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Arts & Entertainment

Expanding Your Harmonic Horizons

Herbie Hancock

Lesson time 13:25 min

Herbie’s approach to harmony was built over years of experimentation. Let these ideas inspire your own harmonic exploration.

Herbie Hancock
Teaches Jazz
Learn to improvise, compose, and develop your own sound across 25 video lessons.
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OK, you ready for this? I want to talk about harmony. Now, what I'd like to do is kind of break you out of the box that you might have put yourself in. And open that up to a whole new world of possibilities. You know, we jazz players are constantly composing. I mean that's the nature of jazz. So it's harmonization, but at the same time, it's composition, spontaneous composition. So this is merely to kind of tweak your ears that there are so many different kinds of possibilities to make your own toolbox larger. Have more tools that will be available for you to use when you need them. It's nothing wrong with that. Learning about harmony to me, has been a huge asset. And I had some great teachers. But my first experience with harmony was listening to records and trying to figure out what other people did. The ears are really important in this case. You have to try things. One other important lesson I learned when I was playing with Miles Davis happened, and we were playing in Boston I remember at Lenny's on the Turnpike. That was the name of the jazz club. And I was feeling very down at the time. Felt like my playing wasn't moving forward. You know, I was kind of stuck in a rut. And my behavior really reflected it. Miles could tell. Miles leaned over and said, at least what I thought he said was, don't play the butter notes. And I started to think, butter. What? Butter. Butter is fat, right? There's the lean and the fat, you know? And I just started thinking, you know, metaphorically what could that mean. Does he mean the excess? Get rid of the excess? And I said, what would be excess or what would be obvious, maybe obvious? Maybe that's what he meant. Something that was obvious. And I started to think more harmonically. What's obvious in a chord is the third and the seventh. You know, if you're playing a C major seventh, what is it that tells you it's a major and what is that tells you it's a seventh? Well, it's the third that tell you it's a major. 'Cause if that E were and E-flat, it would be a minor. The seventh, if it's major seventh or a minor seventh interval, that's seventh is very important, but very obvious. The third is very important, but very obvious. So if Miles is saying don't play the obvious notes, it's all the notes that aren't that. So I started thinking about, OK, what if I didn't play the obvious note in harmonies that I would play and in soloing. And just as a practice, that night right after he said that, I started trying to do that. And I'd never played before without the third and the seventh. It was not easy for me to do. So that meant if the music actually said a C minor seventh, I might play it as [PLAYING NOTES].. Or I might play it as [PLAYING NOTES].. Because those notes would fit in a C minor. [PLAYING NOTES] That would work....

Find Your Sound

Herbie Hancock's jazz career started in his family's living room, listening to his favorite records and trying to play along. Now, he's one of the most celebrated musicians in the world. Join Herbie at the piano as he shares his approach to improvisation, composition, and harmony. Gain access to 10+ original piano transcriptions, including 5 exclusive solo performances.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Good tips on tecnique and opened my mind about reharmonizations. Good transcriptions. Thanks

It is a bout being human, and not just a musician.

Fantastic......want to do it all over that I can absorb more.....

Excellent teacher, great stories, great lessons. As a beginner, novice, some of the tips and tricks were something I aspire to but a bit out of my range for now!


Jonathan S.

It looks as if a big part of what he's telling us is to be courageous. Experiment.

Susanna R.

A beautiful lesson, I liked the metaphor of butter and the importance of getting rid of excesses. I should dedicate more in practice playing the piano....thank you Herbie.

Margaret E.

He continues to amaze. Im not at the skill level to easily do what he's saying. Enjoying it nonetheless.

Brad D.

I'm playing standards with 2 hand voicings and experimenting with them to get different sounds. I sometimes sound terrible and occasionally hit something I want to keep. I think this lesson gives us the most work of the course. I would have liked for Herbie to give some general guidelines to help us narrow that work; at least a little.

Robert W.

I found this to be one of the most valuable lessons of the course so far. Thank you, Herbie.

Robert R.

Here's a simple reharmonization of the first four bars of Dolphin Dance. The chart that I have calls for this: | Ebmaj7 | Bb-7 | Eb maj7 | D-7b5 G7 | This is how I like to play it: | / / Ebmaj7 F-7 G-7 | Bb -7 | / / Ebmaj7 Emaj7 Gb maj7 | D-7b5 G7 | holding a Bb pedal tone over the first three bars.

Kris Y.

Herbie, thank you. You are addressing all the questions in my mind and even more questions I hadn't even thought of asking. Your teaching is a great gift to me.

John W.

I'll have to try removing the 'butter notes' for awhile. Another harmonization I've enjoyed is playing two different key at the same time. Maybe Herbie will get to that, but, for example: F low against C above; or F low with Eb high, maybe first inversion. This resolves to Bb great. This is something Brubeck did a lot. That's where I picked it up. It's really a mind set. Drop the 3rd and 7th, or play two keys against each other is the mind set before you start. Finding these 'systems' as a springboard, I think, is what Herbie is talking about.


I would be curious to ask if he finds it harder to reharmonizes one of his own compositions compared to another's?

John P.

I enjoyed this lesson and I will no doubt listen to it many times. I'm looking forward to trying out various combinations of notes on various pieces. I have to write it down however because my memory is shot.