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Playing outside the changes

Playing ‘outside’ or ‘outside the changes’ is a technique used in jazz improvisation where you intentionally play notes that don’t strictly follow the underlying chord progression or harmony. It helps build tension in the music, and is great for adding additional interest and excitement to solos. One of my main personal goals was for my piano playing to sound more modern, and playing ‘outside’ helped me get there.

The approach in Examples 1, 2 and 3 below is to start playing in line with the harmonic centre of the music, then move outside of it, then back in. You create tension, then release it. You can extend it further and longer than shown here to really create some musical drama. (I demonstrate this in the tutorial ‘Playing outside the changes: more exercises’.)

In these first examples, click the ‘Annotations’ switch below the respective keyboards to show inline descriptions of the harmony.

Example 1: jungle/drum and bass permalink

In this first example we jam on F minor 7 over a drum and bass beat…

Notes permalink

  • We establish the F minor harmony for three bars, before shifting the melody and chord voicing up a semitone to F sharp minor, while the bass part stays in F minor. I land back on F minor in the last bar. This technique is known as side-stepping or side-slipping.
  • The Dorian scale is used throughout (F Dorian when ‘inside’; F sharp Dorian when ‘outside’). Playing outside using the Dorian mode is covered further in the tutorial ‘Playing outside the changes: Dorian mode exercises’.
  • The voicing in the left hand is made up of the root, third, fourth and seventh. That’s probably my favourite, or at least default, voicing for minor 7 chords. Try out different voicings and listen for what sounds good to your ears.
  • The first note (C) in bar 4 is part of the F minor harmony, even though we’ve started playing in F sharp minor in the left hand. That’s just what I played when I recorded this take. It doesn’t sound bad at this fast-ish tempo, and from an artistic point of view I welcome any additional dissonance.

Example 2: chilled Latin permalink

Notes permalink

  • This example is also in F minor. I establish the key for a couple of bars, then move up a whole step twice in both hands (to G minor, then A minor) before returning to F minor.
  • Listen to how ascending two consecutive whole steps above F minor builds tension before resolving on the last beat of bar 4. The presence of the A natural when playing outside is pleasingly discordant with the A flat of the F minor home key.

Example 3: straight-ahead bebop permalink

Here is an uptempo rhythm changes bridge. I step outside for just a couple of beats, in bar 4, moving up a semitone against chord VI7 (G dominant 7). This is another example of side-slipping…

Jam along permalink

Here are the backing tracks for the jungle and chilled Latin examples above if you want to jam along and work on moving inside and outside the harmony. Start simple. Use the Key dropdown menu to try them in a selection of keys.

Jungle/drum and bass beat permalink

Jam along: Jungle/DnB beat

Chilled Latin beat permalink

Jam along: Chilled Latin beat

Exercises permalink

In these exercises I take a phrase (highlighted in pink) and move it up or down, playing outside the tonal centre. The bits where I’m playing outside are highlighted in blue.

Exercise 1: Jungle, minor 3rds ascending permalink

I’ve marked the scale/chord degrees above the notes. These can be useful to think about as you transpose the phrase. Before I start playing, I note to myself that ‘I start on the 7th of a dominant 7 chord, play a short scale up to the 3rd, then end on the root’. I then know what notes I should be playing as I transpose everything up minor thirds.

On a gig or recording session there may not be time to think in these terms, and you’ll have to rely more on your ear. So it would be helpful to try these exercises using just your ear; or even remembering you’re starting on the 7th each time, then playing the other notes by ear.

Exercise 2: Medium swing, major 2nds descending permalink

A similar exercise, this time playing against a medium swing beat, and moving the phrase down in major 2nds each time…

Notice how the phrase is displaced rhythmically each time, and how the third-to-sixth instances are truncated, before the full phrase returns when we land back on C minor 7 in the penultimate and last bars. This rhythmic displacement helps add additional interest to the music, and is something to keep in mind as you work on incorporating these kind of ‘outside’ techniques into your soloing.

Create your own phrases and try the same approach. Listen for what sounds good to you, both in terms of the phrase itself and how it works with different rhythms, styles etc. In specific contexts, a particular phrase’s ascending or descending by a given interval will sound better than in other contexts.

Suggested listening permalink

A few recordings which feature some great ‘outside’ playing:

  • Brad Mehldau, ‘Solar’ (Chuck Wayne), from The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 (1999): in bar 297, Brad plays an E major chord and scale instead of the tune’s ‘default’ E flat harmony. The bass plays an E flat line.
  • Brad Mehldau, ‘Spiral’ (Mehldau), from Seymour Reads the Constitution! (2018): there are some good, clear examples of taking a phrase and playing it ‘outside’ (à la Exercises 1 and 2 in this tutorial) at 2:53 to 2:57, 7:23 to 7:26, and 7:44 to 7:47.
  • Jason Moran, ‘Another One (Live)’ (Tarus Mateen), from The Bandwagon (Live) (2003), eg at 3:09.
  • Jason Moran, ‘Twelve’ (Jaki Byard), from Facing Left (2000): Jason weaves inside and outside of the changes in expert fashion throughout his solo.
  • Bill Evans, ‘Peace Piece’ (Evans), from Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1959): the whole section from about 3:30 is quite ‘outside’ and dissonant. The particular phrase he plays at different places on the keyboard (in the manner shown in Exercises 1 and 2 in this tutorial) beginning at 3:52 is played outside the prevailing harmony each time, and doesn’t resolve. There is a temporary resolution to the general dissonance from around 4:12-4:18, before the music again becomes dissonant.
  • Vijay Iyer Trio, ‘Combat Breathing’, from Uneasy (2021): Some nice outside playing throughout this filmed live performance, including at 1:24-1:30, 1:42-1:50, 2:27-2:35, 3:09-3:16 and from 6:47 until about the end.