Are Videogames The New Jazz?

Why would I ever compare playing jazz to playing videogames? Apart from the obvious answer that I’m a big fan of both.

Well, they both depend on what gamers call “twitch”: instinctive use of patterns kept in muscle memory, and triggered subconsciously.

To achieve this, musicians and competitive gamers practise intricate finger and hand movements, chained together and timed precisely. (E.g. a fighting game might give only 1/60th of a second in which to counter an opponent’s attack).

Aggressive competition defines much online gaming and was also a celebrated aspect of early jazz and bebop. Speed, rhythmic intelligence and imaginative reharmonisations were prized in those scenes, demonstrated at jam sessions, battles and cutting contests.

Speed, timing and rule-breaking shortcuts are the hallmarks of video game speedrunning, where enthusiasts develop techniques and exploit glitches to achieve impossible trajectories and velocities…

I’m gonna get a little more abstract now. Hold onto your hats. Both video games and music are virtual worlds. They transport us to somewhere imaginary. They also change instantly in response to the performer’s decisions. (Bandmates providing the reaction in the one case, the computer and/or other players providing it in the other.)

And, music and games both happen in virtual space. The perception of space in music is complex, but here are some known aspects:

  • High notes are heard as being above low notes and never the other way around (although some cultures use a different binary, e.g. thin-thick). More here.
  • Our hearing automatically interprets stereo differences, echoes and reverberations to give us an impression of our surroundings. In music these effects are called “spatialisation”. They have always been an area of cutting-edge technology, because their virtual spaces seems so futuristic. Psychedelic music has always relied on spatialisation!
  • Most importantly, “music is the sound of human movement”. We interpret rhythm by imagining, using our kinesthetic sense, the body movements that could produce it.
  • Loosely speaking, musicians and informed listeners tend to imagine music as made of shapes (phrases, sections) and to imagine points in a cycle as locations. So, a jazz musician might ask another, “What are you playing on (or over) bar 5 of the form?”
  • These spaces must be learned off for high level performance. Set sequences of moves (i.e. licks in bebop, or a chain of jumps in a game) are used to navigate the space.

In general, I think the African-American tradition of improvisational music has game-like qualities anyway: misdirection, illusion, masking, changing context. Steve Coleman turned me on to this stuff. Further parallels can be drawn with sports, martial arts, and forms of ritual speech like telling tall tales.

So, music/games is obviously a fun analogy to ponder. But, beyond that, it suggested to me some interesting crossover ideas.

“Let’s Play” videos, of gamers commentating their own playthroughs, have become massively popular in the last few years. Could improvised music work with a commentary?

Actually, it traditionally does: non-verbal exclamations of approval, musical imitations, and jokes (“knock knock” at 0:50). Or in classic hip hop lyrics that turn attention to the present moment, “You’re in awe when I’m gripping my mic cord”, “Hey you sayin’ what the hell is this shit/Reaching for the cover, turning up your deck”.  I wonder could a contemporary artist build off these traditions and consciously add forms of commentary to improvised performance?

Visuals help a lot to make games accessible. The technology is available to visualise the harmonic choices made by improvisors – most simply, how about assigning a different colour to each note?

The practices of “modders” who repurpose commercial game content seem to mesh well with how jazzers used showtunes or classical music etudes for their own creative ends. Here, for example, is a level released in 2014 (for free) that uses content from a 1996 game in ways the original creators could not have imagined.

by Simon O’Callaghan

The open-source movement, meanwhile, reminds me of the great common pool of licks and ideas that jazz musicians take from and give to.

With my last band, Glitchpuke, I consciously copied indie game “development logs”by including analysis of my own mistakes in the band blog.

And these days, I’m feeling inspired by game level designers – particularly, their cycle of repeatedly exploring and then refining a space. I want to have a band that does that.

Can games learn from jazz? One thing I’m anticipating with interest is the appearance of black-coded movement/performance styles in virtual reality. As a point of comparison, think how twerking rapidly entered the cultural mainstream from both corporate music videos and home-made ones on Youtube – probably generating a lot of money for some people.

Okay, I’m gonna start rolling it up now, but first I’ll look at some instructive differences between jazz and videogames culture.

Games culture started in by far the more privileged milieu: prestigious US universities that turned Cold War funding into technologies like programming languages, the personal computer and the internet. As Jeru The Damaja put it, “Chips that powered nuclear bombs power my SEGA.” The people involved were predominantly white and guaranteed of social acceptance in the middle classes.

PDP Team

By contrast, jazz originated in African-American urban communities which experienced much racism and poverty, crime and corruption.

Then again, today, all kinds of people are represented in improvised music and in gaming. A book could be written about the changing demographics of each. Jazz has become broadly academicised, with its mass appeal claimed by rock, hip hop, dance etc. Gaming has gone from embodying both tech culture privilege and geeky outsiderhood, to hosting vocal feminist, transgender and non-Western communities. All these changes have provoked gatekeeping reactions of many kinds.

To wrap up, and to reassure any musician friends reading, I want to point out areas where computer gaming can’t compete with music performance.

  • Nuanced expression is one. Although performance capture technology and detail of simulation are always advancing, the complex, multi-layered, intimate connection of a live instrumental performance won’t be digitised for years to come.
  • Gaming, as we currently know it, is not a fully-fledged form of expression – you can’t convey feelings by how you jump around a map. Although maybe this fellow would disagree:
  • Finally, games are dependent on technology. Of course, you could say this about electronic music. But for me, that’s a major mark against electronic music – if it takes you a minute to start your computer and another to load up your preset banks, you can’t claim to have the immediacy of raising a horn to your lips and blowing.

Hope you enjoyed that! Back to my usual music chat next week! As always, your comments are welcome and you can show appreciation by liking or following on WordPress, or liking/sharing on Facebook.

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Today I’ll use “negative dominant” progressions to solo on a jazz blues. These ideas are from Steve Coleman – and I’m not the only one to have tried to interpret them. I had to cut them down a lot, so I recommend you read his stuff, with the warning that it is hard! After I do my best to explain the idea, I’ll show how these movements are present in typical jazz harmony, then play through entire alternate chord progressions built off them.

To understand a “negative dominant” progression, we should consider a traditional dominant to tonic cadence.

Trad 2

The tritone B F (actually tritone plus an octave in this voicing) resolves to C E, a major 3rd (plus an octave). The chord moves down a 5th (or up a 4th) – G7 to C. These resolutions are the basis of mainstream jazz harmony… but not the whole story.

Although this cadence happens all the time, spelling the notes of a plain V I progression makes a very corny melody. Jazz musicians have long avoided that sound in favour of altered and substitute chords.

Steve Coleman has characterised the harmonic/melodic techniques used by Charlie Parker to avoid the V I sound as “alternate paths” or “invisible paths”. He brilliantly uses symmetry to explain how they are the “dark side” of a normal V I. (He is also brilliant at coining names for these things, evidently.)

Symmetry emerges from mirror images.


What would be a mirror image of a V I? I can “reflect” it by inverting it, for instance around the axis note D. (For the nerds, this is because the C major scale is symmetrical around the note D.) So, every note in the original progression is replaced by one equally distant to middle D…

Inv Loran Fixed.png
The process of reflecting each chord of the original progression. G7 turns into D-6, C turns into A-.

… but on the opposite side of the D axis note. Below D if it was originally above, and above D if it was originally below. E.g., the B in the G7 ends up as the high F in the D-6.

Inv Full Progs.png
Comparing the original progression with its reflection in bar 2.

What is the new progression? D-6 to A-. It has a tritone resolving to a major 3rd (B F to C E, again separated by an additional octave) but the chord moves up a fifth, not down (D-6 going to A-, not G7 going to C). And both chords are minor, not major. Steve Coleman calls this a “negative dominant” resolution to A minor.

This by itself might explain how a lot of II V licks seem to be more tonally weighted on the II- than the V7. A melody over a II V I could imply a II-6 to VI- movement (negative dominant resolution) rather than a V7 to I movement. Although the chord tones are almost the same, the mental model and the tonal gravity would be different.

Such melodic shapes can be shifted to other positions and still retain their cadential power. This is due to the phenomenon of borrowed chords, or modal interchange in jazz speak. So, instead of the negative dominant that fits in the C major scale (D-6), we could use the one that fits C minor, i.e. F-6. It still resolves down a fourth (because it’s a negative dominant), but with the distinctively pretty sound of landing on a tonic major: F-6 Cmaj. Coleman notes that this IV-6 sound is often used over a V7 chord, creating a “dominant 7th complex” notated V11b9 (G Ab B C D F). The darkening substitution of D-6 by F-6 can be re-applied to the F-6, changing F-6 to Ab-6. The resulting bVI-6 sound is also used on dominant chords forming an altered V7#5b9 chord.

So, without going any further into symmetry, we have three melodic-tonal centres that can be used as dominant chords to target a tonic chord: II-6, IV-6 and bVI-6, targeting I. Crucially, these negative dominants are present as upper structures in most functional  jazz progressions.

Often, one of these negative dominant chords will be found as an upper structure of a jazz chord, followed by one of the darker versions (e.g. II-6 followed by IV-6) as an upper structure of the next chord. So:

D- F- is present in the following functional chord progressions:
B-7b5 E7alt
B-7b5 Bb7
D-7 G7b9 (probably in the key of C)
D-7 Ealt (probably in A minor)
Fmaj7 Bb7 (probably in F major)

I’m being flexible with chord spellings – to make the point clearest I could say F6 Bb9, because clearly D- and F- are the exact upper structures of those chords. But I’m using Fmaj7 Bb7 as a shorthand for two chord types, not exact voicings. Same deal with the G7b9, it technically should be the 11b9 mentioned above.

There’s another darkening movement, which is shifting up a tritone:

D- Ab- is present in:
D-7 G7alt
D-7 Db7

As well as these darkening movements, there are the actual negative dominant resolutions to a target chord.

D- A- is in:
B-7b5 E7b9 A-
E7b9 A-
G7 Cmaj
D-7 G7 Cmaj
G7 F#-7b5
C#7alt F#-7b5

F- Cmaj is in:
D-7b5 G7b9 Cmaj
G7b9 Cmaj
F-6 Cmaj (back door, same with the next two)
Bb7 Cmaj
F-7 Bb7 Cmaj
Bb7 A-
F-7 Bb7 A-

Ab- Cmaj is in:
G7alt Cmaj
Db7 Cmaj
Ab- A- (not seen as a written chord progression but I’ll be using it later)

Okay, let’s stop with the wall of chord symbols. The take-away is: a small set of negative dominant progressions (and their associated voice-leading and cliches) can be re-used on a huge variety of jazz changes. Today I’ll use the two basic types of movement: darkening and resolving – to navigate inside and outside the harmony on a jazz blues.

2 2 Stave

My alternate pathways in the first video, with the second staff showing example bebop harmony compatible with the alternate pathways.

My alternate pathways here are inspired by the original melody of Blues For Alice (transposed to C). Then I take a somewhat strange turn in bar 9. I work from II- VI7 II-7 V7, a common decoration of a II V progression, e.g. as implied by the melody of Billie’s Bounce…

BB Lick

… but I use a C#- to target the second D-, and then straightforward negative dominants to target the E-7 of the turnaround.


Here there are two main ideas: bar 1 has an unexpected B- (equivalent to Bb7alt) targeting Eb-6 in bar 2, which I interpret as a C blues scale shape (because it has the notes Eb, Gb, Bb and C). This is another way to use minor shapes – as blues colours, primarily I-6 and bIII-6 against a I or IV chord. But here the Eb- (bIII-) is also functional, implying a D7alt sound going to G-.

Then I use what could be standard bebop changes to reach the bar 9: interpretable as, say, Cmaj7 F7 E-7 A7b9 (bars 7-8). But I keep up this rate of movement to arrive at a tonic chord (A- which could be Cmaj) in bar 10 rather than bar 11 as expected. I create a cyclical feel by repeating the exact pathway for the next 3 bars. Every pair of chords involves a shift up a minor 3rd, but it’s not a strict pattern because the G- D- resolution breaks it.

The first pathway in video no. 3.


The second pathway in video no. 3.

If you find it hard to hear how this relates to a blues, here is the same solo with bass notes added (and abominable sound quality!).

I had to slow down even more to get some juice out of these progressions. (I play the first one once and the second twice.) The first uses those blues colours again. The second uses unexpected resolutions of a minor chord to major chord a fourth below (so, the F#- is an Amaj, and the C#- is an Emaj), with that major chord changing to a minor chord. It also strictly uses only the darkening and dominant cadential movements, lending it quite a lot of momentum.

There are so many more possibilities, of course. For example, diverging from the subdominant chords in the blues, i.e. the IV in bar 5 and the II in bar 9. In my examples I stick to the original subdominants. Obviously I’m only barely scratching the surface!

I had fun coming up with and playing through these progressions. To conclude, I think the relationship of these pathways to conventional jazz harmony is crucial. I’m thinking both ways as I play. Also, obviously, the pathways are only a technique. These sequences have a rather severe sound due to the unrelenting drive of the cadences and the minor colouration – that mightn’t always be what you want.

Hope you enjoyed it! Sorry for the late post. Please comment with any related ideas, thoughts, questions or criticisms!

Thanks to Loran Witteveen for correcting my examples!