Learning New Music: Creating a Frame For A Piece

In order for me to make sense of a piece of music, I find I have to put it in a frame of some sort.  I suppose it is impossible to understand the world without knowing how things relate to each other, what repeating patterns occur and how some elements are the same as, or different from, other elements.  In the case of a music repertoire this is doubly true.  Without a framework of some kind every new piece you learn has to be learned from scratch, every solo must be drawn from a brand new set of harmonies.

Understanding chord movement is critical if you are to solo successfully over a set of changes.  There are many ways chords can move ‘logically’ – via cycles of 5ths, 3rds or 2nds, Common Tone, Symmetric, Chromatic, ‘Planing’.  ‘Common Practice’ music harmony, however, is a good place to start, i.e. the music of Mozart, Beethoven or, in our case, the music in the ‘American Song Book.’

I know players who have hundreds of ‘Jazz Standards’ committed to memory.  Or do they?  I think it is more likely they can retrieve the memory of a tune by stopping to recall the framework upon which they hung its parts.  Frameworks, it seems, are quite personal.   How I relate to the structure of a tune is likely to be very different from yours.  Here’s one: 

“Stella by Starlight” is perfectly logical to the ear, yet it’s a challenge to sort out the harmony first time you encounter it.  I am going to make a leap here and make the assumption that you would be looking at the ‘Real Book’ changes to this tune.  I haven’t checked the original changes for Stella, but I can guarantee you they are not exactly what we find in the Real Book.   Still, this is the version in front of you and we need, desperately need, to figure it out.  The desperation aspect is not overstated.  If you are to play through Stella, you need to know exactly what is happening in the harmony.  You need a logical framework so you can solo on it.

My framework is not going to be the same as yours.  Fact is, if we take our hugely different ways of perceiving the world into consideration, you may well think mine is entirely perverse!   Nevertheless, here was my first take at framing Stella ‘lo those many years ago:   (No chord extensions or alterations bothered with here – it’s shorthand)

STELLA BY STARLIGHT                                                                                   KEY: Bb

Em7b5 – A7  

Start of a II – V cycle on the b5? –  hmm, no, it goes to the IIm,  so more like a jazz reharm of the Idim/maj7 to V7 from that period – melody note supports that … enough … move on.  

Cm7 – F7 

Well okay, IIm – V, but it’s short circuited with chord quality change to Fm7.

Fm7 – Bb7 –  Eb – Ab7  

Yeah, IIm – V  of the IV …  but then to Ab7 … more likely Ebm6 in the old version, but Ab7 is a substitute dom for F7 … or I can think of it as “fore-cycling” … thinking too much, move on.

Bb – Em7b5 – A7 – Dm  

I then a II – V of the IIIm, this time really going to the IIIm.

Bbm7 – Eb7 – F

IIm – V functional substitution for Gm7 – C7. To  F – F new real brief key area

Bbm7 – Eb is likely a Bbm6 in old version.

Em7b5 – A7  

Could be II – V to relative minor in F … Dm, but short circuited with chord quality change to Am7b5.

Am7b5 – D7 – G7#5  

II – V to relative minor in Bb – Gm, but chord quality change on G so it can go to:




Dom substitute for F7, probably an Ebm6 in original.


Em7b5 – A7 –  Dm7b5 – G7 –  Cm7b5 – F7 – Bb   

Okay, whatever…… standard cycle from the b5 with all minors flattened –  probably not the original changes.

Gibberish you say?  “Well”, as the farmer said, looking at his three legged pig in the yard, “Y’ain’t pretty, but yer mine.”  And so it is with frameworks.  It doesn’t matter what the construct is, as long as it works. That being said, this framework was one designed to fix the chord progression for this tune in my mind.  In order for me to have enough raw materials to do this, however, I had to understand enough jazz harmony to make it work. 

Now for the punchline.  This tune stays entirely in the key of Bb!  Yes, their are fleeting excursions to the IV and the V as key centres, but the progression in Stella stays for the most part right in the key.  The changes are simply tarted up versions of the naturally ocurring chords in Bb.  Harmonicists are the kings of deception and they will mess with your mind.  They use backcycling, secondary dominants, b5 substitutions, modal variants, stacked fourths, stacked fifths, planing, common tone substitutions, polychords, chromatic progression, symmetric progression … anything to screw with your head.  And it sounds freaking wonderful!

But consider this:  the melody for Stella remains (with the fleeting exception of an E natural and a Gb) ENTIRELY on the Bb diatonic scale.  I rest my case.  Nevertheless, this tune is worth a closer look.    THATS NEXT.