Thelonius Monk's Harmony Musical Analysis

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 4)

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 4)

Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Techniques and Events in Texture and Harmony. Download Monk’s sheet music and transcriptions from our Library.

Some layers of events do promote continuity in ISC. The original melody is always present in the uppermost note of Monk’s right hand, albeit with occasional octave displacement and with limited embellishments such as minor changes in rhythm or inserted arpeggios. With the sole exception of m. 3, we can identify downbeats in Monk’s performance by the attacks of new har-monies that mark the corresponding downbeats in the lead sheet. Save for mm. 1, 11, 15, 16, 17, and the extended “measures” “29,30 and 31” these are built from shell voicings in which the root plus the seventh immediately above it are the lowest notes heard. These first-beat events track the series of harmonies, and, remembering the tune, we understand the varying times between them to represent equal durations. They ought to help us entrain a meter but do not, due to slow tempo and rubato. Some measures (such as 2 and 4) contain little or nothing more than one of these events, sustained until the next one.

Seen differently, it is because of the rubato that these first-beat moments interact with others to become reference points on the discontinuous sound-scape. Monk paints them with many refi ned techniques that the ear can distinguish and type. They can be understood in terms of how they are shaped by pianism and texture from one perspective, and as voicings from another.
These techniques of pianism and texture are presented below in ascending order of how much discontinuity and contrast they create:

• Register changes. Monk plays the melody in parallel octaves emphasizing the tune’s sixteen-measure parallel structure at mm. 1-2 and 17-18
(foreshadowed at 15-16) and again nearing the conclusion at mm.28-30.” (Mm. 17, 28, and “30” are doubly marked with added tremolo.) The registral acme and nadir of the whole song are linked via the whole-tone run later in m. “30.”

• Arpeggios (fast and slow). Monk inserts this insouciant cocktail piano flourish at mm. 5, 17, 20, 21, and “29.” He uses triad and seventh-chord collections except at m. 20, where he pointedly avoids the root and fifth in keeping with the voicing on the first beat of the measure. A slow arpeggio on the single tone Bb sets the stage for m. “29.”
• Surfacing an inner voice. Beginning with m. 6 and reemerging in mm. 10, 12, 14, 18 and 22, chromatic lines are brought out during moments of repose in the main melody. Presented fi rst as parallel voicings, the tenor line within them is the most independent, venturing forth alone at mm. 12, 14 and 18.

• Attack-sustain. A signature Monkism is to sharply attack a voicing containing a second, tritone, or seventh, and immediately release one or more tones to leave the rest sustaining. The technique stands out vividly and is closely linked to the voicing of clusters (below). It is fi rst heard at m. 6, where the A–B major ninth stands out, and then at m. 8, where, in the first chord, the sustained G is part of the melody, but in the second chord the sustained Db is an inner voice. In mm. 9 and 11 both tones involved (G and F# ) are part of the melody, whereas in m. 13 both melody and an inner voice tone remain. The sustained A# over Bm7 (a #7 in a minor seventh chord) at m. 27 spotlights this pivotal dissonant note from the original tune. A series of fi ve attack-sustain chords concludes the performance, beginning at m. “31.”

Figure 4.7a illustrates how this technique and the previous one conspire to highlight a special contrapuntal, inner-voice activity. Monk carefully leads the sustained G–Db tritone, introduced one note at a time in m. 8, stepwise down the linear distance of a tritone to the same two tones, inverted and played as a vertical interval in m. 16. We hear the lower of the two voices against ISC ’s melody in the upper until m. 16’s exposed Db , which completes the descent alone just before the melody itself vaults upward. Figure 4.7b is an example of an opposite technique: disjunct, tonally disorienting voice leading. A peculiar “nontonal” descending line, D–A# –F# –Eb –B, is brought out from m. “31” to the end; its bass support, D–B–C–Eb –D, is equally odd. Together they endure a series of pouncing attack-sustain chords. Monk is here singling out important prior moments for our re-consideration, frozen in reverse order and decontextualized.

The bass is silenced just as the A# in the line, and the voicing that introduces it, reconfi rm the significance Monk imputes to m. 27; the next event recalls the third beat of m. 8. The last two chords bring back sustained bass for the b II–I cadence, but with crunching voicings new to the performance, and reserved for its austere conclusion.
The following voicing techniques are ordered by increasing density and dissonance:

• Single tones and silence. Rare moments are reserved for withholding voicings on downbeats. An unadorned root tone played low on the keyboard is the very fi rst sound we hear, creating a powerful solo bass stratum that returns only at m. 28, on the last beat of m. “30,” the
“third beat of m. 32,” and at the very end. The sequence of these unaccompanied roots, E–Bb –A–Eb –D, supports a ii–V–I progression with two inserted tritone substitutions: an essence of jazz harmony. Measure 3, meanwhile, begins silently. Since mm. 3-4 repeat the chords of mm. 1-2, the silence retrospectively calls attention to the bass tone of
m. I, while throwing us off the scent of rhythmic regularity.
• Seventh-chord voicings, some with doublings and omissions. On beats 1 and 3, Monk often uses voicings consisting only of an unadorned

Figure 4.7a. Linear motion by tritone, mm.8-16.

thelonious monk sheet music
thelonious monk sheet music

complete seventh chord (mm. 7, 9, 11, 19, 23, 24, and 29, beats 1 and 3). Peterson or Evans might have played these, and their ordinariness gives them a quality of repose. Sometimes Monk omits one or more tones for a stringent sound (mm. 5, 13, 15), and sometimes he omits the third or fifth but doubles the seventh, a biting Monk sonority (mm. 2, 4, 12, 18, 20, 21). The fifth chord in the concluding attack-sustain series omits the seventh of DM7 and adds only the sixth (B).

• Voicings with avoid tones and other dissonance. Monk creates special dissonance by including avoid tones, sometimes omitting essential ones simultaneously. The voicing of A7 at the end m. 3 contains the avoid tone D. The motion over the bar line to DM7 is additionally grating because the seventh of the first voicing, G, moves by a tritone to C# instead of resolving downward, forming a bare octave C# with the melody. The abrasive voicing at m. 8 contains both the seventh (F) and #seventh (F# ) of its minor seventh chord; the latter note rubs up against the root (G). A similar situation obtains at mm. 27, “31, beat 3,” and “32, beat 3.”

• Whole-tone voicings. Monk loved the two whole-tone scales
(CDEF# G# Bb and C# D# FGAB), and a whole-tone voicing consisting of a dominant seventh chord with a fl at fifth. This chord is made up of two tritones a major third apart, and as fi gure 4.7c shows, when transposed by a tritone the pitch content does not change. With this chord it is not a matter of choosing whether to use V7 or its tritone substitution, for the two are now (enharmonically) equivalent. Measures 6, 10 (beat 3), 15, 16, 22 (minus the A# ), 26, and 28 include voicings like this. But even with this preparation, we are not quite ready for the thick whole-tone voicing at m. “30” with its triple C#.

Though we have identifi ed this region as functionally dominant harmony, when we first hear the voicing it is ambiguous: the G–C# tritone is down uncharacteristically low, and there is no root or shell as there is in most other places in ISC. Then, when Monk starts swinging the right hand, a lonely solo line suggesting a C7# harmony, we feel blindsided. This is a more conceptual kind of dissonance. Suspended in rubato, the irony of this nod to conventional jazz at the most tonally and temporally remote moment makes it the climax of the performance. The ensuing whole-tone run jolts us back to reality—Monk’s reality, that is.

Tone clusters. The very first right-hand sound we hear contains a tart cluster of the root, third, seventh, and ninth of the Em7 chord. On the third beat of m. 8, Monk lassoes the root, third, seventh, b ninth, and # ninth of C7, omitting some tones in the parallel return at m. 25.

In all, Monk’s voicings range from pure triads (unique to the final two sounds we hear) to plain seventh chords, attack-sustain events, and thornier constellations, all the way to clusters (m. 1). That these extremes are manifest at the opening and closing of the piece makes the point a bit too neatly: this is a constructed, conscious effort, a dissonance continuum that is a dimensional extension of the idea of the chord change itself. He bobs and weaves across this terrain, tracing an unpredictable path. Few com-posers in any idiom roam so widely in so short a span of time between understood areas of consonance and dissonance, developing timbre as a compositional parameter. That Monk manages this movingly in a standard tune is miraculous.

Monk works some of his signature gestures, such as whole-tone runs, into almost every performance of almost every tune. Then there are certain chords or gestures that he clearly associates with specific songs —accessories, if you will— but that he uses in different locations within the performance. The distinctive chords in mm. “31-32,” for example, are the introduction to his first recording of ISC, on his 1947 Blue Note debut. In both cases they are used once and only once, either as coda or introduction; in other words, for Monk these particular chords and voicings are associated exclusively with ISC, even though they have little to do with the tune’s chord changes. This practice is not necessarily exclusive to Monk, but in combination with the distinctive nature of the gestures themselves, it is a considerable factor in distinguishing his style.

Figure 4.8 illustrates all the aforementioned techniques in two ways: evenly distributed in relation to the thirty-two-measure form, and in a quite different distribution in proportional clock time. Vertical alignments of events are linked to notated beats in the upper matrices and seconds in the lower. In the first pair of matrices, the two representations of mm. 1-16 (0:00 to 1:17) are juxtaposed; the next pair shows mm. 17-32 and the ending. The latter pair of matrices is widened in deference to the extended duration of the passage, though this causes measure width to be different from in the upper pair.

thelonious monk sheet music

A Note on Monk’s Style.

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Tracing Monk’s approach over his complete career and repertoire, one will hear the same melodies and chord voicings in the same contexts, over and over again. In almost every case, he’s “figured out” what to do and simply applies it to each version. Yet his playing sounds spontaneous, and this tossed off , vernacular feel contributes to the music’s deep empathy and all-too-human charm. Pinning this feeling down to a quantifi able list of attributes or abstracting it to an underlying aesthetic is a large task. It may have something to do with “cool,” and perhaps with some notion—to borrow a phrase from a different genre—of “keeping it real.” Making it seem loose, even by calculation, is a way of connecting with the listener, reminding us that behind the sound there is a human deciding what notes to strike (hence the hesitations in ISC, even when multiple takes reveal that Monk knew exactly what chord he would play next), and risking a wrong note every time he strikes them.

We empathize with the feeling of risk and hence take pleasure when he plays the “right wrong notes,” which range from deliberate attack-sustain tones to actual wrong notes —for without the spontaneous risk of these, a “right wrong note” is just a composed-in dissonance. No better demonstration of this can be imagined than the recently released first take of the Riverside ISC, which begins with twelve—twelve!—attempts at an opening arpeggio, all slightly different, all equally “spontaneous” yet calculated, and all unsatisfactory to Monk.

Th ere is a doggedness to Monk’s sui generis formulations—the dissonance continuum and signature gestures—that is hard to wrap one’s mind around. How is it possible that Monk could fi x on a particular, individuated way of playing a three-minute tune in 1947 —distinctive, crystal clear, and packed with formal logic and creativity—and then stick to it for twenty-fi ve years? How did Monk arrive on the scene with such individuality—one can hear the whole-tone scales even on recently unearthed live recordings from the early 1940s—and then maintain it, intact and unchanging, for his entire career? Why do none of his versions change over time? Where did it all come from?

Jazz and World Music, Monk and Personal Musicianship

These unanswerable questions are compounded and enriched by reflecting on jazz as twentieth-century America’s underdog in the realms of musical legitimacy and hybridism. For decades its creative development was hidden in plain sight. It occupied a position with respect to Western music’s institutions and structures of power analogous to the one that many of the contributions to this book (plus its predecessor and other similar writings) occupy with respect to the practice of music analysis generally. Then things changed.

Following decades of exclusion, jazz’s ultimate inclusion in the academic canons of musical value let the cat out of the bag in that world, implicitly affirming openness to all music. As jazz led the way, it gradually penetrated the awareness even of musicians who do not practice it, as other world traditions do today. It is a vehicle for the individual’s quest for self-realization. Its irreducibly hybrid origins offered a paradigm for viewing any music, if not people and social relations. We now have decades’ worth of neohybrids involving jazz and other world music, and generations at home in both jazz and other traditions. If jazz and other African-American musics had not long ago made the case for this evolution, would other traditions have been in a position to do so since? Jazz has made us more musical than we thought we could be.

The problems raised by Monk, however, transcend these issues in a way that we can suggest by recounting a transformational moment we shared. In the late 70s, European art music was just beginning to emerge from its post-war hyper-modernist isolation. At that time, Robert Moore, our composition teacher, taught a course called “American Experimentalists,” in which he cited Monk and composer Steve Reich in the same breath as in a special category among the most important musicians of the century (to date). Coming from professor back then, this link struck us as brazenly counter-hegemonic, and also a cosmic truth. He said it was their indiff erence to traditional virtuosity, combined with intense desire to perform, that forced them to be visionaries and use their minds to invent ways to bend the tradition in their directions.

There are examples of similar outsider-inspired change in other cultures. It is certainly the case that musicianship with the power to transform is more in the mind and spirit than it is in the hands or throat. And this is both unsettling and inspiring because it deflects back to each listener that the necessity of finding a concept, both a general sensibility and a specifi c idea to be developed, that can define the self and contribute to the world. But Monk had already made that clear to the two of us in sheer sound, from the instant we first heard him.

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane (1961) (Full Album)

Thelonius Monk's Harmony Musical Analysis

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 3)

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 3)

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Rhythm and Pianism


The rhythmic traits for which jazz is known and at which it excels—groove, swing, speed, heat, cool, polyrhythm, conversational interaction among players, dense and irregular improvised motives and phrases, antiphonal call and response, and more—are all but absent in ISC. Most modern jazz group performance emphasizes strict periodicity with terrific forward momentum created by players’ rhythmically propulsive contributions. Formidable mastery, poise, and virtuosity are needed to play.

Tempi are characteristically either fast enough to scare off would-be pretenders, or, just as daringly, cooled off to an unruffled “ballad” speed, and steady in either case. The metric backbone is the succession of harmonies with the beat usually actualized and propelled by the walking quarter notes of the bass and the drums’ “ride” cymbal. Though harmonies change on measure downbeats and sometimes middles, the beats in between—beats and in a four-beat measure—are stressed to create a driving backbeat.

Solo performances and recordings are almost exclusively the provenance of pianists, who could use the left hand to simulate the roles of the rhythm section, with either walking bass lines or the evocation of earlier styles such as stride or boogie-woogie. Monk himself made extensive use of these latter techniques on his own solo records, as well as on the unaccompanied numbers that were generally included in his live sets. Solo performers such as Art Tatum would also “extemporize,” straying from steady time in introductions, quasi-cadenzas, and so on. For Monk, though, a solo ballad like ISC was an opportunity to stretch time in a far more radical manner, eschewing steady time almost completely.

Swing, an idiomatic variation of the timing of the subdivided beat, depends on underlying regularity. It involves a dynamic relationship between measured periodicity and the realm of unmeasured music, rhythmic freedom that can be implied through soloists’ styles. This dynamism in turn references a melodic vernacular—the sense that a soloist is “speaking through their horn.” Some would argue that this has to do with the lyricism of the human voice, others that it represents some kind of middle ground between a discursive, rhetorical European way of making music and a more interactive, poly-rhythmic African approach. Others might say that both are true or that it simply feels good, and that, having been discovered and developed at the turn of the twentieth century, it proved irresistible.

Monk’s ISC can be said to swing only in the colloquial sense of being compellingly musical, that is, simply because he is saying something in a distinctive way. But strictly understood, swing can exist only against a conception of steady time, and in this recording nothing keeps time.

Except fleetingly in a few spots, it is impossible to move the body in any regular pulsation to Monk’s playing. He is clearly not keeping steady time internally—or else he has a very different clock. If we listen intently for the regularity most bodies crave—and which we expect from familiarity with more standard versions of the song—we must jolt in and out of time with him. The slow regular beat of the tune’s harmonic progression remains impassively present, a law both obeyed and mocked. Monk often played solo ballads in this manner, a meditation with outbursts, with an affect both reverent and ironic. In live performance with a group, this number would be surrounded by tunes that swung hard. In other words ISC’s rubato is heard—and is meant to be heard—in terms of the absence of jazz’s most authentic rhythmic traits, and of Monk’s abandonment of them in the service of other qualities.


One of the most ergonomic inventions in human history, the piano and its eighty-eight-key action are among jazz’s essential European legacies. Its technology has empowered musical cultures as distant as Burmese and African American to adapt it to their own idioms, extending out from the panoply of European approaches to the instrument on completely unforeseen trajectories. Jazz piano’s trajectories crisscross and meld into a great tradition of their own.

No one gains entrance into the pantheon of jazz pianism without a strongly identifiable voice on the instrument. The differences among pianists are bread and butter to jazz lovers, from earlier era virtuosi like Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum through beboppers like Bud Powell and Mary Lou Williams and on to a diversity of post-bop players far too numerous to cite or describe. But, as we have said, even among these names Monk comes in at a different angle due to a tightly bound combination of pianistic idiosyncrasies, harmony, and rhythm.

Yet we cannot properly appreciate these elements outside the context of what his peers developed for the instrument.
Keyboard concept, technique, and historical currents conspire to shape pianists’ approaches. All pianists have to consider multiple aesthetic issues determining what kinds of textures to favor in developing a style.

Individual tunes suggest their own approaches, but players develop idioms that carry over from tune to tune. Voicings can be played with from one to ten fingers—or sometimes, in Monk’s case, with flattened palms. Overall motion can be dense or sparse. The hands can be independent or interdependent. One can move freely around the entire keyboard or stay closer to its more conventional, “vocal” center. Nuances of touch, phrasing, and dynamic are essential.

Piano styles also group historically. The “orchestral” ways of playing that developed in jazz’s first few decades were strongly influenced by brass band marches and ragtime, and by the fact that before World War II jazz was primarily dance music. Pianists of those years tended to provide a clear beat and full harmonic support. Some, like bandleader Count Basie, favored economy of notes and texture. In contrast, there was nothing in piano technique or harmony that Art Tatum could not execute astonishingly, nor did he hesitate to infuse most everything he played with the encyclopedia of approaches at his disposal, in all kinds of combinations and throughout the entire range of the keyboard.

Bebop was for listening, not dancing, and its speed an excuse for cutting—that is, outplaying and stumping cohorts. The competition nudged piano technique to become lighter, fleeter, and sparser. The walking bass and drums safeguarded the time so pianists needed to do less in that regard, and the bass register was to some degree forsaken. Bud Powell’s style often rested on a chassis of insistent, rhythmically irregular, somewhat grating left-hand “shells” (the root of the chord played in the bass register, plus the seventh directly above it). Jutting from below, they cut in under single-line right-hand melodies that looped around the upper two-thirds of the keyboard, equaling Charlie Parker’s saxophone lines in their density and irregular phrasing.

In the 50s, jazz cooled off, tributaries of eclectic styles blossomed, and it became necessary to know how to play in many ways. Red Garland could imitate the fast-moving close harmonies of big band saxophone sections in passages featuring thick, parallel, two-handed chords moving with melodic gestures. Wynton Kelly emphasized idiomatic blues riffs. Influences of Cuban and Brazilian styles, and of modern European composition, gradually took root. But in the main, Powell’s saxophone-like approach to the right hand prevailed, while in the left hand many developed harmonically richer voicings, deployed somewhat like Powell’s shells.

Analysis of Two Peers

Compare figure 4.4’s transcriptions of the opening of I Should Care as played by Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, two strikingly different but equally iconic pianists of the time. Peterson, stylistic and technical heir to Tatum, plays solo here with mid-range voicings of up to eight notes, some with left-hand shells, most containing all triad tones and the seventh. As mentioned earlier, he doubles the harmonic rhythm to quarter-note speed, which allows interpolation of tritone substitution dominants preparing the V and the I chords of mm. 1-2. The Eb7 at m. 1, beat 4 is voiced with a pungent #9 in addition to the seventh chord itself. Peterson exploits the hidden presence of an F# major triad within this sonority, playing it with the right hand to separate it from the Eb major triad

Figure 4.4a. Opening measures of Oscar Peterson’s version of I Should Care (transposed to D from the original key of Bb). From Soul-O!; Oscar Peterson, solo piano.
Figure 4.4b. Opening measures of Bill Evans’s version of I Should Care (transposed to D from the original key of C). From How My Heart Sings!; Bill Evans, piano, Chuck Israels, bass, and Paul Motian, drums.

Figure 4.4a and 4.4b

thelonious monk sheet music

he places in the left. The left-hand triad then slides down in parallel motion to the downbeat of m. 2, but in the right the A# moves to A while the other tones remain in place. This reveals an F# minor triad comprising the third, fifth, and seventh of the DM7. The superpositions of triads and impeccable voice leading of this chord change are of a special richness in this region of the keyboard.

Shooting up in register, the F#7 chord on the second triplet eighth of m. 2, beat V is V of the B7 chord on beat 3, itself an applied V to the Em7 of m. 3. The F#7 is notable for its #9 (A) and the #5 (D), which is perhaps there only because Peterson has omitted the fifth of the chord (C# ; see also figure 4.3, middle column and second row under “Chromatic Tones”). On the next beat, where he brings the melody to a local peak, the fifth (F#) is again omitted, but both thirteenth (G#) and b thirteenth (G) are included. This B7, voiced with the root as an afterbeat, contains additional extension tones C and F that, combined with the others, conceal G# major, F major, C minor, and A diminished triads all at once. This sequence of lavish chords, texturally full and smooth, steady and propelled in rhythm and with a legato touch, give ISC sumptuous treatment.

Evans’s bass player Chuck Israels provides all the chord roots in metrically secure positions, so rather than double them or their rhythm, the pianist parries them with the left hand, playing deft offbeat rhythmic punches that converse polyrhythmically with the right hand’s intricate embellishment of the melody. Beyond this, however, Evan’s chord structures are similar to, albeit thinner than, Peterson’s. He remains in the piano’s central register, and he is equally fastidious about voice leading: the majority of the chord-to-chord connections proceed by step.

The elegantly contoured right-hand line begins by hugging the original tune, but transforms it completely after m. 4 (while still brushing the original C, B, and A in mm. 5-7). Evans sometimes uses melody to enrich the voicings, as when A–F# –D (thirteenth, #eleventh, ninth) is heard over the C7 chord in m. 8. He also gingerly clashes with them by using avoid tones, as with the F (#7) over the F#7b5 in m. 4, or the Eb similarly related to its Em7 harmony two measures later (see figure 4.3, left column and top row under “Chromatic Tones”). In both cases, though, Evans is careful to promptly lead by step to a more consonant resolution: the former moves up to F# at the end of the measure, while the latter goes directly down to D.

As we take up analysis of Monk’s ISC, we will find that features creating continuity in these two short excerpts—stepwise motion, propulsive rhythm, mid-range voicing, and a consistent level of density and dissonance—are missing. Monk did not by any means invent the notion of favoring discontinuities in these parameters. He did not come from nowhere, and it is well established that his style is part of a lineage extending from before Duke Ellington, through Monk, and on to later figures like avantgardist Cecil Taylor, not to mention the many who deliberately emulated Monk in recent decades. To hear those connections is a project for another time that would enable a crucial historical and stylistic narrative. But to frame Monk against the prevailing, more conventionally tasteful modern jazz aesthetics illustrated by figure 4.4 is to hear him at his most inimitable and strange.

thelonious monk sheet music

Find and download Thelonious Monk’s sheet music transcriptions in our Library.

Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane (1961) (Full Album)

Thelonius Monk's Harmony Musical Analysis

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 2)

Thelonius Monk‘s sheet music transcriptions are available from our Library.

Chords and Voicings: From Lead Sheet to Performance

In modern jazz, seventh chords specified by lead sheets may appear simply as shown in figure 4.2a, but musicians rarely follow what the lead sheet specifies to the letter. Well before Thelonious Monk came on the scene, jazz pianists vied to distinguish themselves with ingenious voicings. A kind of common practice prevailed in bebop, though we emphasize that musicians can and did step outside this practice in search of particular expressions and logics. In the main, though, four complementary techniques developed, two concerning voicing as such and two concerning chord choice—what chord to play where:


• Extension and omission: addition of tones foreign to the chord proper, and/or dropping tones that are part of it
• Spacing and doubling: distribution of a voicing on the piano or among instruments in an ensemble.

Harmonic choice

• Substitution: replacement of one chord by another with equivalent function
• Insertion and deletion: increase or decrease in the rate of harmonic motion by adding to or subtracting from changes specified on the lead sheet.

Extension, omission, spacing and doubling

Figures 4.2b and 4.3 illustrate possibilities for extending minor seventh, dominant seventh, and major seventh harmonies, and apply them to the initial ii–V–I of ISC. In the first staff each chord is extended upward by thirds beyond the seventh to include the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth above the root. Each of the resulting seven-note stacks of thirds includes all notes of the D major scale. The fact that all three chords extend through the exact same pitch collections, in the same intervallic arrangement (i.e., a stack of thirds), demonstrates the fundamental role that harmonic function—and not chord or voicing—plays in determining tonal meaning in jazz.

The chords could in some cases even be voiced in identical ways, but their functional context would make them heard and understood differently. Here is a significant way in which, it seems to us, jazz harmony differs in emphasis from European practice.

To the extent that the distinction between ii, V, and I voicings blurs, what is it precisely that distinguishes their functions? The second staff shows which of the seven diatonic tones are directly involved in the progression toward and away from the V chord’s tritone.

Typically, these tones are necessary and sufficient to convey harmonic function. Surprisingly for anyone familiar with European harmony, neither the fifth nor the root of the chord are necessary; indeed these may be dropped (and possibly supplied by a bass player, but not necessarily). But in order to convey function and quality most effectively, the essential tones are typically arranged in the lower register of the voicing, with extension tones higher up.

The third staff of figure 4.2b distills the optional diatonic tones, which may be used without diluting function or quality, and the fourth staff shows how the tonic note (D) and the fourth scale step (G) are carefully avoided in the dominant and tonic chords, respectively, so as not to carry them over from the chords that precede them, which would impede the ii–V–I motion (see dashed arrows).

Outside the diatonic pitch collection remain fi ve tones completing the chromatic aggregate, which can provide rich “upper structures” to voicings. In some cases these work against important diatonic intervals; for example, using a G with the Em chord could obscure the minor third between E and G; using it with the A7 chord would weaken the C#/G tritone. But with the DM7 it sounds all right because its diatonic “shadow,” G, is already avoided. Figure 4.3 sketches the effect of chromaticism in each chordal context.

All optional diatonic and chromatic tones may be withheld or used, and they may be spaced from low to high in limitless ways. Attention is paid to the choice of lowest pitch, the registers of all others, thickness (number of notes played at once), and the use of some pitches in more than one octave doubling. This topic is discussed later in reference to specifi c instances in short excerpts by pianists Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson (figures 4.4a and b), and also at length in relation to Monk.

Chord Substitution, Insertion, and Deletion

Because every dominant-quality seventh chord shares its tritone with the dominant-quality seventh chord whose root is a tritone away, the chords in each such pair may be substituted for one another ( figure 4.2c, first staff).

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Substitutions for V are idiomatic in ii–V–I motion. In D major, this turns Em7–A7–DM7 into Em7–Eb7 –DM7 and causes the roots to descend chromatically by half step rather than by fifth, an especially characteristic marker of modern jazz sound. The second staff of figure 4.2c illustrates another kind of substitution, involving change of chord quality. In the first stage, the ii of

Thelonious monk sheet music

the ii–V–I progression is intensifi ed by raising its third from G to G# . This makes it E7, a dominant seventh chord, that is, V7 in relation to the A7 chord, and thus “tonicizes” the root of A7 as if A were momentarily the home key. From here it is a matter of applying the tritone substitution principle just discussed to convert the pair of chords into progression from Bb7 to Eb7. Monk does just this in ISC ( figures 4.1 and 4.5 , mm. 15-16).

Harmonic rhythm is the rate at which harmonies change. A scan of the various versions of ISC in figure 4.1 shows chords changing usually every two or four beats, though Oscar Peterson achieves special intensity in mm. 1-2 by changing on each beat, and there are scattered instances of chords held longer. Since harmony’s depth of field is rich, even with these severe constraints on harmonic rhythm there can be infinite ways to realize the harmonies in a song and suggest unexpected aural routes through it.

Sometimes root progressions by fifth are concatenated, as in figure 4.1, staff 2, mm. 2-3. Here, rather than have mm. 3-4 be a repetition of mm. 1-2, as it is in Monk’s version (staff 3), the ii chord of m. 3 is treated as a local tonic and preceded by its own ii–V. The two new bass tones F and B are part of the D major scale, so the motion feels activated but the connections do not jar.

The major third (D#) of the B7 chord is the only chromatic alteration implied. In Bill Evans’s version, the bass player faithfully provides the root tones (figure 4.4b), but Evans does not reflect the change on the piano. Without the D#, the feeling of tonicization is absent, and we have labeled the chord as Bm7.

Earlier we mentioned a more deeply hued insertion, at mm. 8 and, which introduces a ii–V (Gm7 to C7) progression borrowed from F major, a key built on a tonic foreign to the D major scale. This motion is so distinctive that it might be heard as one of the strongest markers of the song as a whole. In the fake book version, after slipping momentarily toward F in this way the music slips right back to DM7 in m. 9. Monk, however, reinterprets the C7 as a tritone substitution for an F#7, and resolves in m. 9 to Bm7 (the fake book does this too, but later, at the parallel moment in mm. 25). Another insertion in the fake book version, reflecting a mix of diatonic and chromatic moves, comes at the final measures (31-2).

This characteristic “turnaround” revs up the motion, propelling the music toward the next repetition of the form. Monk’s seeming extension of this passage and the two prior measures reflect a musical action we shall describe later; in figure 4.1 we condense his chords into the thirty-two-measure form (the actual measure numbers cor-responding to mm. 29-38of the transcription in figure 4.5 are shown below the lowest staff).

Deletions put the brakes on chord progression. In this idiom they are somewhat rarer than insertions but noteworthy for that reason. When Monk slows down the fake book chords at m. 2 he wants to focus on the very repetition of the chord progression in the initial two pairs of measures, and when he does it again at mm. 15-16 it is as if we are asked to savor the tritone substitutions selected for those moments.

Modern jazz harmonic practice often seems to be founded on the intensifi cation and complexifying of its diatonic basis in the several ways we have just described all at once—so the instances in which this process is slowed or impeded provide a special repose.

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Thelonius Monk's Harmony Musical Analysis

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 1)

Thelonius Monk‘s sheet music transcriptions are available from our Library.

Thelonious Monk’s Harmony, Rhythm, and pianism (Part 1)

On February 28, 1964, jazz pianist, composer, and group leader Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) graced the cover of Time magazine, then America’s major newsweekly. Coming at the height of the civil rights movement and amid dawn-ing recognition for African Americans’ achievements, it was a true breakthrough into mainstream media for him and for jazz.

The moment was short-lived, with rock-and-roll’s ascendancy to cultural dominance just around the corner, but it was also well-earned: Monk had been producing extraordinary music—often under difficult social and personal circumstances—for almost two decades, and would continue to perform for another nine years.

Gnomic and inscrutable, he also magnified, for better or worse, popular clichés about the jazz artist as insouciant, hipster weirdo—aspects played up in Time’s account, and undoubtedly part of the reason its editors had singled him out, for the moment, as jazz personified.

Yet despite the typecasting, Monk was actually an unlikely icon, musically and personally. Jazz comprises a cluster of genres bound loosely by a symbiosis of individualism, commercial concerns, and high art leanings, but even given this, Monk’s playing was in many ways too idiosyncratic to fi t in to any niche. His music differed more from his contemporaries than theirs did from each others’. His small hands and distinctive piano technique often gave cause for his very skill and competence to be called into question, sometimes not without reason. Such perplexities complicated Monk’s reputation and that of jazz itself, which he was both part of and apart from.

And as if to enhance this otherworldly aura, after touring and recording almost continually from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, he simply faded away. He stopped playing piano soon after his last record-ings in 1971 and retired into semi-seclusion for the last decade of his life. Yet both his musical legacy and mythic status have continually strengthened ever since.

Our own lifelong obsessions with Monk’s music started in the 1970s. It was a romance of recordings: the only performances we ever saw were on film, and that was much later. For us back then, “Thelonious Monk” was an outré persona conjured by liner notes and cover art. The cover of one LP— Monk’s Music, from 1955—showed him writing music while perched in a child’s red wagon, donned in hipster’s garb and sunglasses; another— Underground, his last Columbia recording, from 1968—set Monk as WWII French resistance fighter, seated at an upright piano in a barn hideout, with several open bottles of wine, a live cow, weaponry, and a captured Nazi in tow.

These manufactured images suggested ways for the public to digest the music: Monk as idiot-savant, genius-child, rebel-recluse—a collection of quirky, individualistic, American countercultural personas. But, however these images may have hooked us as teenagers, we could not fail to hear his music as indispensable. His deadpan playing, stocked with “scribbled lightning”, and jabbing, stabbing, amazing chords, textures, rhythms, empty spaces, and clusters, was riveting, at once instantly recognizable, diverse and unpredictable, and full of the divine laughter that made it both deadly serious and hilariously funny. It invaded our musical selves-in-formation and led to insatiable fixation. Of course, we were among many trying to internalize Monk and make him part of us. This chapter harvests fruits of our Monk incubation, and the friendship built partly from it.

Here we also position Monk to represent the multiplicity of jazz, some-thing for which no one artist or performance is suited, and yet, for the same reasons Time chose him, no one is as well suited as he. Our aim is not so much to depict the dimensions of Monk’s style as it is to show what he was able to achieve on one particular occasion. We consider a renowned April 1957 solo piano recording of “I Should Care” (hereafter ISC) , a song composed around 1944 as a number for the boilerplate Hollywood movie Thrill of a Romance and known to the public through recordings by Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, and others. It appeared repeatedly on the 1947 hit parade and was almost immediately adopted by Monk, (pianist) Bud Powell, and myriad other players.

Our choice of a “standard,” rather than one of Monk’s numerous seminal original compositions, is deliberate, allowing us to focus on the deeply symbiotic relationship between Monk and the jazz mainstream, a microcosm of the relationship between jazz and American popular music as a whole.

Monk’s decision to create a personalized, at least seemingly improvised (though in fact hardly at all) rendition of a popular song is itself “standard” practice for jazz. In general Monk’s taste in standards leaned toward the popular music of his youth, but he seems to have had a particular fascination with ISC: he recorded it at least four times for as many record labels, over a span of twenty years. Our chosen ISC is especially concentrated and allows us to frame Monk’s idiolect against the background of some of the era’s musical conventions and their milieu.

Jazz, Monk, and Modern Jazz Technique

Jazz and Jazz Analysis

In the United States jazz was long ago pronounced “America’s classical music,” a phrase used so often as to now elude original attribution. Many Americans regard this African-American form as a birthright and know it when they hear it, even if hard-pressed to say what it is that makes it “it.” Born in late nineteenth-century New Orleans, it long ago permeated global culture, provoking cultural responses by the 1920s in places as distant as Japan and China.

To have even a passing acquaintance with Western culture is to have some awareness of jazz as an idea involving musical self-expression through improvisation. Beyond the “jazz buffs” that live in every country, this awareness can be expressed in indirect, idiosyncratic ways: a “jazzy” turn of phrase in a Bollywood production number, a rural Japanese man belting Sinatra-style while fronting his local high school’s jazz band, or a lip-synching crooner in a Manila transvestite bar. These and thousands of other appropriations attest to jazz’s potency.

Jazz history is often described in terms of a series of fast-morphing eras (until a pluralistic stasis set in after the mid ’70s)—Dixieland, hot jazz, swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, free jazz, fusion, and so on—whose musics evolved but were also retained in coexistence. Throughout, it has been girded by poly-rhythmic, cyclical, repetitive principles tracing back to the West African music of slave ancestors, the dialects of song and rhythm in earlier African-American music (the blues, spirituals, etc.), the strophic ballad and popular song forms of Anglo-America, and the harmony and instruments of European art music. Jazz digested, synthesized, and transformed all of these.

The bebop style of Monk’s era was typically played by combos of up to six players comprised of piano, stand-up bass, drum trap set, and possibly electric guitar (all comprising the rhythm section) , fronted by saxophone(s), trumpet(s), or trombone(s). Most performances use the melody or “head’” of a popular song or a newly composed tune to launch solo improvisations stated over the tune’s cyclically repeated harmonies, which are rendered by the rhythm section in constantly changing accompaniment patterns.

Rhythm section members also take solos. Bebop players such as Charlie Parker (saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), and Bud Powell (piano) perfected a vocabulary of scales and patterns that brought out the color and quality of the “changes” (the chord sequence) while flying far from the original melody.

Jazz is improvisation, and the image of the spontaneously creative soloist, playing instinctually, is powerful. Some players can and do spin off very different solos from take to take and/or from night to night, but most draw from a personal lexicon of phrases, large and small, that constitute a player’s style. The degree to which great improvisers plan their solos varies, and the line between improvisation and composition is fluid. Aficionados have always known this, but today the ready availability of myriad “alternate takes” by Charlie Parker, Monk, and innumerable others proves that jazz improvisation can be a highly calculated act. The fixed, solo arrangement of ISC we selected is a case in point.

Jazz analysis, like all analysis, begins with listening, and is a multistage process proceeding from general stylistic features to consideration of players’ own styles, and finally to the details of a performance.

Knowledgeable listeners weigh a critical mass of musical markers including instrumentation, form, harmony, tempo, and rhythmic subdivision to identify and appreciate individual players. Even should such a listener first hear a recording of ISC “blind-folded”—that is, without being told who is playing—and fail to recognize Monk’s musical signatures, he or she could still place the music at circa 1945-1965. This was an era encompassing related styles (bebop, cool, West Coast, and more) that we refer to for convenience as the era of modern jazz.

The integrity of any durable genre rests on the tensile strength of its basic principles; Monk’s relationship to modern jazz is a characteristic one of testing these strengths. Among the features relevant to this performance are certain types of harmonic and rhythmic complexity seen in relation to musical form, and a range of ways of laying these out on the piano keyboard. To analyze ISC in terms of these features, we will first survey their treatment in the genre. Then it can emerge how Monk mobilizes rhythm (especially fl fluctuations of tempo) and harmony on the one hand, while retaining form and melody on the other, to create a layered, asymmetrical reading of this standard song.

We later refer to a full transcription (figures 4.5 and 4.6) through which we can fi x the performance in our minds at a glance. But even though we made every effort to make it accurate in pitch and harmony (though one can never be sure) and urge the reader to play it, not even a note-perfect performance will make it sound like Monk. This is because he plays with an embodied hand and finger pianism that even neurological and psychological description could hardly capture, let alone conventional music notation.

Monk’s touch at the keyboard vividly shapes surface rhythm and the envelope of the sound—its attack and decay contour. Playing it is worth doing, how-ever, to encounter the sonic diversity of his style and wealth of unexpected piano sonorities.

Form and Fusion

ISC is composed in one of a small number of easily recognizable thirty-two-measure popular song types of the era (the top staff of figure 4.1 gives the melody). It consists of two sixteen-measure periods that are parallel, in the sense that the first eight measures of each are identical and the second eight differ. This can be thought of formally as ABAC, in which each letter designates eight bars of melody and chords (actually the very first measures of B and C are also the same). Songs of this genre were written to be recorded by professionals and, if successful, were published as sheet music for amateurs.

The sheet music arrangements, distributing the tones of the chords in various ways on the keyboard, were dispensable, but the harmonies were also represented by shorthand chord symbols (about which more below).

A lead sheet consisting of these symbols over a single staff with the notated melody circulated among jazz players; a version of this can be seen by combining the top staff of figure 4.1 with the first row of symbols below the second staff. This version is from The Real Book, a latter-day “fake book” (originally a samizdat anthology of lead sheets for standard tunes and modern jazz compositions).

The “double period” form of ISC stems from European models. In non-jazz performances, such as for film or singers’ nightclub acts, the songs last only as long as their words; that is, the music is read off the arranger or com-poser’s notation and repeated (with preplanned small variants) as many times as necessary to sing the entire lyric. This is as it would be in many a Brahms Lied or an aria da capo in Mozart opera.

But jazz is a deep fusion of European and African music. This integration of independent, but in many ways compatible, musical systems was not only an ingenious cultural project directly contradicting the segregated social realities of America, but could be seen as providing that society with a compelling model of how to overcome those difficulties.

Jazz harmony has roots in African melody based on flexible, unstandardized fi ve- or seven-tone scales, but it acquired new depth of field (the range of colors and sensations of unique relation to a stabilizing “tonic” center that harmony evokes) by ingesting Europe’s twelve-tone chromatic scale and its system of functional harmonic progressions. At a time when European composers largely eschewed it, jazz took up the mantle of enriching functional harmony.

Figure 4.1. Melody and four harmonizations of I Should Care, with chord roots and harmonic functions.

thelonious monk sheet music

Figure 4.1 (continued)

Jazz form evolved to become a cycle of harmonies reminiscent of analogous (though briefer) cycles in much African music, as well as in circular European forms based on a repeating bass line, such as the passacaglia. African cycles are configured with rhythmic and melodic patterns. These are given multiple, varied repetition, with the patterns locked in and aligned with the unchanging cyclic structure. Such isoperiodicity also defines most jazz, with regularly recurring chord progressions (“changes”) instead of rhythms or melodies.

Variation may last for as many cycles (isoperiods) as the soloist per-forms, organized by the harmonies linked to the cycle. Cycle and progression, seemingly as contradictory as circle and line, thus reconcile.

Jazz Harmony

So that Monk’s style can soon be broached, let us pause to clarify our usage of three terms already in play:

• Harmony: one of three essential functions of motion or rest perceived from pitch combinations at a given place in the form. These are the stable tonic (T) and the unstable dominant (D; leading to a tonic) or subdominant (S; leading to a dominant).
• Chord: specific root (fundamental tone) and quality (interval structure and sound) of a harmony specifi ed by the lead sheet.
• Voicing: the specific, registrated pitches used to realize a chord.

Harmonic progression in European art music evolved from a conception of counterpoint that wove the simultaneous tones of concurrent melodies into a few stable chordal structures while retaining nuances like anticipation, suspension, and other kinds of melodic dissonances—tones that do not belong to a stable chord and that must resolve to those that do, else the tone combination parses as unstable. Stable chords contain only three tones in European practice. Such triads come in and out of focus when the music’s polyphonic strands either line up or diverge.

Counterpoint oversees the management of dissonance, and this process, at various orders of magnitude, generates both harmony and form in great variety. Western music’s variation forms, similar to jazz in some ways, act to restrain this tendency. But more culturally significant and musically distinctive is the fact that counterpoint, with its prolongation of dissonance and harmonic progression, historically urged Western music in extremis to long operas, symphonies, and other noncyclical structures.
In jazz, counterpoint and dissonance shape melodic lines and chord progressions, but cyclic structure prevails.

The role of harmony is to identify, with particular colors (i.e., chords and voicings), the region of the cycle through which one is passing. Jazz harmonies are glued to their positions; nothing can dislodge them. It is not the chords themselves that are glued there, but their harmonic functions, and this allows (as we shall see) for many ways to substitute different chords of equivalent function, or to severely alter chords so long as their function is preserved. The functions have such a forceful progressive logic that the practiced ear can distinguish which of the many tones that may be sounding are operative in establishing the harmony, and which are more or less ornamental.

Even if crucial tones are absent, expert listeners can infer harmonic function from the context.

What identifies harmonies and how they are realized in sound must thus not be thought of as the same thing; indeed, the two can vary seemingly to the point of severing their relationship—but not quite.

Harmonic Principles and Chords

Songs like ISC are composed in the tonality of one of the twelve equal- tempered chromatic notes, and end with tonic harmony, though some, like ISC, do not begin with it. The tonality, which may be major or minor in quality, shifts fluidly and temporarily at many points in the cycle. We restrict discussion to ISC’s home key of D major for illustration; figure 4.2a shows the root-position triads (major, minor, or diminished) in open note heads with Roman numerals, indicating the scale tone that is the root of the chord, on the first line below the staff.

The second line below the staff labels each with tonic (T), dominant (D), or subdominant (S) function. With rare exceptions, a jazz chord has a harmonic meaning only if it can be confi dently heard as having one of these three functions. Thus III and VII chords are rare in jazz major keys because the former is function-ally ambiguous and the role of the latter is understood as a weak version of V.

In fact, each of the S, T, and D functions is normally linked to a single chord, which progresses to one of the others strongly because their roots are a fifth apart: II for S, V for D, and I for T. IV and VI chords are very often heard as equivalent to ii (note that the roots of ii, IV, and VI together form a II triad). The constituent tones of III, IV, VI, and vii chords may appear as voicings of other chords, or the chords may function in other keys where they play the roles of II, V, or I.

Jazz chords and voicings were influenced both by the tonal language of other African-American forms such as the blues, and by the sonorities of early twentieth-century French composers like Debussy and Ravel.

Evolving style came to allow sevenths (tones that are the interval of a seventh above the root; shown with black note heads) not to be considered dissonant, and to inhere to virtually all chords.

This is also true of many other nontriad tones (figures 4.2b and 4.3), but sevenths are essential and assumed. Adding them to triads produces seventh chords of various distinctive qualities depending on the type of the triad and the size of the seventh. The major seventh chord (labeled M7) has a major triad plus major seventh. The dominant seventh chord (labeled 7) is the same but with a minor seventh. The minor seventh chord (m7) has a minor triad plus minor seventh, and in the half-diminished seventh chord (m7b5) the minor seventh is joined to a diminished triad.

These are labeled in the fourth line below the main staff of figure 4.2a.

Mention of the half-diminished seventh chord occasions a brief diversion into the role of major and minor tonalities in jazz. The exact nature of this relationship is multifarious, varying from era to era and player to player, and intertwined with devices absorbed from other practices such as the blues. As with much European tonality, the distinction between major and minor modes is retained as an overall affect—in other words, tunes are one or the other—but in actual practice the two freely commingle. In essence, this comes down to the unique case of the half-diminished seventh chord, built on the second degree of the minor scale.

Consider that in D major in jazz, one may often encounter an E-rooted seventh chord that uses Bb, from D minor, instead of B, making the chord a half-diminished seventh rather than a minor seventh. Also, as shown above the staff in figure 4.2a, the VII chord in D major has the same root and half- diminished-seventh quality of the II7 chord in B minor, so it can be used to temporarily change to that key, or even to B major. And by playing a half- diminished seventh when a tonic function is expected, jazz musicians can create a chain of II–V progressions. This is our first example of “chord substitution,” a principle of harmonic modularity at the core of jazz practice (see “Chords and Voicings” below).

In jazz, motion from S to D to T functions usually refl ects root motion by fifth, as in the iconic ii–V–I progression. Mastery of jazz harmony involves the ability to manipulate ii–V–I in all keys and combinations. In D major, II–V–I is most simply expressed as Em7–A7–DM7, which occurs twice right at the beginning of ISC, but the same functional progression, transposed and with substitutions, occurs in many places throughout the song. In the fake book (the lead sheet) version shown in the second staff of figure 4.1, the vocabulary is varied, close to what an accomplished player might actually play, and the progression is sometimes interrupted. For example, the II–V in mm. 8 and 24 suggest that a richly chromatic F major is coming, but the progression is not allowed to complete.

Measures 17-20 bring a dovetailed chain of II–V motions, each one leading to the next, as the arrows show. All staves of figure 4.1 and all harmony in ISC can be explained in II–V–I terms.

Dominant function chords contain the crucial interval of the diminished fifth (also known as the tritone) between the third and seventh. In the A7 chord, this means C#7 and G. The tritone’s distinctive sound is absent from major and minor seventh chords, but their occasional substitutes, the bor-rowed half-diminished seventh and the dominant seventh sonority itself—which does double duty as tonic in blues forms—include it. The interval impels forward motion in II–V–I progressions, which sometimes concatenate and elide into strings of descending tritones in inner voices, creating, if art-fully done, a spinning vortex of dominant resolutions. The approach to and departure from the tritone is more expansive in the music of Monk’s era—and certainly to an even greater degree in Monk’s own music—than it is in classical music; it is without question the most important source of the feeling of harmonic progression in the music.

The tritone is the structural hub orienting and ordering the tremendous vocabulary of idiomatic chord voicings.