Listen until it hurts

I often tell people there are two ways to improve your improvisation – get even better at the things you are already good at, or get better at the things you are not so good at.  I want to focus on the second of these right now, and one specific aspect of this in particular.  I want to talk about how to stop doing the things you don’t want to be doing.  That is, how to correct bad habits.

Bad habits often don’t start out as bad.  They might be things we actually went out of our way to learn at one point, but now we realize we overuse.  That lick you took the trouble to practice in all twelve keys, and now you can’t stop yourself from playing it?  That’s the one I mean.  Maybe you don’t want to cut it out entirely, but you want to stop turning to it so much.  I believe the key to this is to teach yourself an aversion to it, and the way to do this is by listening to yourself over and over.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Say that I suddenly poked you in the arm.  Maybe you’d be surprised, probably little more.  What if I did it five times.?  You’d likely be annoyed, but still, little more.  Now imagine I did it five hundred times, right in a row.  You’d develop a bruise, and it would really hurt to be touched there.  To the point where if someone even looks at your arm, you would instinctively turn to protect yourself.

What if we did that with your lick (or other bad habit)?

Listen to a recording of yourself doing the thing you don’t like.  Hearing it the first time, maybe you laugh nervously.  Listen five times, maybe you say, “man, I’ve got to stop that”.  Listen five hundred times, now you develop a “bruise” – a real aversion to the habit.  With any luck, next time you’re playing and you start moving in that direction, that intinct to turn away to protect yourself kicks in, and you avoid it.  Realistically, you might not catch yourself the first time or two, and that’s fine – like I said, you normally don’t want to exorcise the lick from your playing completely.  Just reduce your reliance on it.

This to me is one of the wonderful about recording your own practice sessions, rehearsals, or gigs – the ability to listen to them critically.  Don’t get me wrong – I like to listen to recordings I’ve played on for enjoyment as well.  But I really learn when I start noticing and developing an aversion for the things I don’t like about my own playing.  As I reduce my reliance on these habits, my improvisation becomes more varied, more interesting, and ultimately more personal.

Thoughts on Harmonic Function

Over the years, I’ve developed some fairly unique (or so it seems to me) ways of presenting basic musical concepts.  I’ve had the opportunity to refine these techniques through the theory courses I have taught as well as with private students, workshops, etc.  I am now planning on putting together online courses to share this more widely.  Let me give you some idea of one of the first topics I will be teaching.

The way harmony is taught in classical theory courses tends to not be very relevant to practical applications to jazz, rock, or pop music, even though the concepts themselves are actually still completely sound.  I also feel that the way harmony is generally taught is generally too far removed from both ear training and the creative process (improvisation and/or composition).  My own approach to teaching harmony tries to address these issues.

I start with the same notion of tonic, dominant, and subdominant that you find in classical theory, but I look at it from another angle – on more relevant to the jazz/rock/pop language.  I see chord progressions as a series of short sequences that move back and forth between the tonic and the subdominant – which is to say, between I or iii (tonic) on one hand and ii or IV (subdominant) on the other.  A huge number of standards arrive at one of these chords every two bars.  Notice the dominant function isn’t part of this analysis, and that’s because in this idiom, we seldom “arrive” at the V chord in this way – it’s mostly a *means* of reaching a tonic chord.

Once we learn to see songs as a series of journeys from tonic to subdominant and back, we can then focus on the different routes one might take to get from tonic to subdominant, or from subdominant to tonic (or to kind of spin your wheels on the tonic, or the subdominant, for a couple of measures).  The relationships between the chords themselves generally a follow a set of six principles (e.g., “secondary dominant”, “minor plagal cadence”) that explain almost everything in tonal music.

By looking at harmony in this way, you reach a point where you can learn to hear and understand chord progressions very quickly.  Playing by ear becomes a breeze, as does transposition, and memorization, and one gains new insights into improvisation and composition, as voice leading is also an important part of this.

To some extent, these are the topics I cover in The Harmonic Langauge of Jazz Standards, but I would say I have developed my thinking and my ways of presenting the material considerably since the publication of that book.  And I feel an online course will be the right way to share this – that way I can demonstrate everything much more clearly, and provide a more interactive experience.

If you are interested, please subscribe to this site so I can continue to inform you of new developments.  And if you’d like to support the development of this course, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

Mastering MuseScore Online

I am pleased to announce the launch of my new website dedicated to MuseScore education: Mastering MuseScore Online!  There you will find free and premium resources for learning the world’s most popular music notation software.

MuseScore workshop in Denver

I will be teaching a MuseScore workshop in Denver next month, specifically geared for jazz and rock musicians.  The workshop spans two Saturday afternoons – February 10 & 17 – and covers everything you need to know to create professional-looking lead sheets and arrangements.

The workshop is presented by the Gift of Jazz.  For more information, visit



My best-known composition is undoubtedly Reunion, a solo piano piece I wrote specifically to be the demo song for MuseScore 1.2.  The main impetus was to show off the capabilities of the software, but I wanted to make it as musical as I could.  Response has been overwhelmingly positive and very gratifying.

Reunion by Marc Sabatella

Music Theory and “Rules”

I often hear people discussing music theory as if it were a bunch of rules to be followed or broken.  But to me this misses the point.

I like to compare music theory to gravity, and to ask people, “have you ever broken the law of gravity?”  It’s a silly question and often gets silly answers, but I hope my point is clear: the law of gravity is not a rule to be followed or broken; it just is.

Like music theory, the law of gravity doesn’t tell you what to do, it merely tells you about cause and effect.  Gravity doesn’t care whether or not you drop a rock you are holding; it just tells that *if* you let go of that rock, it will fall.  You can choose whether or not to let go based on whether or not you want that rock to fall.  Similarly, music theory doesn’t care whether or not you resolve a dominant chord to the tonic or not; if just tells you that *if* you resolve it that way, the result is satisfying in a particular way.  You can choose whether or not to resolve it based on whether or not you want that particular sense of satisfaction.

Keep this in mind as you study music theory.  No “rule” of music theory ever tells you what you must do; it merely helps you understand the effect of various different things you might try.

In the coming months, I plan to launch a whole new set of articles, lessons, and other resources to help you learn more about voice leading, harmony, rhythm, and other aspects of music theory.  Please subscribe to this site in order to be informed of updates!



MuseScore is the world’s most popular music notation software.  It is free and open source, and it runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux.  MuseScore also provides mobile apps for viewing and playing sheet music on your phone or tablet, and it powers the world’s largest sheet music creator community at

I am one of the developers of MuseScore as well as the author of Mastering MuseScore, the definitive guide to this amazing software.

If you have any interest in music notation software, I encourage you to check out MuseScore!


Another year, another “welcome to my new web site” first blog post 🙂

Actually, of course, my web site is not exactly new.  In fact, the Outside Shore has been online for over twenty years, and is one of the most known and loved resources for music education in the world.  But every so often, I feel the need to start over with a new design to suit a new vision, and this is one of those times.  The year 2018 marks my first attempt to turn my online presence into a full-time career.  I have a number of exciting projects I will be announcing and launching soon – not just in my spare time as has been the case in the past, but as my primary focus.  So thanks for hanging with me through these changes, and stay tuned!

Jazz Standards

The following tunes are among those most commonly played by jazz musicians. I have made an attempt to categorize them based on how they are usually played. Most of the compositions are by jazz musicians, except for the ones marked “standard”.

You should try to become familiar with as many of these tunes as possible. Most of them can be found in the Real Book or in Chuck Sher’s books.

All Blues                         blues, modal
All Of Me                         standard
All The Things You Are            standard
Anthropology                      rhythm changes, swing
Au Privave                        blues, swing
Autumn Leaves                     standard
Beautiful Love                    standard
Beauty And The Beast              rock
Billie's Bounce                   blues, swing
Black Orpheus                     Latin
Blue Bossa                        Latin
Blue In Green                     ballad, modal
Blue Monk                         blues, swing
Blue Train                        blues, swing
Blues For Alice                   blues, swing
Bluesette                         3/4, swing
Body And Soul                     ballad, standard
C Jam Blues                       blues, swing
Caravan                           Latin, swing
Ceora                             Latin
Cherokee                          swing
Confirmation                      swing
Darn That Dream                   ballad, standard
Desafinado                        Latin
Dolphin Dance                     modal, non-tonal
Donna Lee                         swing
Don't Get Around Much Anymore     swing
E.S.P                             non-tonal
A Foggy Day                       standard
Footprints                        3/4, blues, modal
Freddie Freeloader                blues, modal
Freedom Jazz Dance                non-tonal
Four                              swing
Giant Steps                       swing
The Girl From Ipanema             Latin
Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat             ballad, swing
Have You Met Miss Jones           standard
I Mean You                        swing
I Remember Clifford               ballad, swing
I Thought About You               standard
If I Were A Bell                  standard
Impressions                       modal
In A Sentimental Mood             ballad, swing
In Walked Bud                     swing
Joy Spring                        swing
Just Friends                      standard
Killer Joe                        swing
Lady Bird                         swing
Lullaby Of Birdland               swing
Mr. P.C.                          blues, swing
Maiden Voyage                     modal
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy               rock
Misty                             ballad, standard
Moment's Notice                   swing
My Favorite Things                3/4, modal, standard
My Funny Valentine                ballad, standard
My Romance                        standard
Naima                             ballad, modal
A Night In Tunisia                Latin, swing
Nica's Dream                      Latin, swing
Nostalgia In Times Square         swing
Now's The Time                    blues, swing
Oleo                              rhythm changes, swing
On Green Dolphin Street           Latin, swing, standard
Ornithology                       swing
Recorda Me                        Latin
Red Clay                          rock
Round Midnight                    ballad, swing
St. Thomas                        Latin
Satin Doll                        swing
Scrapple From The Apple           swing
The Sidewinder                    blues, swing
So What                           modal
Solar                             swing
Some Day My Prince Will Come      3/4, standard
Song For My Father                Latin
Speak No Evil                     modal, non-tonal
Stella By Starlight               standard
Stolen Moments                    blues, modal
Straight, No Chaser               blues, swing
Sugar                             swing
Summertime                        standard
Take Five                         5/4, modal
Take The "A" Train                swing
There Is No Greater Love          standard
There Will Never be Another You   standard
Up Jumped Spring                  3/4, swing
Waltz For Debby                   3/4, swing
Wave                              Latin
Well, You Needn't                 swing
When I Fall In Love               ballad, standard
Yardbird Suite                    swing

Annotated Discography

The best readily available jazz discography of which I am aware is the Penguin Guide To Jazz On Compact Disc, which contains listings and reviews of virtually all jazz albums that were in print in the early 1990’s. The book was edited in the United Kingdom, and there is a slight European avant garde slant to the ratings, but it is still the most complete, accurate, and generally useful discography of all types of jazz available to the general public.

The following discography is included to supplement the history discussion. Many of the specific artists and albums mentioned there are listed here, with a brief description of each. The albums listed are from my personal collection, and are listed in roughly chronological order, organized by style. I have tried to include mainly albums that I know are readily available, especially those that have been reissued on CD.

Basic Recommendations

I encourage you to check out any album mentioned more than once by name in the text of this primer. These albums include Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. These two albums illustrate many of the ideas and techniques discussed in this primer, and are considered among the most important jazz albums of all time.

To supplement these classic albums, you should consider some recordings by the remainder of the musicians in the “Top Ten List”. Most of Louis Armstrong’s important recordings were made before the advent of the LP, so any album of his you buy today is probably a compilation. Look for something that contains recordings made in the 1920’s with the Hot Five or the Hot Seven. Duke Ellington led one of the greatest big bands ever, but also made many recordings in small group settings. Look for recordings that feature Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, or Jimmy Blanton. Billie Holiday’s voice developed and changed over her career; you may wish to check out something from early and late in her life. Charlie Parker’s greatest and most influential recordings were as the leader of a quartet or quintet; there are hundreds of compilations to choose from.

Art Blakey was the first musician on this list to record extensively in the LP format. Any of the albums by the Jazz Messengers from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, such as Moanin’ or Ugetsu, are good choices. The quintessential Charles Mingus album is Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which features Eric Dolphy. For Thelonious Monk, the compilations on Blue Note are excellent, as are albums from the 1950’s and 1960’s such as Brilliant Corners and Monk’s Dream. For Ornette Coleman, try one of the early quartet albums like The Shape Of Jazz To Come, and when you are feeling braver, Free Jazz. Ornette also leads a fusion oriented group called Prime Time; you may wish to check out some of their albums as well.

Miles Davis can hardly be fairly represented by only Kind Of Blue; you should also consider The Birth Of The Cool, Miles Smiles, Sketches Of Spain, and Bitches Brew at the very least, as they represent very different periods in his career, all of them innovative. Similarly, John Coltrane is not sufficiently represented by only Giant Steps; you should supplement this with something from the classic quartet like A Love Supreme, and, if you are feeling adventurous, one of the later albums such as Ascension.


    • Louis Armstrong, The Louis Armstrong Story, Columbia – several volumes, including records with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, as well as recordings with Earl Hines and others
    • Art Tatum, The Complete Capitol Recordings, Capitol – solo and trio recordings
    • Bix Beiderbecke, Bix Beiderbecke, Columbia – several volumes, including recordings with various big bands
    • Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington, Laserlight – a sampler including record- ings from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, featuring Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ben Webster, and Paul Gonsalves
    • Errol Garner, Concert By The Sea, Columbia – this was for a long time the best selling jazz album ever
    • Charlie Parker, Bebop & Bird, Hipsville/Rhino – several volumes, includ- ing sessions with Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, and Max Roach
    • Charlie Parker, The Quintet, Debut/OJC – a famous live concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach
    • Bud Powell, The Amazing Bud Powell, Blue Note – trio and small group recordings with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins
    • Thelonious Monk, The Best Of Thelonious Monk, Blue Note – early boppish recordings
    • Miles Davis, The Complete Birth Of The Cool, Capitol – nine piece group with Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis
    • Lennie Tristano, Wow, Jazz – a sextet with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh
    • Dave Brubeck, Time Out, Columbia – featuring Paul Desmond and “Take Five”
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, A Night At Birdland, Blue Note – featuring Horace Silver and Clifford Brown
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, Moanin’, Blue Note – featuring Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons
    • Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, Ugetsu, Milestone – featuring Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, and Curtis Fuller
    • Clifford Brown, Study In Brown, EmArcy – the quintet with Max Roach
    • Horace Silver, The Best Of Horace Silver, Applause – several of his most well-known compositions
    • Miles Davis, Walkin’, Prestige – one of Miles’ favorite albums; hard bop with J.J. Johnson and Horace Silver
    • Lee Morgan, The Sidewinder, Blue Note – hard bop
    • Miles Davis, Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige – the first great quintet with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones
    • Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue, Columbia – the quintessential modal album, with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly
    • Miles Davis, Complete Concert 1964, Columbia – the forerunner to the second great quintet, with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, playing standards
    • Miles Davis, Miles Smiles, Columbia – the second great quintet with Wayne Shorter, at its peak
    • Miles Davis, Sketches Of Spain, Columbia – with the Gil Evans Orchestra
    • John Coltrane, Soul Trane, Prestige – one of Coltrane’s favorites of his early albums, with Red Garland and Philly Jo Jones
    • John Coltrane, Giant Steps, Atlantic – the album that established Coltrane as one of the most important improvisers of his day
    • John Coltrane, My Favorite Things, Atlantic – the forerunner to his long lived quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones
    • John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Impulse – the crowning modal achievement of the quartet
    • Charles Mingus, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, Candid – the classic album with Eric Dolphy
    • Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um, Columbia – contains his most well-known compositions
    • Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music, Columbia – supposedly Mingus’ favorite of his own albums; his music arranged for a large ensemble
    • Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music, Riverside – with John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and others
    • Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream, Columbia – his long-lived quartet with Charlie Rouse
    • Bill Evans, Sunday At The Village Vanguard, Waltz For Debby, Riverside – available as a combined set; a live recording from the trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian
    • Wes Montgomery, Full House, Riverside – an early hard boppish recording
    • Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, Prestige – one of his most popular albums
    • Sonny Rollins, The Bridge, RCA – with Jim Hall
    • Chick Corea, Inner Space, Atlantic – an album of mostly straightahead jazz with Woody Shaw
    • Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage, Blue Note – modal, non-tonal, and avant garde compositions with Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams
    • Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil, Blue Note – some of his best compositions, with Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock
    • VSOP, The Quintet, Columbia – live recording with Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams
    • Eric Dolphy, Eric Dolphy At The Five Spot, Prestige – with Booker Little and Mal Waldron
    • Eric Dolphy, Out To Lunch, Blue Note – influential avant garde recording
    • Andrew Hill, Point Of Departure, Blue Note – with Eric Dolphy and Joe Henderson
    • Max Roach, The Max Roach Trio Featuring The Legendary Hassan, Atlantic – Hassan Ibn Ali is a little known pianist who combines aspects of Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Don Pullen; this is his only known recording, and is highly recommended
    • Ornette Coleman, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Atlantic – one of his best freebop quartet albums
    • Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz, Atlantic – a collective free improvisation with Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, and Eric Dolphy
    • John Coltrane, New Thing At Newport, Impulse – live concert; half of this album is the Archie Shepp quartet
    • John Coltrane, Interstellar Space, Impulse – free duets with Rashied Ali
    • John Coltrane, Ascension, Impulse – free large ensemble improvisation
    • Albert Ayler, Witches & Devils, Freedom – avant garde
    • Pharoah Sanders, Live, Theresa – similar in style to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, but more free
    • Cecil Taylor, Jazz Advance, Blue Note – relatively straightahead music, including some standards, but with Taylor’s sense of harmonic freedom
    • Cecil Taylor, For Olim, Soul Note – free solo piano
    • Cecil Taylor, Spring Of Two Blue J’s, Unit Core – free group improvisation
    • Sun Ra, Out There A Minute, Restless/BlastFirst – avant garde big band
    • Miles Davis, Bitches Brew, Columbia – early, relatively free fusion with Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin
    • Mahavishnu Orchestra, Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia – heavy rock oriented fusion with John McLaughlin
    • Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Emergency, Polydor – heavy rock oriented fusion with John McLaughlin
    • Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, Columbia – funk oriented fusion
    • Weather Report, Heavy Weather, Columbia – pop oriented fusion with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius
    • Chick Corea and Return To Forever, Light As A Feather, Polydor – Latin oriented fusion with Stanley Clarke and vocalist Flora Purim
    • Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life, ECM – esoteric fusion with Jaco Pastorius
    • Steps Ahead, Modern Times, Elektra Musician – tight modern fusion with Michael Brecker
    • Miles Davis, You’re Under Arrest, Columbia – funkier modern fusion
    • Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, Virgin Beauty, Portrait – free modern fusion
    • Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Nice Guys, ECM – post modern jazz, world music, and freebop with Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell
    • World Saxophone Quartet, Dances And Ballads, Elektra Nonesuch – a capella (unaccompanied) saxophone quartet with David Murray
    • David Murray, New Life, Black Saint – octet with Hugh Ragin on trumpet
    • Anthony Braxton, Composition 98, hat ART – a post modern suite featuring Marilyn Crispell, Hugh Ragin, and Ray Anderson
    • John Carter, Castles Of Ghana, Gramavision – a suite of post modern compositions
    • Willem Breuker, Bob’s Gallery, BVHaast – avant garde big band
    • Don Pullen / George Adams Quartet, Don’t Lose Control, Soul Note – blues oriented post modern jazz
    • Improvised Music New York 1981, MU – energy music with Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Fred Frith, and John Zorn
    • Oregon, 45th Parallel, Portrait – New Age pioneers
    • Paul Bley, Floater, Savoy – harmonically liberated trio doing compositions by Paul and Carla Bley as well as Ornette Coleman
    • Abdullah Ibrahim, African Dawn, Enja – solo piano with South African influences
    • Keith Jarrett, Mysteries, Impulse – quartet with Dewey Redman doing relatively free post bop with world music influences
    • Wynton Marsalis, Think Of One, Columbia – adventurous neoclassic quintet with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and Jeff Watts
    • Wynton Marsalis, Marsalis Standard Time, Columbia – standards with rhythmic twists, featuring Marcus Roberts
    • Branford Marsalis, Crazy People Music, Columbia – adventurous neoclassic quartet with Kenny Kirkland and Jeff Watts
    • Steve Coleman, Motherland Pulse, JMT – acoustic M-Base
    • Steve Coleman, Drop Kick, Novus – electric M-Base
    • Gary Thomas, The Kold Kage, JMT – electric M-Base
    • Cassandra Wilson, Jump World, JMT – vocal and electric M-Base with Steve Coleman, Gary Thomas, and Greg Osby
    • Dave Holland, Extensions, ECM – mostly acoustic modern quartet with Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith
    • Tim Berne, Pace Yourself, JMT – frenetic post modern jazz
    • Michael Brecker, Michael Brecker, Impulse – modern acoustic and electric post bop
    • Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Geri Allen, Etudes, Soul Note – modern acoustic post bop
    • Steve Lacy, Live At Sweet Basil, Novus – modern acoustic post bop
    • Phil Woods, Heaven, Blackhawk – post bop with Tom Harrell
    • Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Discovery, Blue Note – post bop with Cuban influences
    • Don Byron, Tuskegee Experiments, Elektra Nonesuch – post modern, post bop
    • Don Pullen, Kele Mou Bana, Blue Note – post modern with world music and blues influences
    • David Murray, Shakill’s Warrior, DIW – post modern blues with Don Pullen on organ