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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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March 18, 2010 | When is a #9 NOT a #9?

This week, JazzMando staff writer Craig Schmoller, of Groveland Software weighs in on enharmonics, notes that sound and fret the same but are spelled differently. Some common sense insight from the author of the highly recommended Mando ModeExplorer and JazzCittern ModeExplorer computer software.

From the Old Wives Tales, Myths, and Legends Department:

ham.jpgWhen I was a young boy, I noticed Mom always cut the ham in half before baking it. "Why do you cut the ham in half?" I asked. She explained, "Because Grandma always did it that way." Surely, therein lay the secret to Great Baked Ham, so I asked Grandma. "Why do you always cut the ham in half?" She explained, with a sparkle in her eye, "Oh yes, because Great Grandma always did it that way." Ham Baking History was about to be made. I asked Great Grandma, "Why do you always cut the ham in half?" She said, "Oh, honey, we were so poor, my baking pan was far too small to hold a whole ham."

Okay, so that never really happened and you heard that one before. But I find so often that music is much like that ham. When we get down to the real reason for what we do, it may not make so much sense.


For example, I encountered a Bb7(#9) chord on a chart the other day. We all know that type of chord, and most of us were literally raised with that chord--Ubiquitous in Jazz and Rock, staple of Rock guitar, bluesy, Hendrix/Page/Trower/Vaughn chord. That sound we all knew how to play long before we knew what it was: The sound of a dom7 chord with that #9. Thing sounds minor and major at the same time, the very embodiment of blues!

I had always taken it for granted that if you notated a chord, say a 9 chord, you would add the note a 9th above the tonic to the dom7 chord. And, if we're looking at a Bb7(9) chord, you would see a C notated to represent the 9th in the chord. And If I saw a Bb7(b9) chord, I would expect to see a Cb in the chord somewhere to represent the flatted 9. And if I saw a Bb7(#9) chord, I would expect to see a... C# to represent the raised 9th degree. Yes?

Well, wait, we've got ham on the menu tonight.

I noticed in Fake Books, and Jazz Theory books, and at jazz-focused music schools, they spell a #9 as a b3 in the 7(#9) chords. That seems like a problem in all kinds of ways. If this was an all-piano world, and there was some unbreakable rule that you must voice the #9 at the top, and you are using two staves... Well then maybe that works, having both a 3 and a b3 in the same chord. But this is not the case. We don't all have two staves. Chords don't have two 3's - It's either major, or minor.

Take, for example, a Bb7(#9) chord. It makes sense that C is the 9, and the D is the 3 in that chord. No dispute. But then we cut the ham in half. When spelling the 7(#9) chord out, the #9 of the chord is NOT C#. It's a Db! The #9 is spelled like a b3 rather than a #2.

How is that possible? I mean, is it a "ri" or a "me"? Guido of Arezzo would spin in his grave. This is an emergency. I get in touch with Russ Hoffmann, Associate Professor of Piano at Berklee College of Music. He'll know what to do.

"I want to know which is right, the C# or the Db, " I explain. He says, "Well... What's your knee-jerk reaction? Your knee-jerk reaction is to do it right, and to do it accurately. And if it's a 9, it's gotta be a 9. Well, this is the one exception where, it ain't a 9, it could be a b3, because it's a blue sounding note--It's a blue note." Incredulous, I exclaim, "You would put down a Db and not a C#?" Half joking, Russ explains, "Oooo, I know it's gonna break your heart, but it's the b3, it's the moan of minor..." He continues, "Nine times out of ten, people are thinking about that note as the b3 of the blues scale, and it's always spelled as b3 from the blues scale."

And Roberta Radley, Assistant Chair in the Ear Training Department at Berklee, concurs: "For me, I notate it as a b3 (me) rather than literally as the #9 (ri)." But, when it's all in one staff and you have the 3 AND the b3. Then what? "Good point," she continues. "If at the half step in the same part, I'd label it as #2 next to the 3. I like to voice them at the 1/2 step at times on piano, or say for two instruments."

Okay, the blues is pretty pervasive and influential in music nowadays, and maybe with time and some counseling I can accept that a #9 is spelled like a b3.

Paul Renz, Director of Jazz Studies at the West Bank School of Music, peels yet another layer off this onion. "You gotta be flexible about it. Technically a sharp 9 is the raised second of a scale (ri), and the purist will identify it that way. But sometimes it just makes more sense to label it by the enharmonic. So on an A7 chord, technically, sharp 9 is B#, but it may be easier to think of it as C. Only dominant 7 chords have sharp nines, so it is understood that there is always a major third in the chord. And sometimes the #9 will be thought of as b3, simply because it's more practical. For instance on a B7, is it easier to think C## or D? It's an imperfect world...what can I say?"

Yes, Paul. Sometimes we don't do things because they make sense. Sometimes we do it because--Well, because that's just the way it's always been done. Somebody pass the potatoes?

Craig Schmoller
Groveland Software

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Posted by Ted at March 18, 2010 7:40 AM

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