarize yourself with the tune, the following discussions will make more sense. Listen to Louis Armstrong’s interpretation of this song, embedded below, while following the chords of the first four bars, given here.

Example 1. Chords for the first eight measures of “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington.

Embellishing Applied Chords

Applied V7

Any chord in a progression can be embellished by preceding it with an applied dominant chord. Example 2 takes the opening B♭ chord, divides it in half, and replaces the second two beats of the chord with an applied V7 chord that embellishes the following C7. In principle, this can be done with any chord in the progression.

Example 2. Inserting a G7 chord before the C7 chord creates an applied V of C, which is not present in the original chord progression of “Mood Indigo.”

Applied ii7

The chapter on ii–V–I discusses the use of applied ii–V–Is, i.e., ii–V–I progressions that occur in keys other than the tonic key. Many jazz tunes have these applied ii–Vs built in, but a performer could add their own as well. A dominant chord can often be embellished by adding its ii chord before it, transforming it into a ii–V schema.

“Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington begins with the progression B♭–C7–Cmi7–F7–B♭. That first C7 could be embellished by adding a Gmi7 before it, creating a temporary ii–V that then proceeds to another ii–V. Rhythmically, this means cutting the duration of the C7 into two halves and replacing the first half with the applied ii chord. The result is the progression in Example 3 below.

Example 3. Inserting a Gm7 chord before the C7 chord creates a ii–V in F, which is not present in the original chord progression of “Mood Indigo.”

Common-Tone Diminished Seventh Chords (CTo7)

Notation. C, Cº7, C. F/C, Bº7, F/C.
Example 4. Common-tone diminished sevenths share a common tone with the root of the chord being embellished, shown here with ties.

The common-tone diminished seventh chord (hereafter CTo7) is a voice-leading chord, which means that the chord is not based on a particular scale degree like most other harmonies, but rather the result of more basic embellishing patterns. In this case, the embellishing motion is the neighbor motion. To create a CTo7, the root of the chord being embellished is kept as a common tone (hence the name), and all other voices move by step to the notes of the diminished seventh chord that includes that common tone. This is best explained in notation, as in Example 4.

The CTo7 can be used to prolong any chord. Rhythmically, the chord would be inserted somewhere in the middle of the total duration of the harmony, leaving the prolonged harmony on either side of it (as in Example 4). Another option is to skip the initial statement of the prolonged harmony and instead jump straight into the CTo7. Example 5 adds both types of CTo7 to “Mood Indigo,” the melody of which is particularly suggestive of CTo7 embellishments. In this example, the CTo7 chords are not given their own Roman numerals, to show that they do not significantly affect the harmonic progression of the phrase—instead, they embellish the chords around them with chromatic neighbor tones. Similarly, the CTo7 chords are not shown with chord symbols, because these chords are often not written into lead sheets but improvised by the performers.

Example 5. A CTo7 embellishes the opening B♭ chord, inserted on beat 3 of the whole-note harmony. A CTo7 also embellishes the C7 chord, displacing the C7 by a half note.

Rhythm and Embellishing Chords

To add a new harmony to a chord progression, the harmonic rhythm of the progression must be altered. Exactly what this alteration is will depend on the melodic context. Example 6 highlights the changes in harmonic rhythm necessary to fit each of the embellishing chords into an existing chord progression.

Example 6. Some ways of adjusting harmonic rhythm to accommodate the addition of embellishing harmonies.

Embellishing Chords in a Lead Sheet

As with substitutions, embellishments are not always represented the same way in a lead sheet.

  • There may not be any embellishing chord notated, and instead, the performers are improvising this addition as they play.
  • The embellishing chord may be built into the chord progression and thus be notated in the chord symbols.
  • The embellishing chord may be indicated as an alternate harmonization and shown in the chord symbols with parentheses around the embellishing chords.

This is illustrated in Example 7 with different ways of showing a CTo7 in “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington.

Example 7. Embellishing chords can be (a) unwritten and improvised by performers, (b) written into the chord symbols, or (c) indicated as an alternative harmonization with parentheses.

Further reading
  • Levine, Mark. 1995. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music.
  1. Bebop composition. Asks students to build on knowledge of swing rhythms, ii–V–I, embellishing chords, and substitutions to create a composition in a bebop style.
  2. Embellishing chords (.pdf, .mscz). Reviews the spelling of applied V7/ii7 chords and common-tone diminished seventh chords, and asks students to add embellishing chords to chord progressions.

Media Attributions

  • ctº7 © Megan Lavengood


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