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 albums 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
Lesson 2 Stretching the Blues
Lesson 3 What Comes First—Chords, Melody or Rhythmic Style?
Lesson 4 Structure and Form—AABA
Lesson 5 Melody, Part 1: The Motive
Lesson 6 Melody, Part 2: AA´ Form
Lesson 7 Blues with a Bridge
Lesson 8 The Jazz Ballad
Lesson 9 Tunes in 3/4
Lesson 10 Modal Tunes
Lesson 11 What Moves You: Swing, Bossa Nova, Funk?
Lesson 12 Back to the Source: Inspiration!
Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements
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.
- 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.
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.
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. =
When taken for credit, Jazz Composition can be applied towards these associated programs:
Associated Certificate Programs
- General Music Studies Professional Certificate
- General Music Studies Advanced Professional Certificate
- Jazz Composition and Arranging Professional Certificate