Tonal Harmony v. Jazz Harmony: Does Any of It Matter?

by Stephanie L. Carlin

So, something happens to your brain when you study music as a college student: everything starts sounding the same. From that goofy pop song that was a hit in fourth grade to a string concerto to a jazz standard becomes a series of progressions that have been imbedded to death in the minds of Berklee students. Two-fives are a running joke at this school because almost all jazz standards follow a series of secondary dominants that ultimately lead to one. Come to think of it, by that logic, augmented sixth chords are glorified substitute dominants. So, is there really a point in studying classical harmony or even jazz harmony for that matter?

Now, in this article, I don’t mean to criticize the wonderful theory, ear training and harmony teachers who work so diligently to instruct us at Berklee. I am merely presenting a hypothetical: what if theory doesn’t actually matter and we merely made it up to preserve a particular sound… in pop music.

Well, if we look into pop music, almost none of jazz harmony seems to matter. There are rarely any modulations of any kind. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake mainly runs under three chords: C major, A minor, and F major. While there is a modulation in the pre-chorus of the song, its main focus is to keep the listener engaged because it goes back to the same progression when it’s done. Not to mention there are countless numbers of songs that just use four chords like “Country Roads“, “Paparazzi,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “What If God Was One of Us,” “Higher” and so, SO many more.

At the same time though, every now and then, we see artists that use at least the simplest aspect of jazz: two-fives. Take “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5 who’s chord progression is literally Dm-G-C for the entire song, otherwise known as a classic ii-V-I. It makes the song because it’s a simple Sunday morning drive and there’s more attention on the lyrics that way. Considering the catchiest songs back in the day, we have to look at Michael Jackson, where Thriller created numerous hits with complex harmony and is the best-selling album of all time. That album was produced by Quincy Jones, a jazz trumpeter who attended Berklee and studied harmony, eventually becoming one of the most prolific musical icons of our time.

Ultimately, jazz or classical theory, while both having components that are similar, function for different kinds of songs. Classical arias are  likely to benefit more from mystic and Neapolitan chords than jazz standards. Just as well two-fives make more sense in a jazz standard than a classical aria. While classical songs may have 6/9 chords and jazz songs have some ninth augmented fifth chord, ultimately they’re used with different ensembles spanning across decades of composers and arrangers. So, if there’s any reason to study harmony, at least the study it for the history. The fact that some of these performers came up with these classic progressions without even thinking about it is truly something spectacular.

Did you benefit from your tonal harmony and harmony classes? Let us know in the comments!