Bitonal Concepts in Jazz Improvisation (edition 2007)

by Tom Gullion – Dec 2007

Note: this article extends the concepts originally put forth at

Tension and Release

Tension and release apply to all kinds of music. At the root of everything, great music finds elegant ways to resolve tension. So, it’s quite simple: if you want to make great music, it’s all about the resolution.

Of course there’s nothing simple about that. It’s where the mystery of music resides. But it’s worth focusing our attention there for the rewards are great!

Current brain research keeps pointing out how the brain loves patterns. It brings you measurable pleasure (in the form of dopamine) to discover patterns in sensory input. The brain enjoys making connections, especially between things which weren’t previously related. The idea is that your brain experiences pleasure when there’s just the right amount of pattern recognition and new experience. If there is too much new information, it makes us tired. We all know how much energy it requires to study and retain new information. Conversely, we get bored when there’s not enough new information. Listening to simple songs gets boring quickly.

So the mission of the musician is to provide just the right mix of recognizable vs. new material.

Given that it’s impossible to find two listeners with exactly the same experiences, the mission just stated is bogus. You’ll never be able to get the mix perfect for all your audience.

However, you may find you can give your experienced listeners profound joy by helping them create new connections in their listening experiences. I find the bitonal approach to be a good avenue toward that goal.

I’ll get to more details about bitonal concepts in a few paragraphs. But for now let’s consider it a way of layering musical structures. For instance, if we take a simple major triad and superimpose it over another major triad, we get a new sound. But the base elements are simple and well-known. Thus, we create a new connection: C Major + D Major = C Major with a sharp 11th.

This is a simple example but it lies at the heart of the concept. Now let’s explore bitonal approaches in more detail.

Bitonal approaches

Pedal point

Pedal point suggests playing a chord with some alternate tone in the bass. Some of the more obvious and common examples are sus chords and intros or outros. The sus chord can be as simple as a minor 7th chord with the 4th in the bass.

Herbie Hancock’s tune, Maiden Voyage, consists of only sus chords. The intro and outro in Miles Davis’ version of Someday My Prince Will Come is a classic example of using the 5th as a pedal point.

There are numerous examples of this approach throughout all music, not just jazz. But jazz seems to have evolved this concept beyond a mere compositional device. The basis of this approach is to slightly alter the base chord with the alternate bass note or to provide harmonic interest over a static (or mostly static) bass. Wayne Shorter’s This Is For Albert is a perfect example of this.

In general, musicians tend to approach pedal point in a fairly traditional way. One can just play the chord symbols (ignoring the bass) or play vertically (playing the chord/scales).


The basis of bitonal music is to have two tonalities occurring simultaneously. In the case of pedal point, it’s really just a single chord happening over an alternate bass note. To me, bitonality is when we have two chords sounding together. In this case, we have a C Major triad and an E Major triad played together. I really enjoy these sounds because they produce harmonic tension in unique ways. And, even better, they don’t have predictable resolutions.

You can play arpeggios which combine both chords and find some interesting melodic material.


One of the evolutions of pedal point was to derive new scales which fit the more dissonant or abstract chord/bass note combinations. Woody Shaw used this approach in a lot of his tunes. Aebersold’s Woody Shaw volume includes several with suggested scales. This approach adds melodic interest since the new scales often include interesting leaps and irregular scalar patterns.

You can follow the model Woody Shaw (and others) created or you can uncover your own scales for certain sounds. My favorite approach is to play the sound on the piano and very slowly discover the scale that already exists within the sound. You start with one note and follow your ears to the next one (half step, whole step, minor third or some other interval). This makes for a really fun practice session, does wonders to help develop your ears and often leads you into interesting melodic territory. Give it a try!


What if we combined the above approaches? Hopefully we’re making music with all this stuff. So we should learn the above concepts and be able to apply them where most appropriate and most musical. There are times when you want to simply use pedal point. There are cases when a true bitonal approach is what’s need. Of course, this is obvious. I only write it to keep us aware of the goal: to make great music. Using whatever means necessary!


Once you’ve assimilated all this, you may find that your hearing changes a bit. It’s very possible that piano and guitar voicings may sound similar to some bitonal chord you’ve been working on. That’s perfect! That’s exactly what you want! When this happens, you can start to respond to traditional sounds in unexpected, new ways. Imagine you’re playing a standard tune such as Have You Met Miss Jones? If someone (or something) plays an F# against the first chord (which is F Major) you’ll be prompted to think bitonally. That’s exactly what seems to have happened to George Garzone! Check out this recording four’s and two’s on NYC Records.. But the CD and you’ll get a transcription of the cool, chromatic line he plays behind the melody. Garzone has invented a “triadic concept” which is reportedly coming out in a book in the future. Regardless of the name, the idea certainly looks and sound`s familiar!


Here is a collection of suggested things to do to explore these concepts:

  • At first, consider how a bitonal maps to traditional chords/scales
  • move beyond that to exploring the sound
  • create hybrid scales elaborating the sound
  • look for patterns
  • look for melodic approaches
  • consider how to apply these melodic approaches over traditional harmony


We defined “bitonal” as a concept and looked at a few approaches. In the “real world” you’ll find many players who blur the lines between concepts. It makes studying jazz more difficult but it makes listening to the music that much more interesting. I’ve heard musicians talk about using bitonality (or something similar) as a means to play “out.” But that’s a bit short-sighted.

If we really embrace this, we can stretch the bounds of harmony but maintain connection to our listeners’ experiences. The whole point of music is to create something new based on something old. That’s the way to get the listeners’ brain engaged and keep them interested. In fact, if you’re lucky you’ll be giving the listener immense pleasure. Which is what makes music such a noble profession.

By simply combining sounds that our listeners already know about into a something new (aka bitonality), we can get pretty good results. Of course, this is simply a music device. It’s no magic bullet. Making great music requires all you can give of yourself. Bitonal music might just be a good thing to have in your toolkit.

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