Fusion/Modern Jazz Harmony

Curious as to how y’all think about the Ifr tonal map in regards to compositions that heavily feature non functional harmony ala Pat Metheney, Snarky Puppy, Alan Holdsworth, etc… I come from a music school background and I can hear my growth with IFR already in a few days but I’m curious as to how music like this works in the IFR system being that IFR is so heavily rooted in working with music with clear tonal centers. Just thought this would make for some interesting discussion on how IFR could be expanded or brought into this harmonic realm.

A really good question I think, and one I struggle with a bit when learning Jazz tunes - I end up tying myself in knots translating and then remembering the chord progressions in IFR terms.

For example a 2 5 1 fits really well, as they’re the ‘correct’ chord types for IFR (minor 7, dominant, major 7), whereas with a minor 2 5 1 (which in IFR is 7-(b5), 3D, 6-), I have to remind myself that the 3 has a major third (the #5 on IFR tonal map) so I can’t just think of it as the IFR three chord.

But, that said, doing that work - though it is work - to break down exotic chords into IFR terms is really where the beauty of the approach comes in, I think. So, I’m now already far more aware of the sound of that #5 in the 3D chord in a minor 251 for examole, and the more I name that sound/sensation and understand it in its wider context (as opposed to just being some note in an x7 chord I’m playing in a progression) the more opportunity I feel to play with that sound when I want to in other contexts.

That said it’s still very early days for me in this process - there’s so much time can be spent on this all!


some thing that is really common in a lot fusion stuff is maj 7 chords moving up or down by minor or maj 3rds in the bass. Stuff like that seems really strange in IFR. Something like Cmaj7, Ebmaj7, Gbmaj7 for example. The C would be 1357 If we kept using C as a point of reference and then Ebmaj 7 would be b3, 5, b7, 2. The Gb maj7 would be b5, b7,b2,4. This seems like an unnecessarily complex way to think about those chords to me. I guess a broader thing to think about in this kind of harmonic progression is how to think about rapid fire modulations in an IFR framework since that’s basically what’s going on.

Great question Aaron. It really depends on the situation and on the person. IFR isn’t trying to push any one single way of looking at harmony. Our goal is to develop a set of skills that enable us to make sense of the world. We do that by starting with harmonic situations that are very clear and simple like the seven harmonic environments. When you’re improvising over IFR Jam Tracks Level 1, for example, you don’t even have chord changes to deal with. But there is a wealth of musical content to discover in these harmonic environments, including all seven chords of the major scale.

The next logical step is to begin combining these chords into chord progressions. Now your point of reference changes. When you were improvising in the second harmonic environment, for example, you got accustomed to thinking of note 2 as your tonal center. But now you might be improvising over the 2-5-1 chord progression, so note 2 is no longer your tonal center. So in one sense the material is familiar (it’s still the 2- chord) but now your point of view has changed because you’re feeling note 1 as your tonal center the whole time.

It’s really no different when you get to the next level of complexity which is the music you’re asking about. Here not only are the chords changing but the key itself might be changing with every new measure. But if you’ve learned the lessons from the first part of your journey, then each individual chord in those fusion pieces will be a harmonic environment that is familiar to you. So even though the key might be constantly changing, you’re always going from one familiar state to another familiar state.

And this is really the most important thing to understand about harmony. No matter how abstract or complex a piece of music might be, what enables you to understand it is your mastery of the basic building blocks of music. You actually don’t master jazz fusion music by studying jazz fusion music. You master jazz fusion music by mastering basic tonal harmony, because jazz fusion harmony is just basic tonal harmony + key changes.

I hope that helps to paint a picture of where we’re going, and why it’s so empowering to master the most basic raw materials of harmony. If this raises any other doubts, please feel free to write more. Thanks for the great question! - David


Yeah, fair enough. Although I find that kind of thing alright - I’ve never played that progression, but remembering it’s a 1, b3, b5 major 7 chord progression feels instinctively much easier than trying to locate the Eb and Gb in relation to each other and the C - though I’ve never really been great with note names anyway!

That makes total sense David! It’s definitely easier to just think about it all being an outgrowth from the fundamentals. My ears already can hear some of the modal sounds present in fusion anyway (especially Dorian, Lydian, and Aeolian) but I acknowledge that my familiarity with those sounds is somewhat “impressionistic”. Those qualities have a certain emotional character to me but I think where IFR really succeeds is in teaching you hear in a deeper way than just hearing things with a kind of impression of the harmony. I’m already noticing results again after working with it for a few days and I think not practicing the creative side of music in this way has really been very psychologically taxing on me in the last few years. I’ve always really struggled to write in a way where I could justify everything I was doing formally. Unfortunately I had a professor in college that was a really stubborn traditionalist and he argued that all of his students needed to be able to theoretically break down why their ideas worked even if they just simply “sounded good”. I’ve had to work hard over the better half of a decade to break away from his influence on my music making but every time I make a move further away I sound better. Thanks for what you do David!

Yea I definitely tend to think of those types of progressions in terms of root movement like you mentioned. If you aren’t familiar with that kind of harmonic language might I recommend a gateway that most people are more familiar with?

Thanks, lovely video, though I have to admit I glazed over a bit on some of the theory!

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