Toolkit: Tritone substitutions

The orthodox meaning of tritone substitution is replacing a V7 chord with the dominant seventh chord half an octave away.  This works because the two notes that imply a dominant seventh chord–third and seventh–match between these two chords.  If you play B and F together, it’s a jarring interval and they want to resolve to C and E.  In other words, those two notes imply a G7 chord, especially in a C major context.  However, you could call them F and Cb and resolve them in the opposite direction, to Gb and Bb, implying a Db7 chord.  Tritone substitution is using one in place of the other in a V7-I cadence.  A variation is to use the V7 and go to the substitution for an intermediate measure before resolving to the I, especially on turnarounds.  To help establish the tonality, I put a ii chord in these example cadences: Dmin7-G7-C; Dmin7-Db7-C; Dmin7-G7-Db7-C.

What’s interesting to me is that a typical chord resolves to something a half step away from a tritone.  G resolves to C or D, either side of the tritone Db.  Put the other way, if you want to get from Db to C, substituting a chord a tritone away gets you there.  Of course, if you just pound three chords in a row, Db-G-C, it’s an awfully high contrast of outside and consonance.  However, if you play Db and C chords but play a melody of G scale to C, it’s still outside but it flows.  If you play a melody that starts in a Db scale and drifts through a G scale into C, you get a nice mix of savory chords and sweet resolution.

I do both in chromatic progressions.  In something like “A Night in Tunisia” that goes back and forth between e minor and F, I’m willing to do a Bb arpeggio or scale over the e minor on one measure somewhere in the late part of the phrase, resolving to the F and into the cadence.  However, in a modal piece like “So What” or “Little Sunflower”, that’s entirely too angular.  Instead I’ll work in the long measures of e minor more and more flatted fifths and major sevenths, and coming up on the F chord, start resolving those to the four and seven instead of to the tonic chord.  Over e minor, play patterns of notes like Bb-A-G-E or D#-E-F#-E; then put the D# and D together in some sort of E-D#-D descending line to start suggesting an Eb-D resolution; then alter the motifs to include an F natural, then start leaving out the G in the first one to highlight the Bb-A resolution; and I’m already comfortably in F before the chord changes.

It’s either that or play up the sudden chord change after sixteen bars of pure e minor.  I figure the head has defined that well enough, so I’m trying to draw smooth lines that blur that boundary into one continuous musical thought.  At any rate, that’s what I’m going for.

Toolkit: Sight-transposing

I learned this exceptionally useful skill early on, and sometimes I take it for granted.  From ages 13-18, I’d roll out of bed every Sunday morning and play the church service cold, not even looking to see what the hymns were until the prelude was underway.  Practice makes second nature, and that’s served me well at many a gig.

Several different people tried to teach me transposition by several different methods.  For those not in the know, a standard Bb trumpet (or clarinet, tenor/soprano sax, treble clef baritone, etc) has to play a note one whole step above the note you want to hear; it’s just the way music is written (a topic for another day).  Other instruments transpose different amounts or not at all.

One suggestion: read the treble clef parts as though they were tenor clef and adjust the key signature.  That’s clever, except that I learned to read tenor clef by pretending it was treble and reverse-transposing.  It might work for someone else who learned tenor clef first, but I can go years without seeing any kind of K clef so it really doesn’t help me.  (Eb saxophone/bari sax players can pretend they’re reading bass clef, with the same assumption.)

Another suggestion: count two half steps before playing each note.  Variation 1: count a major second before playing each note, which means constantly shifting your key center.  No thanks.

Third suggestion, which is how I started: adjust the key signature, then play the note right above the written note (space above the line, line above the space).  It takes surprisingly little practice before it just clicks, and sometimes I habitually do this when the part is already transposed for me.  How embarrassing.

Nobody suggested this, but it’s what I eventually started doing: Translate everything into scale degrees (or solfeggio), then translate that into whatever key you need.  This sounds like doing it the hard way because it’s a two-step process, but again, after a while it clicks.  (Of course, you have to know your scales and keys very well.)  It doesn’t work for everything; anything in an unusual scale (basically not major, modal, or harmonic minor), anything with a lot of accidentals, or anything atonal pushes me back to reading the note above the written, at least for a measure or two.  However, this approach lets me transpose to any key, which means I can read off a sax part or allow the accompanist to choose a key (after negotiation, because let’s face it, some keys are better for the instrument).  It also means I can adjust if someone tells me the wrong key, an accompanist forgets to remove a guitar capo or MIDI transpose, or a singer/choir drifts out of pitch.  Perhaps best of all, it means I can use the extension on the piccolo to put me in a key that’s friendlier to the fingers and has better intonation.

What I didn’t mention is that this technique also requires you to be able to put music into and out of your memory on the fly.  Remind me to tell you some time about sightreading from memory.

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As usual, got up early and played a couple services.  Easter is fun because it’s one of the few times I get to play the piccolo, and also I play a lot more jazz than classical.  Also, I rarely get to play with a pipe organ.

We did the Stanley Voluntary as a postlude.  I don’t have a D trumpet; I play it in E on a piccolo.  I have the A extension, so I could play it in F, but frankly the trills are harder.  If they weren’t, all other things being equal, I’d pick E on the argument that sharp keys are more joyful.  (All other things are not equal.  Intonation is more difficult in E.  However, my ear is in Bb, so I’m just as happy to take that challenge.  Also, the valves are in Bb–they don’t adjust proportionally with the extension, but that’s a trivial effect.  The trills were the deciding factor.)  It went very well at the early service.  It went long, which meant for much of it I was playing in full reverb for nobody but the choir, and it felt terrific, just the joy of playing.  (The applause was nice too.  Remember when nobody would dare clap hands in a church?  I mean, certain denominations?)  For the later service, we made some cuts to shorten it, and both I and the organist were tired and ready to go.

As always, we played the Hallelujah chorus.  I’m thankful my piccolo (an Amati) has the fourth valve, because that means I can switch halfway through.  I prefer to start with the fuller tone of the strad, but you have to be on the piccolo for that run leading into “King of kings”.  (Honestly, those five notes are the reason they hire a trumpet; everything else is gravy.)  With the fourth valve, I can get to E above middle C (concert D) for some accents with the tenors and basses, then do the arpeggios into the high, delicate passages.  Very useful.  Easy to overblow the little guy on the low notes, though.

We also played “Worthy Is the Lamb,” which really isn’t great for single trumpet, organ and choir.  On this and parts of the Hallelujah, I play in unison with one or another vocal part, quietly, letting the note just hang on to the voices and float along with them, adding color rather than volume.  For some sections I wrote out a part that moved between vocal parts, staying in rhythm and chord but not actually doubling anybody.  It’s all about accenting and staying out of the way.  Other than that, sight-transposing a few hymns, making up a descant, reading a part (transposed) on an arrangement for the processional.

I do like the piccolo.