Jazz Music Theory for Piano

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Get a better understanding of Jazz Music Theory and how to apply it to your piano playing. Learn about the different chord progressions and how to improvise.

The Major Scale

Jazz music theory for piano can be quite overwhelming at first. There are so many different scales, chords, and progressions to learn. However, if you take the time to learn the basics, you’ll find that jazz piano is a lot of fun. The major scale is a great place to start.

Tones and Semitones

In music, tones and semitones are the smallest divisions of pitch. Tones are also called whole steps, and semitones are sometimes called half steps. A tone is equal to two semitones.

The major scale is made up of tones and semitones. The tones in a major scale are T-T-S-T-T-T-S, where T = tone, S = semitone.

In C major, the tones are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. The semitones are between E-F and B-C.

The Major Scale Formula

The major scale is the most important scale in music theory. It is used as the starting point for all other scales, and provides the foundation for tonality in Western music. The major scale has a specific formula which can be applied to any note to create the major scale starting on that note. The formula for a major scale is as follows:

Root, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step

Applying this formula to the note C gives us the C major scale:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

The major scale is also known as the Ionian mode. Other modes of the major scale include the Dorian mode (starting on the second degree of the scale), Phrygian mode (starting on the third degree), Lydian mode (starting on the fourth degree), Mixolydian mode (starting on the fifth degree), Aeolian mode (starting on the sixth degree), and Locrian mode (starting on the seventh degree).

The Minor Scale

The minor scale is one of the most important scales in jazz piano. It is the foundation of many other scales and is used in a variety of musical styles. In this article, we will take a closer look at the minor scale and how it is used in jazz piano.

Tones and Semitones in a Minor Scale

In music, a minor scale is a diatonic scale that has a lower third and a flat (or sometimes weakly sharpened) sixth and seventh scale Degrees, in contrast to the major scale, which has a major third and a natural sixth and seventh. The minor scale can be described in two different ways. Firstly by its relation to the major scale with the same key signature (containing the same set of sharps or flats), and secondly by its own key signature. In the minor scale, the third degree is always a semitone lower than in the major, while the other two notes are one semitone higher than their counterparts in the major (hence, one semitone lower in pitch). If we take C minor as an example, this means that we create C minor by playing all white keys from C upwards but including Eb instead of E and Bb instead of B.

The Minor Scale Formula

There are three types of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic. The natural minor scale is just a major scale starting on a different note, so it has the same notes and formula as a major scale. The harmonic minor scale raises the seventh note of the scale by a half step to create a leading tone that resolves up to the root. The melodic minor scale is the same as the natural minor scale on the way down, but on the way up it raises the sixth and seventh notes of the scale by a half step to create leading tones.



In music theory, a triad is a three-note chord. Triads are the most basic type of chord and are very common in jazz. The most common type of triad is the major triad, which consists of a root note, a third, and a fifth. For example, the C major triad consists of the notes C, E, and G. Triads can also be minor, augmented, or diminished.

Seventh Chords

Seventh chords are chords that contain the interval of a seventh above the root note. In Jazz, they are often used to create more complex harmonic progressions and to add more color to a melody. Seventh chords can be built on any note, but the most common ones are based on the first, fourth and fifth notes of a major scale.

There are four different types of seventh chords: major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th and half-diminished 7th. Each type has a different sound and function in a piece of music.

Major 7th chords have a bright, cheerful sound and are often used as the tonic (or “home”) chord in a piece of music. They are made up of the root, third, fifth and seventh notes of a major scale.

Dominant 7th chords have a strong, unstable sound and are often used to create tension in a piece of music. They are made up of the root, third, fifth and flat seventh notes of a major scale.

Minor 7th chords have a dark, melancholy sound and are often used as the tonic (or “home”) chord in minor pieces of music. They are made up of the root, flat third, fifth and flat seventh notes of a natural minor scale.

Half-diminished 7th chords have a very unstable sound and are often used to create tension in a piece of music. They are made up of the root, flat third, flat fifth and flat seventh notes of a natural minor scale.


Jazz piano improvisation is both an art and a science. It is the art of making music spontaneously on the spot, and the science of understanding how to do it. In this article, we’ll explore the basics of jazz piano improvisation. We’ll start by talking about the different elements of improvisation, then we’ll move on to some basic improvisation techniques.

The Blues Scale

The blues scale is a hexatonic (six-note) scale with a flattened third, fifth and seventh. The flattened third gives the scale its characteristic “bluesy” sounding quality. To form a blues scale on piano, we use the root, flat third, fourth, flat fifth, fifth and flat seventh of the major scale. In the key of C, this would give us the notes C – Eb – F –Gb– G – Bb.

The flattened thirds and sevenths create the interval pattern 1 – b3 – 4 – b5 – 5 – b7. This pattern can be applied to any major scale to form a corresponding blues scale. So in the key of C major, the notes C – D – E – F– G– A– B form a C major blues scale: C- Eb- F- Gb- G- Bb- B.

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are essential to improvisation in a wide variety of musical styles. This lesson will introduce the five pentatonic scale shapes that every jazz piano player needs to know.

The term “pentatonic scale” comes from the Greek word for “five” (penta) and the Latin word for “tone” (tonus). A pentatonic scale is simply a scale with five notes per octave. The most important thing to remember about pentatonic scales is that they sound good over almost any chord, which makes them ideal for soloing and improvisation.

There are two main types of pentatonic scales: major and minor. The major pentatonic scale has a bright, happy sound, while the minor pentatonic scale has a more sorrowful sound. Both of these scales are used extensively in jazz improvisation.

The five shapes of the major pentatonic scale are shown below. These shapes can be moved up and down the keyboard to play in any key.

The five shapes of the minor pentatonic scale are shown below. As with the major pentatonic, these shapes can be moved up and down the keyboard to play in any key.

Pentatonic scales are extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of ways in your improvisations. One common way to use them is to combine both the major and minor shapes together to create what is known as a “blues scale.” This gives your playing a distinctly bluesy sound. Another popular way to use pentatonics is to mix and match different shapes within the same key to create interesting melodic phrases.

Experiment with different ways of using pentatonic scales in your own improvising and see what sounds you can come up with!


In conclusion, learning jazz piano can be a challenge but it is definitely worth it! With a little bit of hard work and practice, you’ll be playing like a pro in no time. Be sure to check out our other articles on jazz piano for more tips and tricks.

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