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How to Play "Outside" In Jazz

It's easy to get caught up in right notes vs. wrong notes in jazz harmony. When it comes to playing outside the harmony, an easy way to think about it is just tension and release. So let’s dive in and see how to play "outside" in jazz.

What is Tension In Music?

When it specifically comes to harmony and chord progressions, tension can be thought of as the build up of anticipation or the sound of dissonance against the tonal center. When choosing to incorporate tension into improvisation, you have to decide how much tension or dissonance you like and commit to it. It should be clear that you’re playing outside of the harmony.

"Outside" Dominant Chord Options

For example, let’s take the dominant chord (G7) of a major key (CMaj7). If you’re playing a G7 to a C Major Seven, there are a number of outside harmonies that you can play instead of the G7.

If we go up a half step and keep the same chordal structure it gives us the dominant chord (Ab7), which is going to be very tense because there are only two notes in common between the G Mixolydian and the Ab Mixolydian scales (C and F).

Another option is to go down a half step which gives us the dominant chord (F#7). There are also only two notes in common between the G Mixolydian and F# Mixolydian scales (B and E).

Whichever option we choose here, there will be five out of seven notes that are not in common with the original chord scale, G Mixolydian.

Tritone Substitution

Another common option is to substitute a tritone away from G7, the C#7 chord. The tritone substitution is common due to the third and seventh of the original harmony (G7) will also be the third and seventh of the tritone substitution (C#7). The B (3rd of G7) and F (7th of G7) now flip flop to be B (7th of C#7) and E#/F (3rd of C#7). Again, there are still five additional notes from the scale that are not the same, but since the third and seventh are reversed we still have smooth voice leading when resolving to the tonic chord (CMaj7).

Now that we know a few options for playing outside the harmony, how do we incorporate this into our lines?

How do I play outside the harmony?

The most useful technique when it comes to playing outside, is starting inside (consonant), going outside (dissonant) and bringing it back in (consonant).

In the 64 Inside Outside Phrases resource, all of the phrases are structured with this framework. DOWNLOAD RESOURCE>>>

When analyzing these phrases we should identify where we go outside (tension) and how long do we go outside for? In the following example, we pivot outside in the second bar of a four bar phrase, so that the tension happens in the middle of the phrase.

When practicing of writing your own outside lines, it's important to choose the harmonic device that will bring the phrase outside. As we looked at earlier, we can go a half step up, a half step down, and a tritone away.

Also important to note, each outside substitution needs to sound very clear harmonically, so that the resolution to the original harmony creates an "effect." This simply means that we want each chord scale option to align with our chords, but by choosing an outside harmony over the dominant the "effect" of playing outside is significantly enhanced.

Playing Outside Phrase Example:

Let's analyze this playing outside phrase example over a major ii-V-I chord progression.

Let's identify where our consonant and dissonant harmonies are.

  • Measure 1 - Mostly inside except for the approach note at the beginning of the triplet.

  • Measure 2 - Tritone substitution implying the Db7 harmony over the G7 chord.

  • Measure 3 - Resolve to tonic chord (CMaj7) with the exception of one approach note on the + of beat 1.

Playing Outside Using Voice Leading

Let's analyze this phrase even further to identify why this playing outside example sounds so good.

Just like we mentioned before, it's important to have a smooth voice leading. In this example, going into the downbeat of the second and third measures we transition into each harmony by half steps. These are diatonic notes from the previous harmony that resolve by half step into a diatonic note in the new harmony.

Play the example above and notice how clear it is where the harmonies are changing. Each measure is mostly diatonic notes from the chord scale, but the choice of the tritone substitution over the dominant chord creates the dissonance and tension we want when playing outside the harmony.

To hone your skills on playing outside, check out our resource 64 Inside Out Phrases. DOWNLOAD RESOURCE>>>

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