I'm trying to find a name for the practice of omitting notes in jazz piano.

There was an American jazz pianist (black I think) who was famous for it. His show piece was to start playing "Mac The Knife" and omit notes till the tune just disappeared. Then he would add notes back in but now the tune became "The Dead March". Extremely clever.

I had this on and album now lost and I also want to find the name of the musician. I think it was Thelonius Monk but I cannot find this particular piece on the web so I may be wrong.

  • I read the question such as that it is notes of the melody that gets omitted, rather than notes of the chords. I imagine such as playing the full melody the first chorus, and during the next chorus omitting for instance all C notes of the melody, or perhaps all notes on the first beat of each measure, and then omitting more and more melody notes for the consecutive choruses. Is this what you are asking about? (I.e. more of a music performance gimmic technique question rather than a music theory question.) Jul 17 '13 at 16:39
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    I haven't heard this, but it certainly sounds like something Monk could/would do. Jul 17 '13 at 20:33

Based on your description, "omit notes till the tune just disappeared", I assume that the player is either omitting notes from the melody or from everything, until he is playing nothing or almost nothing. Because this isn't done incredibly frequently it may not have a proper name, merely a description of what is happening. The closest thing I could think of was called "note suppression" which is well described in this paper(I can't find a free version): http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=087865DECE297BD3A0D33A018D2EF0AB.journals?fromPage=online&aid=253947

This concept describes avoiding one note from the scale (in a regular tonal piece) throughout the majority of a song, then presenting it later in the piece and it feels special because it is the one thing you haven't had. The example in the article uses The Beatles "Fixing a Hole". In the bridge they "fill the whole" with the suppressed note and emphasize it with repetition.

So, to answer your question, if it doesn't have a name and needs a description, I could imagine calling it "Gradual Suppression" but that would only describe the first half. The second half could be "Gradual Introduction" or "Gradual Exposition" if it happened on its own, or "Transition Through Gradual Suppression/Introduction" for the whole thing.

That is not a quick way to refer to something so the technique would likely end up taking a shorter name, maybe named after the performer if others don't do it much.


I believe it has a few names, I call it a Suggestive chord.

Practical/Technical Justification The practice is especially prominent in guitar playing, because the wide spacing and only having 6 strings limits the number of tones that can be played at the same time.

suppose you want to play a C13, this consists scale wise of 1 3 5 b7 9 11 and 13. with 6 strings and 4 fingers on your left hand, playing the chord with all notes at once is impossible.

On piano this limitation is less so, which brings me to...

Sonic Justification From a sonic point of view though, playing 7 tones creates an extremely dense sound. as far as intervals go you have 5040 different combinations happening! (7x6x5x4x3x2).

Depending on the mood of the piece or what you're going for often a simpler chord which includes the 13 is more (subjectively)appropriate. For example if an add 13 chord is used instead, you only have 4 notes happening at once which is a less dense 24 intervals at once. Then of course you have all the choices of which notes to include, the voicing and all that other fun stuff reserved for somewhere else.

For guitarists reading this who want to learn more, you could do worse than Ted Greene's Chord Chemistry

I'm sure a piano player could reccommend a similar book that can be mentioned here, and purchased by me ;)

Related Questions

Does a chord need to include its root?


Sounds like you're describing an additive/subtractive process which is a technique used a lot in minimalist music and, I believe, has its origins in indian classical music. This page (search for "additive") distinguishes between two kinds of additive process:

  • Linear: one keeps adding notes and the musical unit becomes longer and longer. If your pianist used this technique, he'd first play all of "Mac The Knife", then play it again, maybe leaving out a few notes from the end thus making it shorter, then with the next repeat leave out more notes, etc. When there's nothing more to play he'd play perhaps the first few notes of "The Dead March", then play a longer segment, etc. until finally he plays the whole piece.
  • Block: the musical unit has a fixed length and the added notes just replace rests. If the pianist used this technique he'd play "Mac The Knife" many times but every time replacing more and more notes with corresponding rests. Finally it would be all silence and he'd start to replace some of the silence with notes from "The Dead March" and keep repeating it until he plays all of them.

EDIT: Actually the page also mentions textural additive process where one adds voices until all of them are present. This doesn't seem to apply in your case, though, since it would mean something like first playing the piece in full, then dropping the bass line, then dropping chords (perhaps partially), then dropping the melody etc.

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