How to locate key-centre areas in jazz

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We are going to look at a little bit of theory in this article. Nothing heavy, just simplifying a standard tune with the following 3 tips.

Locating key centres in jazz.

1. What is a key centre, and how can it help me play (insert tune name)?

Simply: the chords which form our jazz tunes may look confusing and disparate, but they are all related in some manner. We can simplify several chords that relate to one singular key into a ‘key-centre area’ which enables us to use 1 scale instead of 4, or however many there may be.

For example (ii-V-I in C major):
Dm7 / G7 / | CM7 / / / |

Instead of playing D minor (2 beats), G Mixolydian (2 beats) and then C major (4 beats), we can play C major for 8 beats. The reason is that these chords and diatonic (that means tonally related) to C major – there are no real clashes between the scales, as they are all modes of C major (that is derived from the same major scale).

D minor: DEFGABCDG Mixolydian: GABCDEFGC major: CDEFGABC

Note: You should learn, or at least recognise most chords in all keys. Start by locating the V (dominant) chord in all keys.

2. Is this playing changes?

No. This is a method to help you feel comfortable approaching improvisation with fewer scales. If you rely on your musical ear to guide you, you can certainly play through a standard tune, and enjoy playing music, however; it is only a beginning to playing jazz and playing changes. It is not to be ignored as ‘the easy way out’ as this is actually just one of very many ways to begin playing and improvising over chords.

3. How do I locate key centres?

This requires a little theory, practise and application. Firstly; the theory. (a quick look)

Chords diatonic to C are in some way related to and can form a key centre. Here are the chords related to C (remember to think in all keys – don’t forget the flats and sharps!)

G7 (dominant): GBDF
B-7b5 (half-diminished): BDFA


Look through standards and locate chords diatonic (belonging to) a certain key centre – this means you should know all the basic chords of all keys – so write them out if needs be. Remember, the V7 chord, or a dominant type chord is often very powerful and will frequently relate to a major key or derivative thereof.


Pencil key centres lightly on your real books or Aebersolds and practise playing through them letting your ear guide you – “bad notes” will be very obvious. Once you feel comfortable playing through a few standards like this you should then address the issue of chord-scales; that is playing the correct scale for each chord – it is essentially the same principle, but just a little harder.


There is a standard shorthand method of writing chords in jazz –  I will post a full article on this soon, but for now the ones I used:

^ = major, therefore ^7 = major7

– = minor, therefore -7 = minor 7

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