My uncle is a jazz player and showed me a few licks while I was visiting him but never explained what context he would play them in. I'm not much of a jazz player but I love the sound of one lick in particular, though I can't make sense of what I am playing, and it's driving me crazy. Without any chords behind it, I don't really understand the note choice.


I apologize for the sound quality. I am away from home right now and recording with my phone.

  • I think I figured it out. It would be played over a 2-5-1 in D major. Emin9 - A6 - A7 - Dmaj7. With some chromatic embellishments in there that I guess you could call Phrygian and Dorian. Is this correct? – Cody Mar 20 '19 at 15:56
  • If you change the question to something like "how do you make sense of a plain melody where you don't know the time signature or the key or the chords", then my lenghty blah blah answer fits a little bit better. ;) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 20 '19 at 21:21

A simple explanation would be something like this in D major.


The 1/16th note run is just my interpretation. It could also be in G major, but D major feels like a simpler answer.

Here's what it could sound like https://vocaroo.com/i/s1wP8qR8vK1U

Chords in that Vocaroo clip that has the lick twice in a row

| Em7    A7    | C#7#9 F#7 Bm Am  | G   Em7   | A7 Eb9 D      |

... what happened, the chords automagically turned into guitar chord diagrams?

I'll make it a picture instead chords

Here's how it could sound in G. At first I thought this was too far-fetched, but after listening to it a few times it starts to sound OK. https://vocaroo.com/i/s0fRJDdScG03

Chords: | C Bm7 | Am7 D7 G | Am7 D7 | Am D7 G |

If you just spreat the phrases differently, the line can be anything. Here's a pop song chorus in B minor. https://vocaroo.com/i/s0VZ4pSXXtTv

A similar chord progression is used in any number of existing songs.

| Em A | D G | Em6/C# F#7 | Am6/F# B7 |

The way I make chord progressions for "audio melodies" that aren't written down as music notation goes something like this:

  • First I try to imagine a beat and meter on top of the notes, because where "one" is and where the pulse is, decides which notes feel stronger harmony-wise. (it's important that you have only a single-note melody without chords, so if there are chords, re-do the melody without them)
  • Then I get an idea of what keys it could possibly be in, based on what notes are emphasized and what sounds like a strong note, what the scale feels like. Here the obvious choices are D major / B minor or G major / E minor.
  • I listen to and play the melody on top of my beat, and it usually speaks for itself, outlining some chords. For example the notes B - G played on the strong beat are a very strong indication that the most natural choice for chord is G major or E minor, and any other choice is more "creative", (since we decided that the key feels like D major or G major). For example an A9 or G/A would be a nice chord choice. Cmaj7 would work if the key is G major, but if the key is D major then Cmaj7 is a "creative" choice. G7/F might be interesting, but it's more on the creative side as well, with the outside-scale F note, needing a bit of modulation trickery.
  • I decide on some starting and ending chords, and then fill the space in between them with something.
  • The "something" is done with swings and turnarounds of the harmony, often using voice leading to give inspiration. Basically, everything is just I, IV or V of some key, either on the major side (D, G, A) or minor side (Bm, Em, F#m or F#). Voice leading could be like, take a bass note or some other note and start moving it step-by-step. Either (1) steps along the scale, (2) steps along the circle of fourths/fifths, or (3) steps along the chord tones. And then use a chord that fits that new stepped voice.
  • Then re-do the whole thing a few times over. Try to think of alternative ways. If possible, change the start and end points and the middle points, make the turns go the other way: IV, V, I or IV, I, V or whatever. If a voice stepped downwards, step it upwards. As long as it feels appropriate and/or interesting. If it's too boring and obvious, try adding some non-obvious things like modulations, "chromatic mediants" (a new word I learned from the interwebz), secondary dominants, tritone substitutions, pedal tones.
  • (Actually, usually I cut corners and do the whole thing on the fly, trying to accompany the melody right away as it's playing, but I guess that wouldn't serve as a sensible process description)

Very often, you can fit an existing known chord progression on the melody. If you play a lot of songs by ear, at some point chord choices start to offer themselves pretty much automatically.

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  • That sounds great! How did you go about choosing those chords? – Cody Mar 20 '19 at 19:30

Most of the notes belong to the D major scale (D E F♯ G A B C♯). I think the exceptions can be explained as chromatic runs, like the initial D D♯ E, or G F♯ F F♯ later.

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  • That was my thinking as well. Thanks for the reaffirmation! – Cody Mar 20 '19 at 19:31

From my listening to it, the lick sounds like it's in 6/8 time, with the most strongly emphasized notes being B, A, G, and F♯ in that order. Being the classically oriented musician that I am, my initial tendency is to harmonize it with chords based on the chords G, D, Em, and D (i.e. some variant on I - V - vi - V), but better jazzers than me can probably come up with something better, and your suggestion of Emin9 - A6 - A7 - Dmaj7 also sounds fine.

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  • Interesting. Going by you piiperi's comments it seems like there are many valid interpretations using the same lick. The only reason I heard it as 2-5-1 is because it is a very common jazz progression, or so I've been told. Thanks for the insight! – Cody Mar 20 '19 at 19:35

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