Michael McClimon

A Transformational Approach to Jazz Harmony

My dissertation was completed at Indiana University, and officially accepted on January 31, 2016.

It is published open-access via Proquest, or you can read the PDF here.



Harmony is one of the most fundamental elements of jazz, and one that is often taken for granted in the scholarly literature. Because jazz is an improvised music, its harmony is more fluid and potentially more complex than that of other, notated traditions. Harmony in common-practice jazz (c. 1940–1965) is typically represented by chord symbols, which can be actualized by performers in any number of ways, and which might change over the course of a single performance.

This dissertation presents a transformational model of jazz harmony that helps to explain this inherent complexity. While other theories of jazz harmony require transcriptions into notation, the transformational approach enables analysis of chord symbols themselves. This approach, in which chord symbols are treated as first-class objects, is consistent with the way jazz harmony is usually taught, and with the way jazz musicians usually discuss harmony. Though transformational theory has been applied to later jazz, the aim of this study is rather different: the music under consideration here might be called “tonal jazz,” in which functional harmonic progressions are still the rule.

After a general introduction, the first chapter introduces the transformational approach by developing a diatonic seventh-chord space. Chapter 2 expands this diatonic space to a fully chromatic space that focuses on the ii–V–I progression, laying the foundation for much of the work that follows. Chapter 3 extends the model to examine music in which root motion by thirds plays an important role, paying special attention to the way in which harmonic substitution interacts with more normative jazz harmony. Since the pioneering work of George Russell in the 1950s, many jazz musicians have drawn an equivalence between chords and scales; Chapter 4 develops a transformational approach to these chord-scales, enabling analyses of improvisations on tunes first analyzed in the preceding chapters. The final chapter centers on a single harmonic archetype, Rhythm changes, and brings together the theoretical framework in a series of analyses featuring solos by Johnny Griffin, Thelonious Monk, George Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt.


There are links to many more transcriptions (including Bb versions of these) on the transcriptions page, but here are the transcriptions that appear in my dissertation as Appendix B.