Jazz Composition

Author: Joseph Mulholland | Course Code: OCOMP-395

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.

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.

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

Joseph Mulholland

Author & Instructor

Joe Mulholland is an Associate Professor of Harmony and Interim Chair of the Harmony Department at Berklee College of Music. 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'n'b styles.

An accomplished pianist, recording artist, composer, and teacher, he has released three CDs of original music written for his sextet and has composed numerous 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 performs with his trio one hundred nights a year at the Top of the Hub, an upscale jazz venue in Boston, in addition to appearing as a sideman and vocal accompanist in numerous other concert and club settings. In his capacity as music director for the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, he has composed and recorded sound design and songs for original productions of Peer Gynt and Dogtown Common. He also wrote eleven songs and three dance numbers for the original musicalBattle for Pigeon Cove Harbor, which received a three-week run in theaters on the North Shore of Boston.

Piano is his first love and main instrument, but he is equally comfortable on synthesizer and has an abiding love of Hammond B-3 organ. For enjoyment and variety, Joe plays guitar and percussion. He has recently divided his spare time between transcribing and playing Brazilian music and studying with the legendary jazz teacher Charlie Banacos.


Completion of Getting Inside Harmony 2 or equivalent knowledge and/or 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.

Required Textbooks

None required

Software Requirements

  • Notation software such as Finale or Sibelius. Students who can produce scores in their sequencing/DAW software or by hand (and scanned) can use their current technique.
  • Mac Web Browser: Firefox (Recommended), Chrome, or Safari
  • PC Web Browser: Firefox (Recommended), Chrome, Internet Explorer, or Edge
  • Flash Player (if using the Record Live tool)

Hardware Requirements

Mac Users

  • OS X 10.7 or higher
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 500 MB hard drive space 
  • Sound card
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam

PC Users

  • Windows Vista SP2 or higher
  • Intel Pentium 4 or higher
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 500 MB hard drive space
  • Sound card
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam


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Next Term Starts January 9

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