Building a Chord (Jazz)


Okay! We are finally ready to play some real music… or at least the most important component part of some real music.

As we know, songs are made of sections and sections are made of chords.

Once you know how to make a chord, you can make a song.

In jazz piano we can make all chords with reference to the Major Scale .

Here’s an example of a simple “chord progression”:

C, Am, F, G

Here’s an example of a complicated chord progression:

Ebmaj7, Cm7, Fm7, Bb7b9, Gm7, C7b9, Fm7, Bb7

… but both are basically the same idea… that each “symbol” represents a combination of notes, and that those notes can be described in terms of the Major Scale.

This is best clarified by real examples.

Major Chords

The chord called “C” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of C Major. The chord called “F” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of F Major. The chord called “G” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of G Major.

See a pattern developing?

Essentially the chord called “whatever” is made by playing the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the scale of “whatever”.

Put more simply:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G

Try playing C, E and G on your piano. Nice sound! That’s a “Major Chord”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

C = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
G = 1, 3, 5 = G, B, D
D = 1, 3, 5 = D, F#, A
A = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
E = 1, 3, 5 = E, G#, B
B = 1, 3, 5 = B, D#, F#

Minor Chords

Almost all good piano music is made of a combination of Major Chords and Minor Chords.

Minor Chords are made just like Major Chords, except we “flatten the 3rd”.

That just means we play exactly the same three notes, but the middle one is “lowered” by one semitone. You take the middle note and play the one to the left of it instead.

For example:

A Major = 1, 3, 5 = A, C#, E
A Minor = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E

The “C#” has become “C” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

another example:

C Major = 1, 3, 5 = C, E, G
C Minor = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G

The “E” has become “Eb” by being “flattened” to make it a “minor” chord.

In practice, we don’t write “C Major and “C Minor”… we write “C” and “Cm”.

Combining this with the knowledge you have acquired from the previous lessons, you should be able to make the following chords:

Cm = 1, b3, 5 = C, Eb, G
Gm = 1, b3, 5 = G, Bb, D
Dm = 1, b3, 5 = D, F, A
Am = 1, b3, 5 = A, C, E
Em = 1, b3, 5 = E, G, B
Bm = 1, b3, 5 = B, D, F#

Now we have a “bank” of chords we can use.

A, B, C, D, E, G, Am, Bm, Cm, Dm, Em, Gm.

Hands-on Exercise

Play these chords with just your right hand on the piano…

Chord NameNumbersActual Notes
C1, 3, 5C, E, G
Cm1, b3, 5C, Eb, G
G1, 3, 5G, B, D
Gm1, b3, 5G, Bb, D
D1, 3, 5D, F#, A
Dm1, b3, 5D, F, A
A1, 3, 5A, C#, E
Am1, b3, 5A, C, E
E1, 3, 5E, G#, B
Em1, b3, 5E, G, B
B1, 3, 5B, D#, F#
Bm1, b3, 5B, D, F#

Try to see if any stick in your memory, and also see how they are made of 1, 3, 5 of the scale.

You can use this list for reference in future, so don’t worry too much. Just relax and try to hear the “quality” of each chord. They all sound unique and different, even though they are of only two types.

There are many other kinds of chords, of course, but these two will be plenty for us to start playing a few songs. We’ll meet more later!

Identifying The Structure


This is one area in which Jazz (generally speaking!) is significantly simpler than most music.

Pop songs very often start with an intro, move into a verse, chorus, bridge, solo, instrumental, middle 8… lots of different sections in whatever order the songwriter chose.

Jazz is, for the most part, very simple in structure, and even simpler in description.

Essentially, the first part of the song is referred to as “A”.

The second part of the song, if it sounds a lot like the “A” section is referred to, again, as “A”.

Any part of the song that’s significantly different may be referred to as “B”.

If there are any more parts that differ from “A” and “B”, they may be referred to as “C”, but this is uncommon.

We then define the structure of a jazz song as per one of the following examples:





… the letters indicating which sections come after which.

AABA is the most common structure for a jazz song.

Once the structure has been identified, it simply remains to decide the following:

1) How many times do we repeat the song?

This will depend on really obvious things, like how long you want the song to be, how many players there are, etc.

2) What happens during each repetition?

Usually you’ll want an instrument or singer to perform the main tune of the song, then have a few repetitions for solos, repeat the tune in the middle, maybe again at the end. 5-7 times through the song is normal, but there are no rules about this.

3) How do we start the song?

Songs that were originally from musicals often have a pre-written intro that can be used if everyone knows it. In a “jamming” situation, these are almost always overlooked. Usually someone will just count 1, 2, 3, 4 and everyone starts together.

4) How do we end the song?

Songs can always be ended by simply playing through to the end of the song and then playing the opening chord. However, many people like to do unexpected and interesting endings, some of which we’ll cover in the “Endings” section later.

Have a listen to some jazz songs and see if you can identify the structure.

Overview (Jazz)

Jazz Piano Overview

We’re going to learn to play jazz songs on piano by understanding and interpreting them in a “modular” way (in terms of their component parts).

Jazz is an inherently “rule-breaking” art form, so practically anything I say can (and will be) met with hundreds of examples where it’s not the case. However, if I keep saying “in many cases” or “most of the time”, it’ll be a pain for me to write and you to read, so please just try to remember that the whole game of learning jazz is subjective and full of options.

The “Standard”, The “Form”, The “Head” and The “Solo”.

A piece of jazz music is usually made of a short “song” which is repeated many times with variation each time.

This will often be a “Standard”… an old song that everyone knows.

When the song is repeated, sometimes the melody is clear and familiar, or even sung with the correct lyrics by a singer. When that happens, we call it “The Head”.

When that’s not happening, there’s usually someone playing some improvised notes that catch your attention. This is called a “Solo”.

No matter what is going on, the band is operating using a pre-defined structure. This is called the “Form”.

All this stuff is vital… if it’s not crystal clear, go and listen to some jazz right now and try to identify the Standard, the Form, the Head and the Solo.

Chord Progressions

“The Form” is a long “chord progression”, usually made of 2 or 3 shorter “chord progressions”. We’ll learn more about chords later, so don’t worry.

Beats and Bars

Try this… count “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4″ over and over, out loud whilst tapping the table.

What you’re doing is creating “bars” of four “beats”.

Every four “beats” (1, 2, 3, 4) makes a “bar”.

Beats and bars are the unit of measurement we use to describe time passing in a song.

Most importantly, it is how we establish how long each chord lasts in a chord progression.

What’s the point of all this?

If you’re going to learn jazz in a relaxed, easy way… we just need to be breaking it into bite-sized chunks that are easy to handle, and this is the terminology we will be using.

The next lesson contains a more detailed look at some of these terms, then we’ll be getting stuck into some playing!

Bill Evans – The Creative Process and Self-Teaching

I love, love, love, love, love this.  Love. It.

radiokid2 on YouTube

This guy’s brilliant. Such a good player and teacher. The feed’s a bit sporadic and variable, but some of the lessons are outstanding!

radiokid2 on YouTube.

This guy seems a nice chap and a good player. The site is pretty well organised, and certainly useful for picking up a few jazz tips. :)