Applying Moveable DO Syllables to Jazz Standards

  1. Introduction
  2. Blues
  3. “Blue Monk”
  4. Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk”
  5. Cherokee
  6. Green Dolphin Street
  7. Moment’s Notice


Alto saxophonist Pascal wrote requesting assistance with assigning movable DO syllables onto several jazz standards.  Before addressing each of these tunes, let’s talk about the reason we use movable DO syllables.

As jazz musicians who play melodies by ear (without charts) and improvise over their changes, we are not concerned with theory for its own sake, as are academicians.  Instead, our primary goals are:

  1. to play the melody correctly in whatever key the gig leader dictates, and
  2. to improvise fluidly over the changes.

While I was studying with Alvin L. “Al” Learned, he and I argued long and hard as to what constitutes a legitimate internal key change.  At that early stage, I had started to learn to play by ear and improvise, but I was still “shoehorning” melodies into one key which might better fit themselves into multiple keys.  During my three-year course of study with “Al,” I started to see how acknowledging brief internal key changes improved my ear, accuracy, and creativity.

While talking with guitarist Mark Turnbull – another of Al’s students – he pointed out that the decision to recognize a key change may be somewhat personal, depending on how each player’s ear naturally hears and processes sound. 

Sometimes the key change lasts for several measures and is indisputable.  For example, “All the Things You Are” contains six obvious key changes, each of which lasts for several bars and contains undeniable harmonic signposts.  “What’s New” boasts an irrefutable key change immidiately in bar two, and each eight-bar verse necessitates four distinct key centers. 

That said, some of the songs Pascal asked about include momentary key shifts which are so brief, subtle, and transitory as to be hardly noticeable.  You might call them “tonal wandering” or “hinting at a key.”  More on that in the next section.  By contrast, “Moment’s Notice” definitely demands three key shifts in its first four bars, each of which is mandatory for the improviser (see below). 

While Coltrane’s solos carefully reflect every chord and key change, many inept players slop through entire tunes using nothing but a blues scale.  Those are the two extremes, and your style probalby falls somewhere in the middle.


The blues come in innumerable “flavors.”  Some work well in a major key (also known as the “Ionian” or “DO Mode”).  Others stress the flatted seventh, putting them in the “Mixolydian” (or the ”SO Mode”). 

Still others demand a flatted third, moving them into the “Dorian” (or “RE Mode”).

 In addition to those three approaches to improvising over the blues, three variations on the minor scale (the “LA Mode”) or a plain old vanilla blues scale may also come in handy.   As you study the masters, you’ll notice that they traverse freely between these six “flavors,” as the mood of the moment unfolds. 

“Blue Monk”

To my ear, “Blue Monk” works fairly well in the Ionian Mode.  I don’t feel compelled to cram a lot of modulation into that tune.  However, you may wish to acknowledge a subtle two-beat key shift at bar 4, beat 3, in which RE => LA for two beats (see the illustration below).  Classical theoreticians refer to that Bb7 as “V of IV” (or simply V / IV).  But Monk strays into the key of Eb Major for a mere two beats, so most players don’t bother with the modulation.  Is it worth messing with?  You be the judge.

The E diminished chord (EO) in bar six doesn’t fit into any key signature.  It’s called a “passing chord,” and you simply have to wrestle with that oblique tonality, until you find an approach appropriate to your personal style.

Charlie Parker’s “Mohawk”

Here again, I’m not feeling a strong urge to throw in several key changes on this tune.  Bird’s melody outlines a Cm7 in the areas colored blue.  You could consider Cm7 to be a Dorian iim7 (with Bb as DO).  However, Monk’s piano comping doesn’t emphasize a ii-V in Bb, so I don’t worry about it.  I always respond to the harmonies laid down by the rhythm section, regardless of what the chart says.    

The area marked in yellow might be considered a V of IV, wandering momentarily into C major.  Again, it doesn’t feel like a big deal. 

The area marked in red features two F naturals, so you probably want to use a G Mixolydian mode (in which G is SO and C is DO) over that section.  Again, not that compelling.

By contrast, Bird’s “Blues for Alice” clearly demands a half-dozen key changes within its 12-bar blues form.  We can work through that one on another post, if there is sufficient interest.


“Cherokee” begins in concert Bb but quickly inserts a ii-V in Eb.  In order to illustrate how the “key of the moment” morphs, I inserted a new key signature for each internal tonal shift, and I labeled each section with a bold indicator (i.e. Eb: ).  

When Al Learned showed me how his revolutionary ear training method approached “Cherokee,” I was adament that bars 3+4 did not modulate, and that the melody there was DO LA in the home key.  Al pointed out that a skilled improvisor would be sure to emphasize the the flat 7 (Ab) indicated by the chords Fm11 and Bb13(b9).  Of course, he was correct.

The Ab9(#11) merits some discussion (refer to the illustration below the chart).   I hear the Ab9(#11) as a polychord consisting of Ab7 and Bb7.  Ab7 is a V chord in Db, while Bb7 is a V chord in Eb.  The resulting “poly-scale” (see sketch below), which I use to improvise over this chord, consists of RE MI FA SO in Db and FA SO LA TI in Eb.   While rather unorthodox, this picture works for me.  If it appeals to you, try experimenting with that method.

The bridge of “Cherokee” traverses B Major, A Major, G Major, and F Major, before returning to Bb Major for the third verse.  This is one of those ingenious progressions which makes the “Great American Song Book” such a joy to work with.  As you become familiar with this repertoire, you’ll find you can turn on the radio in the middle of a song (when the melody is not being played) and immidiately tell what the song is.  Note also that the second eight bars of the bridge mirror the first eight.

Green Dolphin Street

Rather than spell out each syllable comprising this melody, I’ll share the scales I might use to improvise over this progression.   Some players will undoubtedly disagree with my choices, but this is how I hear the tune.  For example, you may hear bar 21 as being in either D Major or D minor.  I tried both.  But the only way I could attach syllables to the melody I chose was as shown, in the key of C Major.  As always, your input is welcomed.

Moment’s Notice

For this John Coltrane ear-stretcher, I’ll simply describe my take on the chord changes and the tonal shifts they demand.  You can assign the corresponding syllables to the melody using the technique outlined above.  The chart below is the main melody, not the introduction.  (In my humble opinion, “The New Real Book” got some of the changes wrong.)

Note that bars 1-3 are sequenced a whole step lower in bars 5-7. 

The Db Lydian Mode uses Db as one, but Db is not DO.  The Lydian Mode begins on FA and contains the syllables FA SO LA TI DO RE MI FA (see illustration below).  Another way of viewing this mode is that it contains a sharp four.  The Db Lydian uses the key signature of Ab, that is, it contains only four flats, not five.

If you have questions or disagreements with the method and details described here, your comments would be welcome and greatly appreciated.

3 thoughts on “Applying Moveable DO Syllables to Jazz Standards

  1. Hello Craig, I am in the middle of exmen revision and in training I will take the time to answer you this weekend, yes your answers help me to work with these new ways of thinking which nevertheless raise new questions, and I thank you for the quality of your answers and the time it takes to make it!!


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