Hiro Honshuku's Jazz Theory

where you can find help for improving your improvisation technique, as well as writing your own music


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Hiro Honshuku's Jazz Theory Book Download

Hiro's Jazz Theory (939k) PDF

Section I

  1. Introduction
  2. Interval
  3. Chords
  4. Mode
  5. Melody Analysis
  6. Harmony Analysis

Section II

  1. Diminished Scales
  2. Minor Keys
  3. Modal Interchange
  4. Special Dominant
  5. #IV-7(b5)
  6. Deceptive Resolution
  7. Compound Chords


©1994-2007 A-NO-NE Music, Boston, MA

These books were originally created as a work book for the use in my classes. There are many details that were missing from the book because they were intended to be explained live.

What is jazz

What is most important thing is jazz music? What makes jazz music so unique?

Is it improvisation? Certainly not, because improvisation isn't new. Aside from folk music worldwide, most of the pipe organ performances in church service were improvised by the organist back in Early Music era. Their improvisation was similar to what we do in jazz improvisation. There is a chord progression, whether preplanned or improvised, then improvised melodies on top of it.

The most important thing in jazz music that sets apart from other kind of music is its groove. While other type of groove oriented music asks for tightness, jazz music calls for time feel against each other.

On top of the beat

On the beat

Behind the beat

For example, Erroll Garner's left hand is on the beat, while his right hand is always behind the beat, and that grooves. Drummer like Philly Joe Jones plays extremely laid-back ride cymbal while playing hi-hat on top of the beat. Then you bring monster bass players to it. Ray Brown, Ron Carter, they are all on top of the beat, way ahead of drummer, that drives the band. This is the thrills in jazz time feel, that makes jazz so unique.

Unfortunately it is often misunderstood if improvising is the most important thing in jazz music. It is only the second important thing. Still we want to play cool improvisation. Unless you are a genius, knowledge becomes important.

It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Time feel is everything



Swing Jazz

Before "what is jazz today" was established


Louis Armstrong: Before WWII era, Laid back time feel isolated to solo performer, while the rest of the band is on the beat



Count Basie Orchestra - Corner Pocket (1962): Base and drums on the beat together



Erroll Garner Plays Fly Me to the Moon: His left hand on the beat, while the right hand behind the beat



Be Bop

Charlie Parker and his Be Bops style establishes bass on top of the beat and drums behind the beat to give wider beat space for the soloist who can then play the mix of on top of the beat and behind the beat to create the speed and the thrill




Miles Davis

The birth of the cool jazz style: less notes, more groove with bass on top of the beat and drums behind the beat



Tony Williams who can switch between behind the beat and on top of the beat, while Ron Carter who can be on top of Tony's on top of the beat




Aggressive Time Feel


Kenny Burrell plays on top of the beat, while his drummer, Sherman Furgason gives funk music like wide beat feeling



Pat Martino (before who lost his memory) played incredibly meticulous behind the beat


Learn to listen to bass and drums to understand the jazz groove. Grooving jazz is always bass on top the beat even when there is no drummer. Bass has to drive the group, and there is a definit difference between on top of the beat and rushing. Rushing won't groove. On top of the beat means digging down the beat.


Funk Music: Tightly behind the beat between bass and drums




Go Go style: same as Funk but more hop


Brazilian Time Feel



Latin Music Time Feel


Reggae: Caribbean music is on the beat, yet it grooves hard


The simplified explanation of the difference between Japanese and/or Asian groove and the rest


The beat that is thrown away from the drum


The beat that is struck down to the drum


What is jazz theory for?

Jazz music theory certainly isn't the most important thing to play jazz music. Most of the times it even doesn't help playing since you don't have enough time to think theory when you are sight reading the chart on stage.

What then will help improvising jazz music?

Set your idol, and try to imitate them. In my case, Miles is my God and I even don't try to study him but just warship him instead. Once upon a time, I listened to his 1964 Lincoln Center recordings for one year, over and over, try to memorize everything what's on that two disk sets.

I had quite a few idols, not at once, but one by one. For performance, there were Wes Montgomery, George Garzone, Eddie Gomez, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker. I transcribed them in my early days a lot. For composition, George Russell and György Ligeti.

Would theory help?

Unless you are a genius and can play absolutely anything by ear, not to mention photographic memory to memorize everything in one path as Wes Montgomery was, you need certain theoretical skills.

With this information above, you construct your improvised melody with Root, 2nd/9th, 3rd, 5th, and 7th, A Coltrane approach . If you are grooving, you are all set.

What is jazz theory for?

Deep understanding of jazz theory is very much needed once you wish to write your own piece. This is not like classical music which others just read notes you wrote. A composition that is badly notated with improper theoretical background only makes other players play your music badly.

How to run a cool improvisation on a diminished chord™

You practice diminished scales. You play the practiced scale in your improvisation. Unless the material is Brazilian music, which calls for a diminished sounding line, it will sound too diminished, or too practiced. When you listen to giants like Miles Davis, you won't hear such a line.

Besides, as explained in my Jazz Theory Workbook, figuring out the correct scale in the tonal context isn't easy for sight-reading. Here is something I came up with when I am in that situation, and it works well.

Read on…

What Schöenberg Said

The one of the most important 20th Century composers, Arnold Schöenberg notes a diminished 7th chord is an extension of a dominant chord with lowered 9th and omitted root (p.348 "Theory of Harmony" ISBN 0-520-04944-6).

Let's take a look at what is being talked here.

When a C#dim7 chord appears in the key of C Major, followed by a D-7 chord, it is a diatonic functioning diminished chord, I#dim7". The theoretically correct chord scale would be as follow:

This C#dim7 chord can be understood as an A7(b9) without root, functioning as V7(b9)/II, and the expected chord scale is a perfect match.

When you see a diminished chord, and if you could identify it as a diatonic functioning diminished chord quick enough on your sight reading, all what you need to do is to call up your cool Dominant 7th b9 lick on the Major 3rd below the root of the diminished chord.

But things might not be that simple when you are sight reading on stage. What if you see a Bb dim7 chord, which you couldn't tell if diatonic functioning? The Major 3 blow is Gb. What if you are not comfortable with Gb(b9) lick?

Read on..


Finding a Hook

This is an example of a non diatonic functioning diminished chord in another well known standard song, As Time Goes By, starting at its bridge:

Whether the changes are correct or not, you are facing this onstage, sight reading. There is no way the A diminished chord is acting as a diatonic functioning chord, since it is not followed by a half step or the same root. See my workbook.

You must be able to see the chord tone of A dim7. Seeing a chord tone right away is essential to improvisation. Once you see a chord tone, you should see four dominant chords:

The note on the A dim7 chord which does not appear in those four dominant chords becomes tension. Let's examine.

  • Gb does not appear in F7 » F7(b9)
  • B7 is a good match with A dim7 » B7(b9): This has to be the Mixo b9 scale because of the -3rd note of A dim7, which is b9 to B7.
  • Eb does not appear in D7 » D7 (b9,b13): Tension b13th is added because of the context, that is, proceeded by F-7 and followed by C-7.
  • Ab7 is also a good match with A dim7 » Ab7(b9): This has to be the Mixo b9 scale because of the root note of A dim7, which is b9 to Ab7.

Any one of them will work. You pick one that you like, and blow away.

Just add b9th, but what about b13th?

Let's step back. Here is the summary of the steps, which you need to process in a split second on the stage when sight reading:

  1. Identify the chord tones of the diminished 7th chord
  2. Produce four dominant chords which share the tritones with the diminished 7th chord
  3. Pick one of them you like, hopefully, the one closest to the context, as explained
  4. Add b9th then blow

Since we are accustomed to adding the b13th when we blow such phrase, would it work in this situation? It works most of the time, as I did on the D7 to A dim7 example. On the other hand, b13th of Ab7 is F-flat, and it will take away from the context. In any case, improvising live does not need to be theoretically correct, while it is still important to know what you are doing.

End of this subject.

Theoretically correct scale

Here is an except from Someday My Prince Will Come, bar 9 - 12:

The Db diminished 7th chord appears as a tonal functioning diminished chord, bIII diminished 7th, that is, analyzed as passing from III-7 to II-7. The non chord tones of the tonal functioning diminish chord are determined by the Key of the Moment, B flat, in this case.

The theoretically correct scale will be as follow:

Note that parenthesized numbers indicate avoid notes.

A lot of double-flats. As we discussed in the Workbook, we can respell the Db diminished scale to the C# diminished scale for conveniences. After all, theoretical correctness is not required when you are on stage and blowing hard.

Note that parenthesized numbers indicate avoid notes.

What Can You See?

A diminished 7th chord is built with two tri-tones, which means it could represent four dominant chords:

Let's try to fit these chords to the key of B-flat, which is the key of the moment of this song, Someday My Prince Will Come. This is not a theoretical analysis since we are not considering what chord might follow.

  • A7 = possible V7 of iii-: the scale would be Altered Mixo
  • But on stage, we often like to play A7(b9,b13) instead, to make it more interesting
  • Eb7 = possible SubV of iii-: the scale would be Lydian b7/Mixo #11
  • C7 = possible V of V: the scale would be Straight Mixo
  • Gb7 = possible SubV of V: the scale would be Lydian b7/Mixo #11

Which one of them has all the chord tones of C#dim7? The answer is A7(b9,b13).

Let's compare the scale:

If you add C natural, which is a #9th of A7, and often added when the b9th is used, the resulting scale is identical. Coming up with a cool phrase on A7(b9,b13) is a lot easier than sight reading C#dim7 and trying to figure out the non chord tones according to the key of the moment.

What is avoid note?

While 6th note of Dorian and 4th note of Mixo has special reasons in their avoid note (refer to my workbook page 12), generally avoid note is a note that produces b9th interval against the chord of the moment (this includes anticipation in jazz style). The effect of b9th interval is that it destroys the tonality. As soon as you hear this interval, you looses the sense of unity. This is in human nature. Of course, knowing this, you can intentionally create b9th interval for your creativity. John Scofield does it all the time. The important point of this is you must know what you are doing.

Here is the rule of avoid note you want to repeat until you have it in your body:

There is one more rule. Read on…

Don't Jump Around Avoid Note

When note moves in the interval more than 2nd, human ear catches it as structure rather than passing note within a phrase. If the last note before the jump or first note after the jump is an avoid note, it stands out and destroys tonality. Slower the tempo, worse the effect.

Here is an example of V-I phrase:

Here is an example when avoid note S4 sticks out and bothers the tonality:

However, if avoid note is followed by a valid note in half-step, the avoid note will act as an approach note. While it still catches ear, the unity of the tonality won't be destroyed as bad:

Low Interval Limit

Low Interval Limit is a concept that defines the lowest pitches at which intervals can be clearly perceived without sounding muddy or indistinct. The Low Interval Limit shown below is not an absolute rule. However, placing the interval lower than this guide line is a real risk that the resulting sound will not work well due to overtone corrosion within a normal harmonic context.

Low Interval Limit

Click to enlarge.

5 Horn Arranging Range Chart (concert)

Trumpet Range

Trumpet Range


Trombone Range

Trombone Range


Alto Range

Alto Sax Range


Tenor Range

Tenor Sax Range


Bari Range

Baritone Sax Range


Sight Reading Tips (Seminar for Longy MAM Dept, Nov 11, 2011)



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