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Point of View 

We asked prominent Australian jazz pianist Matt Baker
to answer the following question...

Matt Baker

September 2009

The Question:
Can Musicians approach Harmonic Colour like an Artist does his Paints?

Response by Matt Baker share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

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 – light silver/grey
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 fine.

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 palette.
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 answer.
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 different direction).
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 other.
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 turquoise?".
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.

Matt Baker

© 2009 Matt Baker

Have Your Say
Scroll down the page to post your comments.

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. D-yellow, Eb-grey, E-black, F-green (army green), F#-light green (lime), G-sky blue, Ab-red/brown, A-brown/black (A minor-red/black), Bb-whisper white, B-white/clear (like perspex), C-brownie/grey, C#-pinkie/brown/tan. 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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