Progress Report for w/c 27/4/15 – Kenny Werner On Randomness, Modal Harmony and Voice-leading.

“But my style shall be random, with the wisdom of the Dice”.

Luke Rhinehart in the Preface to ‘The Dice Man’



My blog was launched last Mon 27/4 and I resumed work on this current project – writing music in keeping with the philosophy of Mugaritz – the following day.

I’ll begin with an admission. I haven’t been taking my own medicine. Re: the diary, I’ve been a bit slack. I didn’t schedule my practise/writing sessions for the week in advance and didn’t record my observations immediately after so I’m left with only vague memories of process and feelings.

Tut, tut.

On the bright side, it’ll be interesting to see how next week’s progress compares given that I’ve just ‘booked in’ writing slots and given myself ample ‘comments’ space in my A4 page-per-day bad-boy. Resistance to the ink is now futile.

Kenny Werner

Instead of just staring at the keyboard, I’ve been using a technique I learnt from Kenny Werner to get started and get a sense of what it feels like to be fluid with ideas.

In his Jazz Heaven DVD, ‘Effortless Mastery Of Melody, Harmony & Rhythm’, Kenny suggests a fun and powerful harmonic method that leads to “radical changes” in both senses – 1) in how you harmonise/re-harmonise a tune 2) the ‘creation’ of interesting, unconventional and beautiful chord progressions.

Buy it. It’s brilliant and massively inspiring.

Random Harmony Exercise

  •  4 notes are choses at random. This constitutes your bassline/root movement.
  • a chord quality is ascribed to each bass note (at random).
  • Voice-leading is the key to making the sequence sound pretty. It’s the ‘glue’.

The contention that underlies all this is that any chord can follow any chord and sound beautiful. As Kenny puts it, “…you can pick everything randomly and it’ll work”.

Why does this suit me?

  • I’ll create/discover new things. I’ve spent the last 15+ years getting to grips with functional harmony – the logical way in which chord follows chord. This is radically different. It frees me from the regular arrangements of chords into ‘progression cells’. This is far less predictable and it means I can stop obsessing about Rules.
  • Randomness means I get the ball rolling immediately. I’m getting something on the page. As I’m pulling my building blocks ‘out of the hat’, there’s a release from the burden of creativity and its attendant worries. I’m less likely to prematurely judge the ingredients I’m working with. There’s less of a sense of ownership/attachment in the early stages.
  • I’m using minimal components here. Perfectly in keeping with the brief. If four chords are too many, I can always remove one (or two, or three!).
  • I can force myself to use sounds I don’t normally use. I can use this as a means to developing facility with less familiar modal colours.
  • Paralysis is precluded. I won’t get stuck trying to find The Next Chord.
  • I’m beating my harmonic habits and becoming more fluid. Kenny says, “…we play one chord, we always go to this other chord…”. This can be deeply unsatisfying. I’m forced to explore new colour combinations with Kenny’s method.

I did one of these every day…

I tried not to think too much about the bass notes. Interestingly, I found that if I didn’t choose quickly, I started to worry I was gravitating towards certain intervals – minor 3rds, maj 3rds, 4ths and semi-tones in particular. Might be an idea actually pulling them out of a hat!

Reminds me of this –

As Kenny suggests, I had my ‘Hierarchy Of Consonance’/’Collated Order’ (list of all modes in order from ‘bright’ to ‘dark’) in front of me. This helped me choose my colours and made me aware of how extensive our palette actually is.

Tues 28/4.

Tues 28 4 15

As you can see, I started with the notes D, Db, G and G#. The chord qualities were chosen randomly and I made an attempt at voice-leading. I quite liked this one so I wrote a little tune on it.

It’s interesting because for guitarists it seems that very little moves from D-7 to Db Lydian Augmented (#4, #5) – (play D-7 in root position ‘Drop 3’ – it looks like F/D – then lower your bass note to Db giving you F/Db i.e. Db Lydian+) – and yet it’s quite a dramatic change of colour. I’m hearing a sort of augmented quality (apart from the augmented nature of the chord itself) – probably because the key centre is shifting down a Maj 3rd from D Minor (I might hear it as D Melodic Minor) to (parent) Bb Melodic Minor (of which Db Lydian+ is mode 3). Think ‘License To Kill’.

It’s all about the motion of those bright upper-structure Major triads!

It’s also a I – V7alt! Db Lydian+ or F/Db is a common substitution for A7alt – it sounds like it’s in first inversion and they’re both derived from the same ‘parent’, Bb Melodic Minor.

If you’ve subscribed to this blog you will have received my video lesson on this very topic!

We then move to what is effectively Chord IV minor. Fairly standard stuff except I’ve opted for an Aeolian sound – something I haven’t explored much. There’s a sense of rising tension moving to G#alt which then doesn’t resolve as we’d expect. Functionally, we expect to hear it resolve up a 4th.

I might expand on this and have a 2nd time bar of Gsus (following G#alt) just because I find it pleasing.

Looked at from the ‘Derivative Approach’, the key centres move from C to Bb Melodic Minor to Bb Maj to A Melodic Minor.


Wed 29/4

Wed 29 4 15

The AbMaj7 moving to F Phrygian (b2, b3, b6, b7) is reminiscent (to me) of the intro to Herbie’s ‘Dolphin Dance’ (EbMaj7 to Ebsus or bVII/I) albeit slightly darker. This is probably because of the Gb/F (Phrygian slash chord) i.e. AbMaj7 moving to Gb triad, bVII, (but over F instead of Ab). Another way to view this is by noting that the key centres move the same way – in ‘Dolphin Dance’, EbMaj (Ionian) moves to Ebsus (parent key being AbMaj i.e. up a 4th). In my example, Ab Ionian moves to (parent key) Db (of which F Phrygian is mode 3) i.e. up a 4th as well.

We expect to hear Aeolian (as it’s the diatonic chord VI) not Phrygian in the second bar. Suuuurprise!

The B diminished Maj7th sounds a bit too bright for me (following F Phrygian) but it resolves nicely to C#7 because the upper-structure triad of Bb/B (VII/I – diminished major 7 slash chord) moves up chromatically to B/C# (bVII/I – sus sound).

In short, I’ll probably use the AbMaj7 to Gb/F and Bb/B to B/C# ideas in things independently.


Thurs 30/4

Thurs 30 4 15

This one is growing on me. It’s essentially two V7-I’s a Maj 3rd apart. Augmented Axis…again.

Start on the second chord (B Harmonic Major) and you’ve got the first three changes of ‘Giant Steps’!

There’s a slightly Steely Dan quality but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Funky Dom7 chord at the start perhaps? I’m hearing the intro to ‘Peg’ for some reason. No idea why!


Fri 1/5

Fri 1 5 15

This one is interesting. The B Phrygian Nat.6 (b2, b3, b7) moving to A Mixolydian b6 (b6, b7) is quite pleasing (maybe because of the upper-structure E triad moving up a 4th to A triad?) but seems a little out of keeping in the sequence as a whole.

A Mixolydian b6 to FMaj7 is lovely. There’s that Augmented Axis sound again (‘License To Kill’, ‘Giant Steps’) – A triad moving down a Major 3rd to F triad (unified with the common ‘F’ – the b13 of A7b13). Then the F triad moves down a tone to Eb for the D Phrygian sound (Eb/D).

I think I’ll get rid of the first chord and just have an F Triad in its place and change the third chord to FMaj7/A.

F   | A9b13   | FMaj7/A   |Eb/D   |

I’m hearing this as an intro.


Sat 2nd

I tried something different today. The unused Phrygian Nat.6 chord from yesterday made me think of the obvious Spanish/Moorish/Basque associations and therefore about Mugaritz.

I started with a bassline of four notes as before but actually ‘composed’ them this time. I thought it might be nice to play with that Spanish cliche melody (1, b2, b3, b2, 1) and try to disguise it with unusual harmony.

The bassline B, C, D, C, became – |B13susb9   |C7Alt   |DMaj7add4   |CMaj7#11   | – and I wrote a tune on it…

Sat 2 5 15

There’s that Augmented sound again! B Phrygian Nat.6 (a.k.a. Dorian b2), mode 2 of A Melodic Minor moving up a Maj 3rd to (parent) Db Melodic Minor (of which C Altered is mode 7).

It’s quite a mystical sound so I’ve tried to capture that in the melody – a 3-note motif (mirroring the 3-note bassline) that suggests the magical Whole Tone Scale. Mugaritz is a magical place after all.

The pattern is broken when we move to DMaj7add4. It’s quite unexpected and makes me think of Satie for some reason.

I might add a tag just using the B13susb9. The ‘D natural’ in the melody clarifies that it’s not Mixolydian b9 (mode 5 of E Harmonic Major which has a ‘D#’) but we could play around with this slight ambiguity perhaps…?



It’s interesting that the augmented sound features quite heavily here. Luck of the draw perhaps.

Randomly generated chord sequences can ‘sound right’ even when there seems to be an absence of functional relationship probably because;

  • Luck, serendipity.
  • Our minds impose order on chaos in order to make sense of it.
  • I find myself attempting to justify the chord changes by looking for patterns and relationships.
  • Voice-leading. Efficient part motion creates a sense of smooth, weaving inner-melodies and a sense of unity.

Go and make your own…




  • patrick

    May 5, 2015

    Great concept to compose or just get out of a rut, played through a couple of the examples this morning and they sound very interesting and fresh , for me I’m limited by my chord vocab right now, but I’m gonna use these example to get straight in and get new sounds in my ear,
    Next step is to play the melodies on top of the chords, I put them in my looper pedal , to hear how it all comes together.. Thanks tommy,
    I have that jazz heaven dvd, (effortless mastery by Kenny is great to) but this is the first time I’ve tried the concept, Thanks Tommy, really creative ‘exercise’ , lots of potential tunes to come from this , and really increase voice leading skills ,

  • Tommy Emmerton

    May 7, 2015

    Glad you’ve found it useful, Pat! I think you’ll find this is a much more powerful (and fun) way to increase chord vocab than just rehearsing inversions of voicings (out of context).

    Limit yourself to a few modes you’re not in control of yet and ‘write’ them into your playing with this exercise. You’ll spend more time with them and actually USE them.

    Please share what you come up with!

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