BeBlog Part II: Major Pain

by Andrew McNaughton

Major Pain

The dominant 7 chord function seems to get all the attention in jazz with its flashy flat fives, bodacious upper body structure and all its possibilities for tension and extension. But what do we do with all that pent up jazz … more often than not, we let it go— let it go, can’t hold it back anymore— on an innocent major chord. Here are some ideas for playing,  and ways of thinking about this humble vessel of resolution. The internet loves a list, so here are 7 things (do, re ,mi, fa, so, la, ti …) that will turn you into a jazz god/goddess:

  1. Avoidance Therapy 1: the tonic
  2. Avoidance Therapy 2: fear the fourth
  3. Lydian
  4. ‘The Melodic Major’: hedge your bets
  5. Major Bebop scale
  6. Maj7#5, Lydian Augmented
  7. Harmonic Major

Avoidance Therapy 1: the tonic

Don’t play the tonic on a major 7 chord. Try the 7th or 9th instead especially at the end of a phrase or holding a note. The tonic has quite a particular sound in my opinion that is maybe best suited to pop orientated genres. Be aware of how you use it at least. This is especially something for bass players to think about when they are soloing because their DNA has been genetically altered to seek out the root note. Everyone enjoys the game at the end of a tune called ‘which note will you finish on?’

Avoidance Therapy 2: fear the fourth

Mark Levine (The Jazz Piano Book – BUY IT NOW!) calls the fourth over a major chord an “avoid note”, which is a nice way of looking at it. Try working around the major pentatonic first without playing the 4th at all. Then introduce it as a passing tone. Get fancier by using enclosures and chromatic passing tones, all the while with the major pentatonic in mind as ‘home’.


To be sharp or not to be sharp, that is the question – see below. Lydian is very often a good option but it all depends on what is happening musically around that moment. Awareness is required. You can think about the #4 as a chromatic passing tone within the major pentatonic as above. And we all go through the stage of ending every tune on the #11 so consider that a rite of passage.

‘Melodic Major’ Hedge your bets

Combining both the ♮4 and #4, you can think about a sort of ‘Melodic Major’ scale that goes up via the ♯4 and down via the ♮4 (in the same way the classical folk think about about the melodic minor scale coming down via the Aeolian mode). Loosely speaking, the ♮4 loosely wants to ‘resolve’ down to the 3rd and the ♯4th loosely wants to go up to the 5th …  loosely.

Major Bebop Scale

Try various versions of a ‘Major Bebop 8-note scale. The added extra note in a major scale will change the musical effect depending on where you place the semitone and how that affects which tones fall ON the beat.

  • a combined Major/Lydian type scale with both the ♮4 and ♯4
  • a major scale with an added ♯5
  • Lydian with an added #5
  • Etc etc: you can do the maths. Sound is key, so experiment with an awareness of how it SOUNDS!
  • In the words of a classical colleague after listening to me improvise: “it’s just chromatic scales with notes left out”. Yes. Yes, it is. Thanks Einstein … I mean Mozart.

Maj7♯5 (Lydian Augmented)

… or the 3rd mode of the Melodic Minor scale (if you’re into that sort of thing). A nice choice because there are no avoid notes – everything sound good in its own way. It can imply certain triads (major and minor) over a root note. Eg E/C and D/C—which is also a spelling of straight Lydian. Also sounds nice resolving’ up to a maj6 or 6|9 chord …

Maj7♯5 (Harmonic Major)

The outer space sound – floating among the stars and resolving down. The ♮5th and ♯5th coexisting in an endless vacuum. I love the sound of that #5 ‘resolving’ down to the ♮5 and the scalar approach omitting the 6th. This is well worth experimenting with especially because it’s not a common sound at all … unless you watch Sci-fi.

All Roads lead to Rome

Many of these ideas lead you to the same types of sounds. But how you think about them might change the way you approach the major chord and the way you make it sound. If you see Cmaj7♯5 in a chart, you might think quite differently than if you see E/C or just Cmaj right? What comes before and after will also affect the way you perceive the now. The way you approach a Cmaj at the end of a ii V7 I is going to be different from how you approach it amongst this lot:  ||: Dmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Bmin7 | Amin :||

Clear as mud?

If you’re interested in learning more about jazz improvisation techniques, JMI runs music classes and courses in Brisbane that focus on developing improvisation techniques.

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