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January 06, 2009

"Round Midnight" - Part II. The First 12 Seconds

By: Bernard Chazelle

Back from a short trip, I am now ready to put the first 8 measures of Round Midnight under the microscope. A sterile exercise perhaps, but a nice break from math and from the Gaza abattoir news feed. Part I is here.

Round Midnight's intro is attributed to Dizzy Gillespie. The tune's head follows a call-and-response style. It uses a technique Bach had already mastered, which is to take a short melodic phrase and repeat endless variants of it over various chord progressions (eg, Bach's Chaconne or Goldberg Variations). Monk plays this in Ebm. It's a great jazz key but its 6 flats make notation cumbersome, so I'll transpose the music one half-step up to Em. It is the relative minor of G, which has only one accidental (F sharp): its scale is E,F#,G,A,B,C,D. Any deviation from that scale in RM will need explaining.

If you hum Round Midnight this is what you'll hear: B-E-F#-B-G... In measure 1 (0:32), you hum it starting on B as above -- Charlie Rouse seems to raise the F# but never mind -- in measure 5 (0:39) you do it starting on E, ie shifted by 3 steps; in measure 9 (0:45), you do it starting on A, ie, shifted again by 3 steps. What you're doing is moving up in fourths (remember there are 3 intervals between 4 trees... that's why we call it a 4th). The last 4 bars bring us back home through a turnaround. I'll confine the discussion to the first 8 bars of this 16-bar head. Note that you don't literally "shift" the music 3 steps up: the melody follows the arpeggios of the chords, so the intervals will vary accordingly but the motion will be the same. This sense of repetition is, as is so often the case, crucial to the tune.

Let's talk about the walking bass line (the pianist's left hand) over the first iteration of the melody in bars 1-4 (0:32-0:38). It descends chromatically from the tonic E, ie, by increments of semitones (E, Eb, D, etc). Pop music fans among you will have seen this before. For example, it's the main hook in Dylan's Ballad of a thin man. Or, for a "major key" version of it, take the Beatles song Something. If you remember, the verse goes like this:

(C) Something in the way she (CMaj7) moves
(C7) Attracts me like no other (F) lover...

The whole point of the chord sequence is that it goes from I to IV through a chromatic descent: we get C from the C chord, then B from the CMaj7 chord, then Bb from the C7 chord, then A from the F chord (the 4th). So you get
C-B-Bb-A, going down one semitone each time. Later, the Beatles reprise the chromatic run over the relative minor of C, which gives you over Am: A-Ab-G, etc. Another famous example is Eleanor Rigby, where the tune descends chromatically from the flatted 7th in Em. These are music cliches. The thing is, what do you do with them?


To figure out what Monk does, we must go back to the cycle of fifths, the 12-sided polygon on which all Western music is based. Let's talk about keys or, rather, tonal centers. What's a tonal center? It's a sound you could survive if the planet blew up at that instant. In other words, it's a sound that's not trying to escape -- it's a place to rest. In Round Midnight and Eleanor Rigby, Em is a place to rest. In Something it is C. At some point in that song, the Beatles land in Eb and want to go back to C (the original tonal center). They play the sequence G7-C, which is how Bach would do it. There are several reasons for this that are important to understand. The first one is that G precedes C in the cycle of fifths and playing such counterclockwise motion will always sound good.

But this is not enough because G sounds like a good place to rest and does not compel us to go to C. If you add a flatted 7th, however, your head will explode unless you immediately move one step counterclockwise. So if you hear G7 you must hear C at once or else you'll invade Iran. Why is that flatted 7th degree so important to create motion? The basic chord of G is the triad G-B-D. With the 7th you get G-B-D-F; note that all the notes are in the key of C (but not in the key of G! So you're playing a chord of G with a note, F, that is not in its key. How weird can that be??). So let's extract the B and the F and consider the interval B-F on its own. This "tritone" is dissonant, so if you hear it you'll be begging on your knees for the pain to stop. But notice how B-F sandwiches the major third of the C chord (ie, the interval that creates a C chord), C-E, from the top (F) and the bottom B. In other words when you play B-F and then C-E you squeeze into the C chord from both sides in contrary motion. This is the most compelling sense of motion you can create in Western music. So the Beatles give us a contrary motion from G7 to C (extra points to the readers who can see why they also give us a contrary motion from Eb to G7). The tritone is a unique interval. Its characteristic property is that its inversion is also a tritone: if you play F-B instead of B-F you still get a tritone because there are 6 semitones from F to B, just as there are 6 semitones from B to F. No other interval has this property. (Proof: 12/2=6. QED) This opens the door to chord substitutions (more on this below). To summarize, the G7 to C transition is compelling for 3 reasons:

1. Moving ccw around the cycle is always good;
2. The tritone B-F is dissonant and begs for a resolution.
3. The tritone is a sandwich around the new tonal center whose major third is led into by the contrary motion: "B goes to B plus one semitone"; "F goes to F minus one semitone."

The chord G7 is called the dominant 7th of C. In jazz, the surest way to know which key/tonal center you're in is to spot your dominant sevenths. Looking for roots is often hopeless, ie, don't wait for a C to conclude that your tonal center is C. Look out for a G7! In jazz, roots should be "seen" but not heard. Country music tells stories with roots: jazz does not.

One final word about tritones. They allow you to substitute chords. Remember how G7 takes you to C? Now inside G7, extract the tritone B-F and invert it. You get the other tritone F-B. Now ask yourself, is there a dominant 7th chord for which F-B is the tritone. Yes, indeed! Try C#7: its 3rd is F and its flatted 7th is B. Bingo. So now you can use C#7 instead of G7 to lead into C. I bet rhythm people came up with this. Because the benefit of "from C#7 to C" over "from G7 to C" is that it leads you to C chromatically. In fact tritones allow you to run all around the cycle of 5th chromatically. The (late) great guitarist Danny Gatton used to say this should be the first thing any guitar player should learn. It is indeed such an important idea in jazz I invite you to reread this paragraph until you understand it (or fall asleep on your keyboard, whichever comes first).

Now back to Monk. I lied when I wrote that he repeats the same melody in measure 5. Well, not quite. If he did, he would play E-G-B-D-C. But instead he plays E-G-B-D-C#. The sharp adds a major tone to the sound. Note that C# is not in our key (E,F#,G,A,B,C,D), so there's an implied modulation (ie, key change) - in this case to A. This is one of the many technical strokes of genius in Round Midnight, so it's worth exploring it in some detail. The C# is there to call our attention to the fact that we're about to change keys. So our ear is now prepared. Monk gives us one of the most gorgeous modulations you'll ever hear. This is the chord sequence:

Em-Em6-Cm7-F7-Bm7-E7-Am at (0:40-0:44)

Monk arpeggioes his way through it a la John Lewis: 4 seconds of musical perfection.

Let's analyze this extraordinarily beautiful progression by proceeding backwards. But first a few words about Em-Em6. The 6th of Em is C#, which hints at the A chord to come. It's very common to play the 6th over a minor root chord in jazz-flavored blues. Chicago blues is almost never played over minor keys (Otis Rush being an exception), but in jazz, minor blues are very common, and there you'll hear tons of sixths. It is said that John Lennon (definitely not a blues guy) "discovered" the 6th around the time of the White Album and couldn't let go of it. If true, it's quite hilarious.

OK, let's take Monk's progression in reverse. The E7-Am transition is what we explained earlier: to get to A (or Am), play its dominant 7th (ie, E7). This is a modulation (or what classical music theorists would call "tonicization" on NPR but who in the world can pronounce that word?). Em was the place to rest and Am was just its nice minor 4th. Monk wants to change that by promoting the A to tonal center status. It's the way he goes about it that's so cool. Classic rock would go from Em to E7 without a fuss. But Monk operates in a different world. You see, Monk is modern in ways rock is not. People often fail to appreciate that if you remove the blues from rock & roll you're left with pre-20th century music. Mozart would find not a single new idea in the Beatles's music, but he would have to be very intrigued by the novelty of Monk (and for that matter of Robert Johnson). Beatles tunes are Schubert lieder with drums and simplified harmonies. But Monk made a serious effort to integrate European modernism with the blues. (Fusion tried to do that, too, but in my view failed miserably.)

Monk has a specific goal in mind in bars 7-8 (0:40-0:44). He wants to leave Em to land in Am in bar 9. As a bebopper, he wants you to think of Em as the left side of a Persian rug and Am as the right side. Now in between you've got to build a Persion rug, an extremely elegant, beautiful, intricate, clever threading of colors. Now you could connect the left and right side with a random mess of colored threads and call it a Persian rug. But it would be crap. Or you can do it in neat, simple ways, like Scandinavian furniture. You would end up with the Beatles or Pink Floyd. Well crafted but harmonically banal. Bebop is after Persian rugs, not IKEA doormats.

Let's continue backwards: Cm7-F7-Bm7-E7-Am. Why Bm7? Because B precedes E in the cycle of 5ths. It is the second degree of the scale (A is 1, B is 2). So Bm7-E7-A gives us the progression II,V,I, which is the most famous cadence in Western music. The II is minor (hence often denoted ii). Why? In the key of A, the scale is A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G#,A. Chords are formed by stacking thirds on top of the root. If you start from B and pick up the 3rd you get B-D. But there are only 3 semitones between B and D, so that third is minor (major thirds have 4 of them). If you play the A scale over a Bm chord you get the famous Dorian mode, an ancient musical concept popularized in crowd-pleasing tracks like "Eleanor Rigby" and "So What." (But no need to digress into modal music now.)

So we've figured Bm7-E7-Am. What about Cm7-F7-Bm7-E7-Am? Ah, that's where true genius kicks in. The wrong answer is to say: Hey, Cm7-F7 is the same as Bm7-E7 only one half-step up, so same parallel idea. Done. I am not saying this parallelism should be discounted. It is part of the overall effect. But I am quite certain Monk had a more sophisticated motivation. After all, there are lots of parallel approaches. Why this one?

Look at Bm7 and ask yourself what's its 5th? (ie, next clockwise on the cycle). Look up the cycle and you'll see it's Gb. Same as F# (well, at least on a piano). So why not play F#7 to lead to B7. From there we could go to minor Bm7 and then on to E7-Am, and call it a day. What I am saying is that, instead of Em-Em6-Cm7-F7-Bm7-E7-Am, we could play Em-Em6-F#7-B7-Bm7-E7-Am.

It's OK but it doesn't sound nearly as nice. So let's go all bebop on that one and use chord substitution. Jump inside the B7 chord and extract its tritone, ie, the 3rd and the flatted 7th (Eb-A). Now reverse the order, A-Eb, and find the dominant 7th with that tritone. That's F7. So we can use F7 to lead to Bm7. Now, go one more clockwise step around the cycle from F and get C. We need it minor because you remember the business about minor 2nd, Dorian, etc. So here we have it in its full glory:

1. Cm7 (V of F).
2. F7 (chord substitution for the V of the V of our target A).
3. Bm7 (the ii of our target A).
4. E7 (the V of our target A).

That covers the first 12 seconds of Round Midnight.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at January 6, 2009 02:23 PM

man i wish i understood this stuff. my head hurts.

Posted by: sloweducation at January 6, 2009 05:43 PM

if you remove the blues from rock & roll you're left with pre-20th century music.

Yes, rock is actually much closer to classical music than jazz. Proof? In rock music the strong beats in a measure of 4/4 are 1 and 3 as is the case with classical music while in jazz in a measure of 4/4 the strong beats are on 2 and 4.

I might add that the reason for the use of tri-tone substitutions is for adding color to the chord progression. That is to say it relieves a chord progression from monotony. As you say the II- /V7/ I chord progression is the most common progression in western music, you hear it all the time, but when you add a substitute chord it surprises the ear which is pleasing and adds interest to the song.

A note (no pun intended) on song analysis is that there are differences in they way you approach analysis from a compositional perspective and that of a improv perspective. For one thing a key signature given at the beginning of a song is helpful for writing the song out as you don’t have to spend time writing in all those accidentals. But from an improv perspective the key signature is useless because most songs modulate to different keys. So it would be a mistake to look at the key signature and believe that one could play in that key throughout the song. The drummer might toss a cymbal your way if you did.

In bebop (I hate that name) an improviser will add his/her own substitutes to keep things more interesting for them and the audience. For example on V7 chord the musician could substitute a triad built on the flat 5 in the case of G7 that would be Db-F-Ab or a triad built on the dominant 7 which in the case of G7 would be F-Ab-C (notice this is a minor triad as opposed to the Db sub which is a major triad) and a third substitute for G7 would be a triad based on the flat 9 which gives you Ab-C-Eb (a major triad). Notice that all three substitutes share many of the same notes and indeed you can mix different substitutes together as well. Remember that the piano would still be playing the chord progression as written otherwise these substitutes would no longer be substitutes if the pianist played the same substitutes as the improviser. Also the II minor and the G7 are totally interchangeable the main thing being is you have dissonance leading to consonance which is what the II-/V7/I is all about. In composition the analysis relates everything back to the tonic of the song which would be Eb minor for Round Midnight but the improviser relates everything to the II-/V7/I because it establishes where the modulations are. By the way for the improviser if they really know what they are doing uses the chord tones as points of rest while all the other notes are leading tones generally. For example, when you end a musical phrase it is most common to end it on a chord tone because if you end on a non chord tone you are implying a different key. This is why when you insert your own chord substitutes you usually do it when you have a V7 leading to its perfect tonic as in G7-C which is also why the substitute usually occurs in the second half of a bar rather than at the beginning but not always. And to make the transition more musical you approach the substitute from a chord tone of the original chord to the chord tone of the substitute with a half step. For example with G7 you might play it like this D-C-B-D-Db-F-Ab-Db which naturally resolves to C of the perfect tonic (C major).

Another feature that is common from an improv perspective is that when you have II-/V7/I in a minor key beboppers would lower the fifth of the II minor chord by one half step as well as lowering the nine. They would also lower the sixth and the nine one half step on the V7 chord that leads to a tonic minor. Notice that this gives you essentially a harmonic minor scale when you do this which makes sense because the tonic is a minor key. Beboppers would also utilize this when going to a perfect tonic as well.

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 6, 2009 07:28 PM

I did not even try to read the post. I KNOW, I would not have understood a single word. I just listen to the beautiful music and enjoy it.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 6, 2009 07:35 PM

tim: you're asking a very good question. In the end it's not how much theory they learned but how much genius they had. In the case of Robert Johnson, I believe he worked on top of an oral/aural tradition that was extremely sophisticated. It's ironic that the history of the blues is its primitivization: Chicago blues is much more "primitive" than its "Delta" version.

Beboppers were very highly educated musically. Even a classical guy like Benny Goodman couldn't keep up. By this I mean he simply didn't have the theory chops. I have recordings where you hear both Goodman and Charlie Christian. And Christian (hardly the most advanced bebopper) is about 10 years ahead of Goodman harmonically. Coltrane was a theoretical monster: he could play absolutely anything. Because he studied like a madman.
And that you have to learn. No way you can do it by ear, no matter how great you are.

Beboppers used their sophistication as a repellent. Monk's "Epistrophy" was composed almost entirely for that purpose, ie, to kick out swing-era players from the clubs because they couldn't find their way through that music.

Monk and Mingus were as harmonically sophisticated as any European composer of that time, I believe.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 6, 2009 07:38 PM

Great comments, Rob! If the only effect of my post was to entice you to share these thoughts with us, then the exercise was entirely worth my while.

The drummer might toss a cymbal your way if you did.

For those who didn't pick up the reference, I believe this is about Jo Jones humiliating Bird in a jam session by throwing a cymbal at his feet.

Which by the way was perhaps the best thing that happened to Bird.

There's also a saying that Monk made his music difficult to force players to show their A game.
(No idea why I remember all this useless trivia.)

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 6, 2009 07:56 PM

Well thanks for posting your essay on Round Midnight. It was fun to read and makes you put your thinking cap on. Yes, that was a reference to Bird and Jo Jones. If I remember correctly Bird had learned how to play over a certain tune and being a young inexperienced player he thought you could play that over any tune. But yes, it certainly was the best thing that happened to him. Jazz was never the same!

Posted by: Rob Payne at January 6, 2009 08:26 PM

Gosh! What I would give to be part of this conversation!

Posted by: Rupa Shah at January 6, 2009 08:44 PM

So what's the scoop with harmolodics?

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at January 6, 2009 09:44 PM

Bob: I haven't really figured out Ornette Coleman. On the one hand the guy has a deep understanding of the blues (and gospel) and he's been incredibly innovative and brilliant (and enormously influential). No doubt about that. His free jazz compositions can be fascinating. But compared with Mingus or Monk his music can also sound simplistic.

But I do admire him enormously. Because he is the essence of jazz, the most innovative art form ever. And I mean this literally. To toss it all aside and start anew has always been the essence of jazz. The range covered by jazz in 100 years is unmatched in its diversity. And Coleman epitomizes that. I mean, those guys are soooo gutsy! In rock, sure you have people like Zappa and Bowie who try all sorts of things, but Pink Floyd have written really only one song, and covered it in 1000 (slightly different) ways.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 6, 2009 10:28 PM

I suppose it's common sense. I could write a computer program, and many would consider it magic. Yet I still view something like a highly studied musician playing as magic myself, even when I should know better.

but Pink Floyd have written really only one song, and covered it in 1000 (slightly different) ways.
I doth protest muchly. We must be working from different definition of 'song'. I don't have the musical knowledge (much improved by this post though) to try and argue the point, but I just don't see it. (And I tried!)

Posted by: tim at January 6, 2009 10:54 PM

I havent had time to read this post yet but I wanted to take a second to mention how much I appreciate your music posts. Consistently very very interesting & informative. Thanks.

Posted by: Guest at January 7, 2009 12:54 AM

Tim: First off, I love Pink Floyd, and I hope to blog about some of their songs some day. Probably, Shine on You crazy Diamond, which is a guitarist's dream tune.

What I mean is that all their songs (with no exception I am aware of -- and I've played dozens and dozens of their songs in my various rock bands) have the same constructions. One you've mastered one you've mastered them all. In some sense they are really all the same song. In fact I can't think of any rock band that has been so consistent.

Jimi Hendrix is the polar opposite. Every tune (for a guitarist anyway) is a new challenge.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 7, 2009 01:03 AM

How is this a break from math? ;)

Posted by: l.rodrigues at January 7, 2009 09:23 AM

No, I'm not sure I understand what you just wrote, but I suspect that if I did, I'd better understand why I like complex remixes and layered electronic music, most of which I now suspect are just baroque versions of the composing strategies you're writing about.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at January 7, 2009 11:53 AM

Hi Bernard,

Love ATR...Look at it everyday for political insight and such..required reading IMHO!! This is my first post.

Being a guitar player-see my email address for a clue on this!!- for over 25 years I was very interested and fascinated in your comments...You are obviously well schooled musically and I assume you are a guitar player. I found your comments about Jimi Hendrix interesting and I am not quite sure what you meant by them? I like Hendrix a lot but more as a rhythm player than a lead player which most people find shocking when i tell them that!! His lead work, for me, was often sloppy though I admit it was ahead of its time, even though he mostly played the minor pentatonic and the blues scale which was common of most guitarists of his time..I like someone like Jeff Beck more...Beck to me is one the most original players in rock history...especially his later stuff which is off the charts.

Anyway keep up the good work and I look forward to more of you posts on music.-Tony

Posted by: tony at January 7, 2009 12:40 PM

Bernard, thank you for this. I love Monk, and even though the theory is tough sledding for me, it's great to get your insight on what made him tick. Your posts on music remind me of a little story Zappa tells in his book:


There were a few teachers in school who really helped me out. Mr. Kavelman, the band instructor at Mission Bay High, gave me the answer to one of the burning musical questions of my youth. I came to him one day with a copy of Angel in My Life -- my favorite R&B tune at the time. I couldn't understand why I loved that record so much, but I figured that, since he was a music teacher, maybe he knew.

"Listen to this," I said, "and tell me why I like it so much."

"Parallel fourths," he concluded.


Posted by: Chris E. at January 7, 2009 05:05 PM