Point of View
We asked prominent Australian
to answer the following question...
Can Musicians approach Harmonic
Colour like an Artist does his Paints?
Response by Matt Baker
The Palette and the Piano -
Can Musicians approach Harmonic Colour like an Artist does his Paints?
It is a great pleasure to be answering this question certainly one of
my favourite topics in the world of Jazz to think about, talk about, and
experience' whilst in the moment, improvising. By reading the title
itself, I hope even if for the first time you have already opened your
mind to the possibility of considering our large array of note choices
on your instrument a palette of colour, just as an artist views his
palette of paint.
How does an artist view his colours then is green simply green? Is red
simply red? Is it open to interpretation? You bet it is. One artist
could view green' as green, where others could argue its dark green, or
pine, grass, turquoise, aqua, bottle, blackboard, Kermit or lime. And
where do you use green are all leaves green and all skies blue? You
bet not. If you take a close-up look at a painting, you'll see leaves
are painted with reds, yellows, blacks, greys or blues, depending on
sunlight, shadow and the overall colour he/she wants our eyes to
interpret from a distance.
This is exactly the same in musical harmony (and by the way, not just
Jazz). We might look at the note choices a soloist used on a chord and
say "this ones right, these ones are clearly from the scale or chord,
but these ones are clearly wrong, - you cant play F#'s on an Fmin7
chord", but the reason the artist put that in is part of the overall
colour he/she wanted our "ears" to hear. They don't single out each
individual note and say "I'm now going to play F# on this Fmin7 chord",
just as a painter doesn't come at it with "Well, I think this leaf will
be red". Both have a greater view in mind.
Let me first briefly reintroduce us to the topic of Synaesthesia the
type of synaesthesia where
the hearing of a sound produces the visualisation of a colour. This
topic was covered at length in an earlier article
by Chris Latham on this website, so I wont be going into
any of the theory here, but let me ask you this question when you
picture the notes of the scale in your head, do you see different
colours for each note? For myself as a pianist, when I picture the
keyboard in my head, naturally I see the physical black and white keys,
but I also see colour for each note. The notes aren't painted in a colour,
they are still black and white, but I see what is similar to a shade or
cloud over the note.
Here is what I see in my mind: Note that all sharps and flats (black
notes) are usually very dark shades of the colours next to them.
C red D green E yellow F orange G light blue A dark brown B
C# - dark red/slightest tinge of orange Eb dark yellow/very slightly
turquoise F# - dark orange
Ab burgundy/slight dark brown/purple Bb dark grey/silver/slightest
tinge of blue
Interestingly or not, the accidentals are the same colours whatever
their names are: for example I see Db's the same as C#'s.
Going forward in the article I may refer to these colours and notes, but
let me assure you, You don't need to be able to visualise any colours
for notes to gain benefit from this article!. If you only see black and
white, or are still working out whether you see anything at all, that is
This is NOT an article on Synaesthesia, but rather a discussion on
jazz harmony and colour, and opening our minds up to thinking of our
note choices in ways like an artist thinks of the colours on his
Lets dive into some Jazz Harmony now! Paint brushes ready ??
We are going to live in the world of F minor for this article, on an F
minor 7 chord. Just to bring everyone on the same page lets quickly go
over the chord and colour notes. The F minor chord comprises F, Ab and
C, with the 7 (the flat 7) being Eb. The F minor jazz' scale (or F dorian) comprises F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, F. You can see here that the
notes of the Fmin7 chord come directly from the Fminor scale. Some
common colour notes' of F minor7 would be the G (9th), Bb (11th), D
(6th or 13th), and perhaps the E (major 7th), and traditionally the Gb,
A, B, Db and E would be known as non-chordal or passing notes. That is
the palette as it stands, without any artistic application yet.
So Fmin7. What are the rules? What are the constrictions? When soloing
on Fmin7, do we have to play the F minor scale notes, do we really have
to play the 3rds and 7ths? Is there a maximum time we can play any non-chordal
notes before we will sound out of key? I'm not going to directly answer
these questions there isn't a one word answer, as it's art and in that
perspective any answer would be correct, but more so I'm hoping that
this article will open up your thinking so you can arrive at your own
Back to Fmin7. So the chord is Fmin7, and we have a period of time to
improvise over it. Who says the chord is Fmin7? Lets open up our minds
now. Just because the chord symbol says Fmin7, it doesn't actually mean
what we're playing is Fmin7. If the bass player played only F's on every
beat of every bar, then it would certainly sound very much at home in F,
but a walking bass line contains many different notes. There would be chordal, scalic and passing notes, as well as repetition in grooves and
ostinatos. Now if the bass player played an equal number of every note
in the chromatic scale, it doesn't mean it would sound a-tonal, it would
still sound in the key of F and the reason is because of placement of
the strong notes of the scale, on strong parts of the bar (for example
F's on beat 1, every 1, 2 or 4 bars, and the passing notes on the
non-strong beats). The other reason it would still sound like F minor to
the listener is because of the context surrounding the chord. For
example, if we were in Eb major and the two preceding chords were Gmin7
and the C7, then our ears expect to hear Fmin7 next and fill in any gaps
we don't hear to make' it Fmin7 (unless the harmony clearly goes in a
But as improvisers, if we let what our ears expect totally direct what
we play, then in that example in Eb major of the chord progression Gmin7
C7 - ?, then what we would play in our solo would probably be
something very "inside". We would be playing what we were hearing or
expecting to hear. But instead of letting churn out what always comes
out when we get to Fmin7, we could open our minds, let some spontaneous
creativity come into play and adopt the following approach.
I am just going to choose 4 notes to solo with, on Fmin7. I will choose:
G, Ab, Bb and D. These notes are the 9th, min 3rd, 11th (or sus4) and
6th (or 13th) respectively.
What is about these 4 notes that attracted me to choosing them? What do
I see? do you see any colours here? Lets do an exercise - close your
eyes and picture the scale.
Perhaps picture the letters as big 3D block letters floating in front of
your face what colours are they individually and collectively? Don't
choose colours for them, see what they bring to you. Perhaps visualise
the scale the way you do in you head are there any colours going up
the scale? Focus on groups of them in your mind, maybe the ones in the
red family (including orange and yellow) or the ones in the blue family
(with purples and turquoise etc). Try playing them, in their groups in a
context. For example play an Fminor chord in the left hand, and then
improvise in the right hand with just the notes of a certain colour
group. What does it sound like? There won't be any statement of truth
here, such as the reds work in an X context', because the red family
may be different person to person.
Back to the 4 notes I have chosen, now single out these 4 notes and see
if any colours remain for the 4 of them as a group. It may be just a
wash, a shade or even an emotion that these 4 notes produce. Perhaps
they look' like they will sound dark, restful, lively, suspenseful or
quirky. What do you naturally evoke? The way I do it is the 4 notes
already have the colours as I described above, but when together in a
group, I see more an overall wash.
Although we don't need to physically picture the colours, I would see
these 4 notes as a shade of dark turquoise. G being blue, D green, Ab
dark burgundy and Bb a dark grey. Lets assume the bass player is
predominantly playing a lot of F's, Ab's, and C's, plus passing notes to
each. This group of colours to me evokes an orange/dark red wash. (F
being orange, Ab dark burgundy, and C red). Now the collective artistic
superimposition here would be a turquoise wash over a dark orange base.
You may not think this would look great on a canvas, but think about a
golden orange sunset over a dark turquoise ocean. Either way, it doesn't
matter whether the physical colours would work in the physical world,
its just the way I visualise them, and others would do so differently.
If you don't visualise any colours at all, then first just be open to
the concept of two different harmonic shapes/shades superimposed on each
On the piano specifically, to compliment my note choice in the right
hand, I would probably play an accompanying left hand chord that
comprised only a G, Ab and D, or possibly only a two-note chord
consisting of G and Ab. The secret to creating this new wash of colour
is not what's in there, but what's left out. Try this at the piano
play a low F in the bass, and just below middle C play a G and Ab
together (a semitone apart). Sounds dark doesn't it. To some musicians,
this cluster may initially sound wrong, and not even Fminor7, or as we
say in Jazz, "too out there". But when you think about it there are
actually no wrong notes in there, there's just the minor 3rd and the 9th
Two very "inside" notes. But again the secret here has been what is
left out. Our ears haven't been given their usual luxury of all chordal
notes played at the one time. If I added the C and Eb, the chord would
then sound much more in line with the bass, harmonically, which is all
very well, but we are looking for a new creative avenue here, so let's
not lock ourselves into the normality of routine.
After that millisecond passed where we chose our 4 notes, the next
thought is how to develop them into an idea to play. The improviser can
develop these through shape, intervallic, motif and rhythmic
development. Lets have a look at the note choices from the intervallic
approach. If we just used two notes at a time, we could arrange them
(play them) as follows:
D G D G D G The intervals created here would be 4ths and 5ths. (4ths
between the D's and G's, and 5ths between the G's and D's). Then if we
used the other two together, we could arrange them as follows:
Bb Ab Bb Ab Bb Ab The intervals this gives us would be flattened 7ths
and tones. (Flat 7's between the Bb's and Ab's, and tones between the
Ab's and Bb's).
In both of these patterns, there are no semitone intervals, however when
mixed up and both ideas played together in the one line, the Ab and G
being a semitone apart create a lovely dissonance yet resolution at the
same time. The dissonance about it is the semitone cluster, and the
resolution is the bringing back of the the tonal centre the Ab taking
us home into Fminor again.
After the artist has spent sufficient time on just those 4 notes, he/she
may want to continue the development by way of introduction of another
colour ! By now if you're still reading this far through, and you tried
some of the visualisation exercises earlier, I'm convinced that you are
thinking more open, and possibly even in colours, washes and shades.
Lets then choose our new colour note, though not by the traditional way
of "The X note of the scale works on Fminor7, so I'll use that now", but
rather "Which colour, actual colour, would I like to add to my wash of
Considering solely the actual colour I see (not considering yet whether
the note would traditionally work on Fminor7), I would like to add
yellow !. So far I have been playing a wash of dark turquoise, and I
feel that yellow will add some light, starkness, surprise and tension to
the feeling the 4 notes I used already had generated. So what is yellow?
Yellow for me is an E natural. For me, the effect the colour yellow
would have on the shade already present (as described in the previous
paragraph) is similar to the effect that E would have in an Fminor 7
chord to me adding an E would add starkness (the brightness of the
actual note E), the surprise (as our ears would be expecting an Eb), and
the tension of the E as the leading note of F.
The E also opens up a new harmonic door for the improviser to create in.
Introducing the E, along with the Ab, Bb and D already there, opens up
Whole-Tone harmony. The E Whole-Tone scale comprises E, F#, Ab, Bb, C, D
and E again. If we let go the G we were playing before, then we could
effectively hint at the E Whole-Tone scale. Who would have thought off
the cuff of using the E Whole-Tone scale over Fminor7, but as a result
of our new way of thinking, we have gone down a different creative
pathway and hence arrived somewhere new.
These 4 new notes together E, Ab, Bb and D is a nice shape in itself.
It comprises 2x Major 3rd intervals (E Ab and Bb D), and has a tone
in the middle (Ab Bb). As well, the 2x Major 3rd intervals are a
tri-tone apart from each other. E Bb is a tri-tone, as well is D-Ab.
These 4 notes could even be grouped as two tri-tone intervals that are a
tone apart ! The different sounds and harmonic shapes these combinations
create are really interesting hip and modern !
Are you still asking yourself though whether that E works on an Fminor7
chord? Even without the discussion of physical colour we have had, there
are still plenty of harmonic truths why the E will work. It is part of
the F be-bop scale, the E being a passing note between the F and Eb, it
is the leading note to the key of F, and if no other reason, it's a
fresh new sound introduced into the harmonic landscape.
So where are we going with this? The point here is not necessarily to
show you some new ideas on Fminor7, but certainly for you to see that
there can be no-end to the different colours and combinations of colours
added to a chord, and the creative avenues they open up. But most of
all, I hope I've shown you that this can be accessed by thinking of the
colour notes in the scale as an artist would think about his colours on
his palette. You may already be able to visualise colours with your
notes, and if so, try choosing a colour note by its colour that you see,
and mixing it with the colours already out there in your solo you'd be
surprised how good that may sound. Perhaps even, be free to choose even
just a select few and create a landscape of colour just through those.
But you may say "All very artistic, but am I truly soloing on Fminor7
Well, you are now at the place of transition from playing inside the
safety net of scale and chordal notes to being able to create a new
landscape of colour. You are stepping into something unknown. You are
entering the world of subtlety, nuance, light, shade and emotion. You
are entering the world of journey, development, and creation and
renaissance yes, rebirth. The notes in the harmonic scale haven't
changed in hundreds of years, but you now have a new access to create
something fresh, something unique, something you.
© 2009 Matt Baker
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sometimes I actually play the blues
Posted by sean wayland on Thu 17/09/2009
Blaine Whittaker saxophonist... I have musical key synesthesia..ok so here's the deal..for me,that is. It differs between synesthetes but there can be similarities.
F-green (army green),
F#-light green (lime),
G-sky blue, Ab-red/brown,
A-brown/black (A minor-red/black),
B-white/clear (like perspex),
The minor keys are all darker shades of the same.
I also have it with the months of the year. Sept-blue Nov-orange Dec-yellow March-brown etc.
Jeez- now I sound like a nut!
Posted by Blaine Whittaker on Wed 16/09/2009
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