Create your own musical language using Blues Jazz Theory™

Exploring Context-Dependent Meaning in Music: Tones, Sequences, and Harmonic Contexts

The phrase “context-dependent meaning” is associated with the linguistic and philosophical fields of semantics which focuses on the meanings attached to words and how their meanings and interpretations are dependent on the grammatical and situational contexts in which they are spoken. All sounds have inherent meanings associated with the contexts in which they occur. A lion’s roar, a knock on the door, the honk of a car horn, the sound of someone’s name—all have different meanings that are dependent on the contexts in which they occur. Words are a special category of sounds whose meanings are often highly context-dependent. Many words in the English language sound alike (homonyms) but have multiple meanings that vary in how much they overlap. Determining these meanings often requires using different sources of information such as prior knowledge and/or context to converge on an interpretation. Similarly, musical sounds have “context-dependent meanings” relative to or in combination with other tones. The musical meanings that are ascribed to individual tones, sequences of tones, and chord tones are dependent upon the melodic and harmonic contexts in which they occur.

Unraveling Musical Contexts: Melodic and Harmonic Meanings in Tones and Sequences

On a melodic level context-dependent meanings are displayed in the sequences of tones used in the generation of coherent musical phrases; at the harmonic level they are found in the simultaneous sounding of tones to generate musical sonorities that are identified as consonant or dissonant according to culturally relevant norms. The context dependent meanings in a chromatic scale are limited to the position of a tone in a 12-tone sequence of equidistant intervals, whether ordered as sequences of minor 2nds, perfect 4ths, or perfect 5ths. In diatonic scales they are seen in 7-tone sequences of major and minor 2nds, major and minor 3rds, perfect and augmented 4ths and diminished 5ths. Simple combinations of two tones are described by the intervals in frequency of which they are composed from minor 2nds to octaves; more complex combinations of three or more tones are identified as major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. Chords also have context-dependent meanings relative to their position in the scale of the tonality and are typically described using Roman numerals from I(i) to vii(VII) or the harmonic descriptions of tonic, dominant, subdominant, etc.

Jazz Improvisation Dynamics: Unveiling Context-Dependent Meanings in Melodies and Harmonies

Effective Jazz improvisation employs multiple context dependent meanings within a given melodic phrase, harmonic progression, or tonality. The ability to nimbly shift between different contexts and/or express alternative meanings is highly prized among Jazz musicians and is typically acknowledged with the compliment, “I like your language!” But the context-dependent meanings found in Jazz improvisation also draw from a wellspring of musical norms that are codified in the melodic sonorities associated with African American music. It can be deduced from the melodies and harmonic progressions of thousands of Blues, Gospel, and Jazz songs that “blue notes” are among the most salient sonorities of African American music and provide the most useful sets of complex-dependent meanings found in Jazz improvisation. Blues/Jazz Theory offers an Afrocentric interpretation of the complex dependent meanings associated with Jazz improvisation as demonstrated in the performance practices of Blues, and Gospel and the styles of the most influential Jazz artists.

In this interpretation the context dependent meanings associated with blue notes are identified as melodic operations that elucidate, rather than obfuscate, the unique melodic and harmonic characteristics of Jazz tonalities. One of the most infamous aphorisms associated with Jazz improvisation is, “There is no such thing as a wrong note as long as you know the right resolution”. Of course, no one ever follows up those words with an explanation of what makes a resolution “right” or “wrong”. Blues Jazz Theory™ addresses the underlying truths of this aphorism by demonstrating the ways in which blue notes bring additional levels of semantic meaning and harmonic meaning to Jazz tonalities. Moreover, blue notes express a variety of context dependent meanings beyond those associated with Western theory and aesthetics.

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