Chapter 19 of 25 from Herbie Hancock

Expanding Your Harmonic Horizons


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

Topics include: Don’t Play the Butter Notes • Practicing Reharmonization • Case Study: Reharmonizing “Dolphin Dance”

Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz

Learn to improvise, compose, and develop your own sound across 25 video lessons.

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Class Info


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.

Watch, listen, and learn as Herbie shows you how to take your music to the next level.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Herbie will also critique selected student work.


Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz