What are the characteristics that make bebop, bebop?

A well-written answer in my perspective includes but is not limited to the following (credit to @jdjazz for writing (a) through (e))

  • (a) the harmony/chords of bebop (upper extensions, alterations, presence more changes, lots of ii-V's, substitutions, reharmonizations)

  • (b) the melodies (heavy syncopation, up-tempo)

  • (c) the rhythmic patterns

  • (d) the structure of songs (head-solos-head, with a heavy emphasis on improvisation & virtuosity)

  • (e) the foundations in blues & swing (e.g., melodic ideas, harmonic ideas, contrafacts, but also the ways bebop intentionally deviated from these genres)

  • (f) the historical and cultural elements. (The rhythm section evolved quite a bit too in bebop.)

  • (g) IMPORTANT-> an analysis of the particular musical devices and phrases that are quintessential to bebop.

For example, in part (f), an answer may include 13 different musical devices, and for each of those devices, say, the use of the b13 as a passing tone on a major chord, your answer explains the concept in detail and gives examples of those devices listing specific timestamps to bebop masters such as Charlie Parker or Bud Powell using that musical device.

I know this may seem like a really long question with lots of research to be done, but I feel that it will be super beneficial to all the jazz lovers out there and to anyone learning the genre of bebop.

  • Would a brisk tempo also be a defining feature of bebop, or is there also such a thing as a "slow bebop ballad"?
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 11:33
  • @Dekkadeci, that's a good question. Ballads were played in bebop, and there were definitely some medium tempo tunes, but the really fast tempos were very prominent and represented a break from swing music, which was played at tempos people could dance to.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 12:17
  • I agree that the information is valuable. The point about culture may or may not be off-topic--I would need to think more about that. (For the bebop movement, cultural influences are generally viewed as inextricable from the musical elements by academic scholars.) Looking at the question as edited, I am wondering if it would be best to split this into several different questions? The way the original Q was written, I was thinking of just a brief overview of each point. A detailed analysis of each point may be too hard to do in one question.
    – jdjazz
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 12:32
  • I have an Adobe Acrobat PDF of the Jamey Abersold's Jazz Handbook. I could uplink it but I don't know how to do that to this web service. It is an excellent overview of Jazz with specific sections about Bebop and the Blues with a lot of scales, hints, tricks and techniques.
    – G Kearny
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:00
  • The book is available on Jamey Aebersold's site: jazzbooks.com/mm5/download/FQBK-handbook.pdf
    – jdjazz
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 1:41

2 Answers 2


As David Baker puts it:

  1. Complex harmonic ideas
  2. Longer melodic phrases using odd intervals built on the extensions of chords (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc.).
  3. Harmony gained equal footing with melody and rhythm (western influence).
  4. A sound instrumental technique was mandatory.
  5. A good ear and a quick mind were indispensable.
  6. Eighth notes and sixteenth notes became the basic units of time.
  7. Horns aimed for clean, piano-like execution.
  8. Players followed the trend toward the vibrato-less sound(reducing the latitude and flexibility of sound production is another western concept). as a practical consideration, virtuosity demands an unencumbered sound.
  9. The emphasis was more on content than on sound.
  10. Complex chords provided soloists with a broader harmonic base; making possible a greater variety of note choices and a higher incidence of chromaticism.
  11. Chords served as the improvisational referential rather than the melody.
  12. Hot improvisation (fast, intense, impassioned) was the rule.
  13. Collective improvisation was exclusively between the soloist and the rhythm section.
  14. Bebop was primarily small band music but found some expression in a few select big bands.
  15. A broadened concept of chord substitution came into being; this helped to provide a broader harmonic base.
  16. The music moved ever closer to western European music because of its emphasis on harmony and instrumental facility and it's increasing use of other western musical devices.
  17. The entire language of jazz was questioned, subtracted from, added to, purged, and reaffirmed.
  18. Poly-rhythm became an important factor again.
  19. Bebop tended to codify all that had gone before; it is considered the common practice period in jazz.
  20. Unison melody statements were the rule of thumb because the increasing harmonic complexities made counterpoint and secondary lines less feasible.
  21. The break as a structural device regained popularity.
  22. Bebop players made liberal use of “quotes” or interpolations from other tunes.
  23. Bebop reduced melody to its essentials.there were few backgrounds, some brief introductions and endings, and some unison interludes.
  24. Melodic lines were scalar rather than chordal.
  25. More sophisticated scales were introduced into the language; one example is the diminished scale (1 b2 b3 3 #4 5 6 b7 8)
  26. There was more effort to make the solo lines cohesive by linking them together with turn-backs, cycles, and another musical adhesive devices.
  27. The piano became the center of the new expression.
  28. Asymmetrical solo construction became a fact.

My source is Jamey Aebersold's Jazz Handbook.

  • 3
    The source you've cited is extremely helpful. However, per the Help Center: "Do not copy the complete text of external sources; instead, use their words and ideas to support your own." Copying and pasting an complete text of an article someone else wrote can qualify as copyright infringement, even if you cite the source.
    – jdjazz
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 20:03
  • This is pretty good answer however it does not touch on all the points that I mentioned in my question. If you expand on these points and organize them it will be a great answer Commented May 3, 2020 at 19:49

Bebop characteristics include fast harmonic changes, modulations, ii-V-I cadences, dominant cycle progressions, the use of tritone substitutions and upper scale extensions. Use of altered sounds on functioning V7 chords (Those resolving to the tonic from the 5). These sounds are generated via triadic pairs, the altered scale, whole tone, harmonic and melodic minor and many other pitch collections, including diminished arpeggios and other four note arpeggios derived from min-major chords, major augmented, dominant chords and half diminished arpeggios. Scales and arpeggios feature in the use of melodic improvisation, including the Lydian dominant for tritone chords, half whole and half whole scales, all in the pursuit of reconciling altered notes tension to provide melodic movement via the release of non diatonic sounds into resolved cadences. Stylistically the bebop sound features techniques such as Coltrane changes for fast passages, and approach notes, both diatonic and chromatic, and also features such as enclosures over key chord tones. Other devices include 3-9, 5-11, 7-13 arpeggios, the "minorisation" of dominant chords sounds, conversion of singular dominant chords into ii-V substitutions. And the ii-V equivalents generated by using the tritone chord substitution. And also extensive use of upper harmony, altered fifths and 9ths. Also chord inversions, drop 2, drop 4 harmony and many other techniques.


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