Jazz Composition


Authored by Joseph Mulholland


Course Code: OCOMP-395

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 3

Level 3

3-Credit Tuition


Non-Credit Tuition


Jazz composition is a rich 100-year tradition that covers everything from the majestic and highly detailed constructed compositions of Duke Ellington and others, to loose, spontaneous creations of melody over a one-chord vamp. This course focuses on the most common type of jazz composition: the short form, which has been the essence of jazz repertoire since the beginning. It is flexible enough to include blues and several standard song forms, as well as variations and combinations of them.

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Jazz Composition will guide you through a carefully chosen set of concepts that inform mainstream jazz songwriting. You’'ll learn variations of form, building from the blues structure, creating a compelling chord progression, and melodic development, as well as working with motives, different meters, and modes. The course features jazz classics as models by composers including Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Harold Arlen, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, and more.

You will learn one or two new compositional concepts per week, and immediately put them to use in composition exercises. Some of these exercises will immediately result in finished tunes, while others will be building blocks for later lessons. Each week, you will upload your work for the class to review, in order to share insights and solutions to challenges.

The goal of this music composition course is to teach compositional techniques that help you create jazz tunes that have a balance of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic appeal to keep your listeners and players coming back to them again and again. The work you complete in the course will provide the foundation for a number of pursuits, including composing an album’s worth of instrumental material for yourself or another recording artist, collaborating with a lyricist, writing a jazz musical, composing for a modern dance company, or creating songs for an independent film or video. Read Less

Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Lesson 1: Introduction to Form and Structure

  • Jazz Composition: Pop Song or Art Song?
  • Blues: Basic Form and Riff Melodies
  • The Power of a Blues Progression
  • Chord Interplay
  • Riffs
  • Blues Melody: Expanding the Pentatonic Scale

Lesson 2: Stretching the Blues

  • A Structure to Build On
  • The Turnaround
  • A Chromatic Approach to I7
  • Target Chords and Functional Substitutions
  • New Functions
  • Embellishing Secondary Dominants
  • Tritone Substitution of Dominants
  • Modal Interchange

Lesson 3: What Comes First—Chords, Melody or Rhythmic Style?

  • Momentum
  • Adding a Secondary Dominant
  • Creating a Compelling Progression
  • Creating a Functional Map
  • The Jazz "Kaleidoscope"—Using Tensions to Add Color

Lesson 4: Structure and Form—AABA

  • Sonata Form
  • ABA Variations
  • The Bridge
  • Rhythmic Style for Contrast
  • Getting There, and Getting Back Again: Pivot Chords

Lesson 5: Melody, Part 1: The Motive

  • Repetition
  • Repetition with Variation
  • Sequence
  • Inversion

Lesson 6: Melody, Part 2: AA´ Form

  • Melodic Development: Augmentation and Diminution
  • Intervallic Augmentation
  • Melodic Development: Rhythmic Variation
  • AA´ form

Lesson 7: Blues with a Bridge

  • More Reharmonization of Blues, Part I
  • Jazz / Blues Melody
  • Contrasting Bridge
  • Minor Blues
  • The Minor Blues Turnaround

Lesson 8: The Jazz Ballad

  • Melodic Contour
  • Melodic Development: Retrograde
  • The Silhouette
  • Richer Chord Colors
  • The Score Mixing Process in Depth
  • Recording and Mixing Score Music

Lesson 9: Tunes in 3/4

  • A New Feel
  • Tunes in 3/4: Triple Meter
  • 6/8 or 3/4
  • More Contrast at the Bridge: Closely Related Keys
  • Tonic Circle Vamps

Lesson 10: Modal Tunes

  • Modal Families: The Major Sounding Modes
  • Minor Modes
  • Modal Progressions
  • Modal Melodies

Lesson 11: What Moves You: Swing, Bossa Nova, Funk?

  • Expanding Harmonic and Melodic Frontiers
  • Odd Meters
  • Songs in 5/4
  • Sequencing a I7 II7 Tonic Vamp Over 5/4

Lesson 12: Back to the Source: Inspiration!

  • Using Funny, Quirky, and Evocative Titles as Compositional Inspiration
  • Using Rhythms from Daily Life
  • Using Pitches from Daily Life
  • Writing a Five-Beat Melodic Motive that Sounds Major


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Getting Inside Harmony 2 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required. You should have functional keyboard or guitar skills, so that you can easily play progressions using seventh chords and some tensions. You should be able to transcribe short, simple recorded melodies, and do Roman numeral and/or descriptive analysis of common jazz tunes. It would be helpful (but not essential) to have some prior experience trying to write in the jazz idiom.



  • Students are required to submit MP3 files based on their scores which can be produced using either notation software, recording live musicians, or MIDI sequencing in a DAW of their choice.


  • Students are required to create notation and submit it in PDF format. Options include:
    • Notation software (recommended option), such as Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, MuseScore (free), etc.
    • Handwritten notation captured by a digital camera or a scanner can be used in lieu of notation software.


  • Recommended: One (or both) of the following studio monitoring options:
    • Studio monitors (pair), such as JBL 305Ps or better, as well as an audio interface and necessary cables
    • Over-ear studio headphones, such as Sennheiser HD 600, Sony MDR-7506, Philips SHP9500, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, etc.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact support@online.berklee.edu with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Joseph Mulholland

Author & Instructor

Joe Mulholland is a professor in the Harmony department at Berklee College of Music. He teaches all the core Harmony classes, as well as the electives Harmony of Brazilian Song, Advanced Harmonic Concepts, Advanced Modal Harmony, and Reharmonization Techniques. He created and teaches the Jazz Composition course and the Music Foundations course for Berklee Online, and gives private Skype lessons in jazz songwriting to students around the world.

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In his capacity as chair of the Harmony department (2005-2015) at Berklee, Joe extensively revised the Harmony 2 and 3 workbooks and wrote the Music Application and Theory workbook for first-year students, as well as editing and contributing substantially to the Study Supplement for that course. With his colleague Tom Hojnacki, Joe wrote The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony (Berklee Press), the new Harmony 2 workbook, and the Harmony 2 Study Supplement.

An accomplished pianist, recording artist, composer, and teacher, Joe has released five albums of original music and has composed electronic scores for Boston-area dance companies, including a Tango Suite commissioned by the Northeast Youth Ballet that received performances in Boston and New Jersey. Joe also performs as a vocal accompanist. In his role as music director for the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, he composed and recorded sound design and songs for original productions of Peer Gynt and Dogtown Common. He also wrote 11 songs and three dance numbers for the original musical The Battle for Pigeon Cove Harbor, which received a three-week run in theaters on the North Shore of Boston.

Before coming to Berklee, Joe taught piano and ensemble at Brown University and Boston-area music schools, as well as serving as music director for Didi Stewart and Friends, an award-winning ensemble devoted to presenting full-length tributes to composers and performers in the American Songbook and classic R&B styles. Read Less

What's Next?

When taken for credit, Jazz Composition can be applied towards the completion of these related programs:


Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at advisors@online.berklee.edu.

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