VI. Jazz

Embellishing chords

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

This chapter presents two ways of adding new harmonies to an existing chord progression.

  • An applied ii chord, as in the , can be used to embellish a dominant-quality chord. In other words, preceding a dominant-quality chord with the m7 or ø7 chord a fifth above it creates the effect of a ii–V.
  • 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—thus, the term “common tone.”

Jazz performers often aim to add their own twist to existing jazz standards. One way of doing this is to add new chords that existing chords in the progression. This chapter explores two ways that performers improvise by embellishing harmonies in jazz.

This chapter will use the opening few bars of “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington as a backdrop, and add embellishing chords to that. Therefore, familiarity with the tune will make the following discussions more intelligible. Listen to Louie Armstrong’s interpretation of this song, embedded below, while following the chords of the first few bars, given here.

(piano intro: 2 bars)

B♭  | C7 | Cm7 F7 | B♭ |
B♭ | C7 | G♭7 | F7 |


Embellishing applied chords

Applied V7

Any chord in a progression can be embellished by preceding it with an applied dominant chord. Example 1 takes the surprising G♭ chord of measure 7, divides it in half, and replaces the first half note of the chord with its applied V7 chord. In principle, this can be done with any chord in the progression.[1]

Example 1. Inserting a D♭7 chord before the G♭7 chord creates an applied V of G♭, which is not present in the original chord progression of “Mood Indigo.”

Applied ii

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. Many dominant chords can 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–Cm7–F7–B♭. That first C7 could be embellished by adding a Gm7 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 2 below.

Example 2. 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 7th chords

Notation. C, Cº7, C. F/C, Bº7, F/C.
Example 3. Common tone diminished sevenths share a common tone with the root of the chord being embellished, shown here with ties.

The common tone diminished 7th 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 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 7th chord that includes that common tone. This is best explained in notation, as in Example 3.

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 3). Another option is to skip the initial statement of the prolonged harmony, and instead jump straight into the cto7. Example 4 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 numeral, 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 lead sheet symbols, because these chords are often not written into lead sheets, but improvised by the performers.

Example 4. 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.


Embellishing chords in a lead sheet

As with substitutions, substitutions 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 lead sheet symbols.
  • The embellishing chord may be indicated as an alternate harmonization, and shown in lead sheet symbols with parentheses around the substituted chords.

This is illustrated in Example 5, with different ways of showing a cto7 in “Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington.

Example 5. Embellishing chords can be unwritten and improvised by performers (a), written into the lead sheet (b), or indicated as an alternative harmonization with parentheses (c).

Further reading
  • Levine, Mark. 1995. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music.

Media Attributions

  • ctº7 © Megan Lavengood

  1. The G♭ chord is, itself, a tritone substitution for C7, which would be the applied Vof F7. Tritone substitutions are discussed in another chapter.


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